As the reader for Drury Lane, Colley Cibber was widely hated for his many rejections of plays on the basis of their lack of theatricality. According to Richard Hindry Barker in Mr. Cibber of Drury Lane (1939), for Cibber, theatricality meant “effective situations, plenty of opportunities for stage business, good acting parts suitable for [Robert] Wilks, [Barton] Booth, Mrs. [Anne] Oldfield, and himself.” These criteria are surely the outstanding characteristics of his own dramas. He knew what worked on the stage, and he fashioned his plays accordingly.
Today, Cibber is remembered as the creator of the first eighteenth century sentimental comedy ; this accomplishment can best be understood in terms of the theatricality of his plays. Cibber did not set out to write a new kind of comedy. Rather, he set out to write a play that would show off the skills of his actors and that would leave his audience pleased and satisfied at the end of the evening. In his first play, he discovered a number of formulas that worked well on the stage. In a Cibber comedy, there are two plots involving a series of deceptions that lead up to discovery scenes in acts 4 and 5, in which the complications of the evening are resolved in a moral, decorous way. Usually, a leading character in the main plot comes to recognize that he has been living according to a false set of values. When he sees the errors of his ways, the problems of the evening are resolved. What makes Cibber a less than compelling dramatist is that this reversal usually does not grow out of characterization. Cibber’s heroes and heroines perform a mental about-face in act 5, brought about by manipulations in the plot rather than by a process of self-discovery. The action in the secondary plot usually resembles the action in the main plot, but it does not depend on a character’s sudden transformation for its resolution.
Cibber’s plays are well crafted. No matter how complicated the plots become, they are always easy to follow, and all conflicts are neatly resolved by the end of the performance. Cibber gave his audiences the satisfaction of seeing virtue rewarded and lovers correctly matched. His characters are, by and large, stock figures taken from the world of the Restoration comedy of manners. Many of the situations and plot complications also are part of the stock-in-trade of the Restoration stage. Nevertheless, his plays do represent a quite significant departure from the dramatic world of William Wycherley, Sir George Etherege, and William Congreve, in whose plays the endings are rarely so neat and uncomplicated.
Love’s Last Shift
Love’s Last Shift was Cibber’s first play and immediately established him as an important playwright. The main plot involves the reconciliation of a debauchee with the wife he had abandoned eight years before: Loveless “grew weary of his Wife in six Months; left her, and the Town, for Debts he did not care to pay; and having spent the last part of his Estate beyond Sea, returns to England in a very mean Condition.” He thinks his wife Amanda is dead, but she in fact is alive, having remained faithful to him and come into an estate of her own with the death of a rich uncle. Amanda is not the witty heroine of Restoration comedy but a precursor of the noble heroine of eighteenth century drama, a model of fidelity and moral strength as she sets herself an all but impossible task:Oh! to reclaim the Man I’m bound by Heaven to Love, to expose the Folly of a roving Mind, in pleasing him with what he seem’d to loath, were such a sweet Revenge for slighted Love, so vast a Triumph of rewarded Constancy, as might persuade the looser part of Womankind ev’n to forsake themselves, and fall in Love with Virtue.
Loveless is a more familiar figure from the world of Restoration comedy, a rake who has lived according to a delusion of his sex and class about marriage: “an affectation of being fashionably Vicious, than any reasonable Dislike he cou’d either find in” his wife’s “Mind or Person.” Amanda, who has been altered (but not for the worse) by smallpox since Loveless last saw her, is persuaded by Young Worthy to trick her husband into her bed. This plot involves two transformation scenes. In act 4, the audience has the titillating experience of seeing the apparently virtuous Amanda abandon herself to the pleasures of “a lawless Love: I own my self a Libertine, a mortal Foe to that dull Thing call’d Virtue, that mere Disease of sickly Nature.” In act 5, when Loveless discovers the mistake he has made, he admits the errors of his ways and returns to his faithful wife, a scene that reportedly brought tears to the eyes of the first-night audience.
These characters are one-dimensional figures committed to particular moral points of view, but the clash between these opposing views gives their scenes dramatic tension. Cibber also managed to leaven their scenes with laughter by introducing a subplot involving Loveless’s servant Snap and Amanda’s maid. Snap is placed under a table throughout Loveless’s assignation with Amanda. After Loveless and Amanda retire, Snap sneaks up on Amanda’s maid, who is listening at her mistress’s door, and begins to take advantage of her. When she gets a chance, the maid tricks him into falling into the cellar, but Snap pulls her down with him and they spend the night together. Their brief scenes form an appropriate low-comedy contrast to the more serious affairs of their master and mistress.
The secondary plot ostensibly involves the correct mating of the Worthy brothers. Young Worthy loves Narcissa, who is betrothed to Elder Worthy, who loves Hillaria, Narcissa’s cousin. At the end of the play, the couples are correctly matched, but Cibber’s working out of this plot was perfunctory, since his real interest in this part of the play was Sir Novelty Fashion, the role that helped to establish him as an actor. One might expect Sir Novelty, a stock...
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