What is Sentimental Comedy? Tell the history

The Eighteenth Century was essentially an age of prose, poetry also flourished, but it could never reach the heights of prose. But English drama had a very lean time in reality, the history of drama from 1700 to 1860, is rather uneventful and flat. The Augustan age saw quite a few different types of drama the pseudo classical tragedy the Sentimental Comedy, the True comedy and the Opera but none of the drama of the period could rise above the level of mediocrity. Sheridan and Goldsmith, of course brought a breath of fresh air in the stuffy and sentimental atmosphere of the age but judge critically, their dramas are not of very high merit, their importance is more historical than dramatic or literary.

The first point of significance to note with the Eighteenth Century drama is its loss of royal patronage, the Restoration drama was patronised by Charles II and his cavalier’s it was essentially the drama of class. Theatres were managed by courtiers, the play were mostly written by them and the audience was largely composed of them. Naturally it was a drama of wit. portraying the sophistication of the snobs and it had very little connection with the common life.

The Sentimental Comedy was a reaction against the Restoration Comedy. It tried to express certain sentiments in the drama and to arouse them in the audience. It gathered its material from the common life. It had something to express about the social and political life to the age. The good sentimental comedy had always a humanitarian outlook but there were scores of false sentimental comedies which would show vulgarity and sexual corruption in the first four acts. But in the fifth act present all the erring characters fully reformed. Thus the Sentimental comedy, sometimes had in it elements of false hypocrisy. There was very little scope of free laughter in it.

Colley Cibber (1671-1759) actor, dramatist and poet, the man who was ridiculed by pope in his Dunciad was one of the first playwrights attempt his hand at the Sentimental comedy. Son of a Danish sculptor. Cibber became poet laureate in 1750. His poems were useless, but his dramas were quite popular during his day. Cibber was an actor also and he always preferred the role of Pope.

Cibber wrote many plays, the important of them being ‘Love’s Shift (1669)’. Love Makes A Man (1700), ‘She would and she would not’ (1702). The careless Husband (1704) and The Refusal or the Ladies philosophy (1721). In these plays volcanic changes in the behaviour of the main characters take place the erring husband becomes faithful to his wife, the bad man or the corrupt woman is always ultimately redeemed. Thus, virtue triumphs over vice and corruption.

Richard Steel was definitely a better dramatist than Cibber. Steel brought his tone of a moralist, then he so ably demonstrated in his essays, to his dramas but he tried to maintain the natural flow of his plays, like Cibber, Steele was also a dominant force in the management of Drury Lane. All his life he was interested in drama and he wrote four comedies The funeral; or, Grief a-la-mode (1701). The Lying Lover or the Ladies Friendship (1703) The Tender Husband or The Accomplished Fools (1705) and The Conscious Lovers (1722).

Richards Stele, a true gentleman and a true representative of the Eighteenth Century middle class, believed in certain virtues and principles of life He believed in honesty and truthfulness and in the purity of human relation ship and married love. He expressed his ideas on life and love in his dramas His plays are the true sentimental comedies which do not strike the false notes of the plays of Cibber.

The other notable dramatists of the age were Mrs. Susanna. Cent livre John Kelley. Hugh Kelly and Richards Cumberland. Mrs. Cent livre wrote may comedies and a few tragedies and farces. She could write graceful dialogues and some of her plays remind one of Congreve. Her best plays are The Gamester (1705) and ‘Bold Stroke for a wife’ (1718). John Kelly brought to England of the spirit of the French sentimental drama. The French drama was more sentimental than its English Counterpart. The French sentimentalists determined from the start to give to mankind their beliefs in the inherent goodness of the human soul in the corrupting ways of society, in the virtue of primitive emotions. The aim of these dramatists was laudable. But their execution was poor. In order to be true to their aim then ran away from realism. They Portrayed idealised characters Seldom to be found on this earth.

Olive Goldsmith was already a famous poet, novelist and essayist before he launched his dramatic activities. He was long against the sentimental comedy and he expressed his dissatisfaction with it in his paper on The Present State of Polite Learning in 1759. In 1768 he bought out his first comedy The Good Natured Man’ where he attacked sentimentalism. Goldsmith combines the various episodes in the play creditably and allows his audience to have a hearty laughter. But, though he attacks sentimentalism, yet he sometimes falls a prey to it. But in his next play ‘She stoops to Conquer’ or The Mistakes of Night, he removes all the defects of his first play. The plot is said to have been taken from his own experience. Here is feast of rich humour.

Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751-1816) Statesman, parliamentarian and dramatist did great service to the English Stage by writing several comedies of considerable merit. His three comedies The Rivals (1775). The School of Scandal (1777) and The Critic (1779) were very popular on the English Stage. Sheridan has not the gentle humour of a Goldsmith, but he has the true wit of a Congreve. He also draws inspiration from Ben Jonson.

Sheridan’s best drama is his school for Scandal. It is a brilliant comedy of manners and intrigue, it has well worked out plot and some finely drawn characters. The dialogue is witty and brilliant, reminding one of Congreve.. The situation gradually unfold themselves to a climax, they are never melodramatic. The touch of sentimentalism, found in “The Rivals’ in absent here. Sheridan gives his audience a true picture of the scandal loving society of his age. His purpose is a worthy one, but the never appears to be a moralist. He creates laughter by exploiting humorous but real situation and by his sparkling wit.

With Goldsmith and Sheridan we come to the ‘Revival of English Comedy’ and also reach the end of it for a century or so. The whole of the Nineteenth Century is singularly deficient in comedy unless we come to show and Oscar Wilde. The nineteenth century was largely concerned with serious and lofty ideas so poetic dramas were written but they were hardly successful on stage.



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