In a period of only nine years, Henry Fielding wrote and staged more than twenty plays. Such a sustained outburst recalls the careers of Elizabethan dramatists Thomas Dekker and John Fletcher, who in the early 1600’s turned out three or four scripts a year to feed London’s voracious appetite for new plays. The decade of the 1730’s was another theatrically hungry period. Five theaters competed for reputation, audience, and income; their managers vied for the best authors, plays, and actors. The pressure of competition added farces, burlesques, operas, pantomime, and even puppet shows to the repertory of drama by standard playwrights. In the struggle to keep up and get ahead, authors and companies freely borrowed material from the French and Italian theaters and readily used singers, dancers, jugglers, and anything else that attracted customers. Innovative theater often brought quick profits, but it challenged many dramatic conventions (especially notions of genre) and often sacrificed dramatic quality to gain immediate impact.
Though Fielding’s plays are diverse in method and form, they are alike in motivation. Fielding used the stage as early eighteenth century writers used every literary genre: as a forum for the discussion of current events. With journalistic promptness and intensity, Fielding (like other dramatists of the 1730’s) built plays around current events in London: examples of private morality and immorality, political issues and personalities, and trends in the theater. Like a journalist, Fielding wrote rapidly. If a play succeeded, it was imitated or redone in a bigger and better version. If a play failed, it was pulled from the stage and replaced. Fielding was adept at writing quickly as well as ingeniously, whether reviving old material or concocting new combinations of dramatic staples. These “unshaped monsters of a wanton brain” could never bring Fielding the literary fame that successful five-act comedies would have brought, but several of them are masterpieces of the 1730’s, one of the liveliest and most experimental eras of English theater.
A review of Fielding’s plays shows that he attempted to work in one traditional dramatic style, the comedy of manners, but, more important, to cater to the popular taste for new dramatic entertainments. Fielding first tried his hand at five-act comedies in the style of William Congreve and Sir John Vanbrugh. When he met limited success with this form, Fielding turned to farce, one-and two-act plays designed as afterpieces to the main performance. These short plays, at which Fielding proved adept, emphasized broad characterization, limited plots, and busy stage action. If Fielding had worked only in these two styles, however, his modern reputation as a dramatist would be negligible. The theatrical rivalry of his era led Fielding to experiment with dramatic form and stage technique. He experimented both to find innovations that would please audiences and to poke fun at rival playwrights. His experimental dramas (which he once called the “unshaped monsters of a wanton brain”) defy categorization because they mix freely and imaginatively elements of manners comedy, farce, burlesque, and ballad opera. Fielding’s plays represent different levels of achievement. Skillful as he could be at following convention or manipulating it, Fielding often pursued thematic concerns at the expense of form. His themes are as numerous as the plays themselves: the moral state of London society, the political health of the nation under the administration of Prime Minister Robert Walpole, the condition of modern marriage, and the quality of contemporary theater.
The emphasis on theme made Fielding only a mediocre practitioner of the five-act comedy. His Congrevian comedies were progressively ill-received by audiences, and modern scholarship has devoted attention to them primarily because of Fielding’s reputation in other genres. The thematic emphasis was more congenial in farce, where conventions were less firm, but at the same time, the form worked against any substantial thematic exploration or revelation. Fielding’s “unshaped monsters,” plays in which form is shaped almost organically as a means of expressing theme, are his major achievement. They are amusing, imaginative, and energetic. Even though two centuries have dulled some of the pointed satire, they are a delight to read. In the 1730’s these experimental plays, mingling dramatic elements in unexpected ways for irreverent purposes, sometimes pleased and sometimes puzzled. Modern readers—accustomed to W. S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan operettas, Marx Brothers films, and Monty Python skits—can easily visualize these works in performance. A term Fielding used for one of this group, “dramatic satire,” might serve for all of them.
Tracing the sequence of Fielding’s five-act comedies, one sees clearly how the conventions of the genre and Fielding’s interests grew steadily. The Congrevian comedy of manners followed patterns that had codified during four decades of Restoration theater. The staple plot presents a witty hero in pursuit of love and fortune through fashionable London society. Love begins as a hunt for pleasure—like a fox hunt, a chase of elaborate ceremony—with the hunter well equipped by a solid inheritance. The hero, a skeptic about the virtues of marriage, enjoys the hunt until he meets a woman whose wit and intelligence match his own. Now the hero’s pursuit changes: Love’s quality matters more to him than variety, and his wealth enables him to avoid mindless conformity to society’s customs. The lovers display their attractive characters and mutual affection in brilliant dialogue, and they overcome whatever obstacles arise: rival lovers, disagreeable guardians, legal complexities. By manipulating other characters, the lovers bring their courtship to a successful conclusion which sees deserving heads, hearts, and fortunes united. Although the dramatist might make, in the course of things, satiric points about contemporary values and attitudes, Congrevian comedy emphasizes the mutual attraction of the young lovers. John Loftis has called this celebration of attraction, as it matures from a physical desire to incorporate intellectual parity, the “gaiety of sex.” Congrevian comedy entertains and improves by championing the pursuit of love.
