The latter half of the eighteenth century witnessed the rise of the cult of sensibility. Scottish writer Henry McKenzie, author of the sentimental novel The Man of Feeling (1771), claimed that “the stimulation of melancholy feelings” led to “social sympathy” and a sense of “the duties of humanity.” The literary heroes of the period are magnanimous, even to their enemies. Novels and plays sought to provoke the tender smile or tear rather than laughter. Though wit was not banished from stage and page, it often was associated with morally ambiguous characters. Elizabeth Inchbald fit squarely into this new cult of sentiment. Because plays were family affairs, dramatists such as Inchbald were careful to exclude ribaldry or questionable morality.
Inchbald’s prefaces to the plays in The British Theatre expressed her views about comedy. She praised David Garrick’s adaptation of William Wycherley’s The Country Wife (pr., pb. 1675) because Garrick had removed parts that a tasteful person might find objectionable. She condemned Sir George Farquhar’s The Beaux’ Stratagem (pr., pb. 1707) for its licentiousness and John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (pr., pb. 1728) because she felt it made vice appealing. She criticized Farquhar’s The Inconstant: Or, The Way to Win Him (pr., pb. 1702) because it sought only to amuse, and she commended her friend and fellow playwright Thomas Holcroft for...
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