The Enlightenment and The Age of Reason are alternate names used by historians and critics to identify the eighteenth century. While the eighteenth century technically, of course, began in 1700, the term ‘‘eighteenth century’’ when used by literary critics has come to mean the years falling between the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 and the publication of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads (the book that sparked English romanticism) in 1798. In short, the eighteenth century was a period marked by incredible enthusiasm for science, history, and literature that the English had not enjoyed since the end of the Renaissance a century earlier.
The reasons for this sudden renewal of interest in the arts and sciences are complex but can be roughly understood by considering the terrible chaos that the nation had just endured and barely survived. The seventeenth century was marked by a civil war in which King Charles I and his army of loyalist ‘‘Cavaliers’’ fought with an army raised by the Puritan members of Parliament, who felt that Charles had grown too corrupt, too powerful, and too belligerent. Eventually, the Puritans defeated their Royalist opponents; after a trial by his enemies in which he could never have prevailed, Charles I was beheaded in 1649. The monarchy was—so the Puritans believed—abolished, and Oliver Cromwell, the military genius and commander of the Puritan forces, became...
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The Critic takes place in two locations: Dangle’s house and the theater where Puff’s play is rehearsed; each setting reflects the values and assumptions of its principal character.
Dangle’s house is a place where actors, singers, writers, and other ‘‘lackeys of literature’’ gather to solicit his approval and patronage. Dangle is a selfprofessed lover of the theater and his home reflects this; for while there, he does not engage in any conversation that is not about the theater. When reading the newspapers, for example, he dismisses the threat of a possible war in order to read about ‘‘theatrical politics.’’ In fact, Dangle’s love of theater is so great and so ingrained in him that he often ‘‘performs’’ in his drawing room as if he were on stage. He finds Sir Fretful’s latest play atrocious yet calls it ‘‘finished and most admirable’’ once he hears Fretful entering the room. Similarly, when Mrs. Dangle attempts to tell Sir Fretful that her husband and Sneer were just laughing at Sir Fretful’s play, Dangle hides the truth from Fretful with the excuse, ‘‘My friend Sneer was rallying just now . . . Sneer will jest.’’ Dangle and Sneer’s greatest performance occurs when they invent a series of negative reviews for Sir Fretful’s work and pretend that they have read them in the newspapers. Because Sir Fretful is Dangle’s friend, Dangle tries not to offend him; it is only through...
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Compare and Contrast
1700s: Adam Smith’s groundbreaking treatise on economics, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, is published in 1776. The book outlines the laissez-faire notion of economics that holds that the government should not interfere in business or trade.
Today: Great Britain and the United States have, to some extent, adopted Smith’s ideas, although attempts by the U.S. government to break up the Microsoft corporation sparked many debates about the role of the government in commercial affairs.
1700s: Alexander Pope and Samuel Johnson’s lengthy poems and essays (such as Pope’s 1711 work An Essay on Criticism and Johnson’s 1765 Preface to Shakespeare) are widely read; in their work, each writer offers his notions of what constitutes quality drama and poetry.
Today: Literary criticism has somewhat given way to literary theory, a discipline that examines not only the workings of literary pieces but the ways in which these pieces are the products of economic struggles and gender identity.
1700s: Satire dominates literary taste: by the time of The Critic’s premiere in 1779, works such as John Wilmot Rochester’s ‘‘A Satyr against Mankind’’ (1679), Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726), John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728), Alexander Pope’s The Dunciad (1729), and Laurence Sterne’s...
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Topics for Further Study
Review the ideas set forth in Aristotle’s Poetics about the necessary components of a tragedy and apply these ideas to a tragic work, such as Oedipus the King or Puff’s The Spanish Armada.
In 1776, Sheridan purchased an interest in the Drury Lane Theatre from David Garrick, one of the most highly praised actors of his day. Research the history of the Drury Lane Theatre and how it contributed to eighteenth-century drama as a whole.
Puff’s The Spanish Armada is set during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I but had echoes for Sheridan’s audience of a possible contemporary crisis. To what degree did Sheridan’s audiences feel the threat of a foreign invasion?
At the end of Puff’s play, Sheridan offers a number of stage directions that broadly outline what the audience sees during the climactic battle scene. How would you stage this battle and the ‘‘procession of rivers?’’ How would you make the scene as silly as the rest of The Spanish Armada?
Compose a short script in which you parody the conventions of a cinematic form, like Sheridan does with tragedy. Consider science fiction, western, or detective films as possible subjects.
Compose three different reviews of The Spanish Armada: one by Dangle, one by Sneer, and one by Puff himself. Be sure that each review accounts for its author’s personality and aesthetics.
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What Do I Read Next?
Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1600) features a band of actors who rehearse their tragedy, The Most Lamentable Comedy and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisby, with hilarious results. Act V of A Midsummer Night’s Dream features the play’s performance.
Like The Critic, Michael Frayn’s farce Noises Off (1982) consists of rehearsals for a play where nothing happens as it should. Like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Noises Off ends with the audience watching the play they just saw being rehearsed.
The Rivals (1775), Sheridan’s first play, is a comedy concerning the thwarted (but eventually reconciled) love between Captain Absolute and Lydia Languish. The play is famous for the character of Mrs. Malaprop, Lydia’s aunt who makes a number of ‘‘malapropisms,’’ humorous linguistic errors (‘‘As headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile’’).
Sheridan’s The School for Scandal (1777), considered by many to be his masterpiece, follows the drawing room adventures of Lady Sneerwell and her group of gossips. Critics routinely praise the play as the perfect ‘‘comedy of manners.’’
The American playwright David Mamet’s A Life in the Theater (1977) concerns two actors—one young, one old—who discuss, in a series of vignettes, their work as actors and their struggles with their craft.
The Renaissance team...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Auburn, Mark S., Sheridan’s Comedies, University of Nebraska Press, 1977, pp. 165–75.
Austen, Jane, Love and Friendship, Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1922, p. 167.
Boswell, James, The Life of Samuel Johnson, Penguin Books, 1986, p. 101.
Dibdin, Charles, The Musical Tour of Mr. Dibdin, in Sheridan: Comedies, edited by Peter Davison, Macmillan Education, 1986, p. 193.
Jason, Philip K., ‘‘A Twentieth Century Response to The Critic,’’ in Sheridan: Comedies, edited by Peter Davison, Macmillan Education, 1986, p. 207.
Knapp, Mary E., Prologues and Epilogues of the Eighteenth Century, Yale University Press, 1961, p. 9.
Macey, Samuel L., ‘‘Sheridan: The Last of the Great Theatrical Satirists,’’ in Sheridan: Comedies, edited by Peter Davison, Macmillan Education, 1986, p. 198.
Morwood, James, The Life and Works of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Scottish Academic Press, 1985, p. 106.
O’Toole, Fintan, A Traitor’s Kiss: The Life of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997, pp. 151–57.
Quintana, Ricardo, ‘‘Introduction,’’ in Eighteenth Century Plays, Modern Library, 1952, pp. xvi–xix.
Review of The Critic, in Sheridan: Comedies, edited by Peter Davison, Macmillan Education, 1986, pp. 191–92.
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Auburn, Mark S. Sheridan’s Comedies. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1977. The first chapter characterizes the nature of comedy between 1748 and 1780, emphasizing Sheridan’s role in its development. A separate chapter is devoted to The Critic.
Ayling, Stanley. A Portrait of Sheridan. London: Constable, 1985. Places The Critic in its social and political context. Describes Sheridan’s involvement with the theater.
Danziger, Marlies K. Oliver Goldsmith and Richard Brinsley Sheridan. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1978. The initial chapter places Sheridan’s plays in their social and literary context. Another chapter analyzes The Critic as a complex study of the relationship of art and life.
Durant, Jack D. Richard Brinsley Sheridan: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1981. Lists the major editions of Sheridan’s work and offers nearly 300 pages of critical studies dating from 1816 to 1979. Extensive annotations.
Loftis, John. Sheridan and the Drama of Georgian England. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1976. Contains a chronology of Sheridan’s life and a bibliography that includes critical studies of Sheridan’s plays, background studies, and biographies. Connects The Critic to the political climate that influenced the play’s...
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