Love in Several Masques
Fielding’s first two comedies, Love in Several Masques and The Temple Beau, remain faithful to the conventions and emphases of the type. In the first play, Merital seeks to win Helena, whose guardians, an aunt and uncle, wish to marry her to the foolish man-about-town, Apish. The aunt, Lady Trap, is an obstacle in another sense: She is trying to seduce Merital. The lovers elope after Merital pretends friendship with Apish to gain access to Helena. In the second play, Veromil, though defrauded of his inheritance by a rascally brother, pursues Bellaria because he loves her. His rival is a high-living rake and supposed law student, Henry Wilding, who courts Bellaria as a means of recouping his wasted fortune. The timely intervention of an old family servant exposes the fraud and secures social recognition for Veromil’s marriage to Bellaria. Although the plays attack the contemporary feeling that money and concern for the family name are more important than love, their satire does not obscure the zesty pursuit of love.
This is not the case, however, in Fielding’s other five-act comedies. Perhaps because comedy is a traditional vehicle for lashing vice and exposing folly, Fielding increasingly gave precedence to theme over conventions of character and plot. A moralist, like many eighteenth century authors, he could not help paying more attention to political, professional, and social corruption than he did to literary traditions. Though this emphasis weakened the public appeal of his five-act plays, it shows his thinking and underlies his growing sense of dramatic freedom.
Rape upon Rape
Rape upon Rape, which claims to present contemporary life as any observer could remark it, is more a thesis play than a comedy. The title (which offended Fielding’s contemporaries and had to be changed) both describes the literal action and also becomes a symbolic indictment of the English judicial system. Hilaret’s plans to elope with Captain Constant are upset when she is accosted by the rakish Ramble. Her cry of “rape” causes Ramble to be apprehended, but he then charges her with swearing a false accusation. Both are hauled before Justice Squeezum, who solicits bribes from men and women alike: money from the former and sex from the latter. Managing to escape Squeezum’s solicitations, Hilaret learns that Constant has been carried to the same court on a false rape charge. Although Hilaret and Constant are true lovers, who proceed to expose Squeezum’s corruption and manage to marry, little attention is paid to celebrating their mutual attraction. The play offers some amusing moments, but there is, not surprisingly, little gaiety in the themes of pandering, attempted rape, and injustice.
The Modern Husband and The Universal Gallant
Fielding’s subsequent five-act comedies move even further from the model. There are courting lovers in The Modern Husband, but they are not the central couple; there are no unmarried lovers in The Universal Gallant, nor are the married people especially attractive people in either play. The main action of The Modern Husband is a strong indictment of aristocratic power and middle-class groveling: Lord Richly awards power and prestige to men who prostitute their wives to him and then uses those couples to seduce others. The play shows Richly attempting to use Mr. and Mrs. Modern to bring Mr. and Mrs. Bellamant within his circle. Fortunately, the Bellamants are faithful to each other and clever enough to thwart Richly’s design. The Universal Gallant contrasts the overly suspicious Sir Simon Raffler, whose wife is faithful, with the trusting Colonel Raffler, whose wife is regularly unfaithful. Entangled with these couples are Captain Spark, who boasts (without justification) of numerous conquests, and the beau Mondish, who goes quietly about several amours. Sex abounds in both plays, but, again, little of it is lighthearted. The Bellamants and the Simon Rafflers find only distress in love; the couples endure, but with little sense of celebration.
Fielding found farce a better medium than comedy for exaggerated characterization and pointed satire. Eighteenth century farce did not have as many conventions as manners comedy, but its assumptions were well understood. In the prologue to The Lottery, Fielding comments on two important differences between the types. First, while “Comedy delights to punish the fool,/ Farce challenges the vulgar as her prize”; that is, the characters satirized in farce are more mean-spirited than self-deluded (and probably of a low social class). Second, farce identifies and attacks its targets by a “magnifying right/ To raise the object still larger to the sight”; that is, it allows exaggeration, hyperbole, and caricature. Formally, farce differs from comedy by dispensing with subplot, speeding up the pace, and emphasizing humor rather than wit in dialogue.
The Lottery is a good example of the latitude that farce gave Fielding’s interests. The play exposes the foolishness of those who literally mortgage their futures to a one-in-ten-thousand chance and deplores the corruption of those who capitalize on foolish hopes. Mr. Stocks, who sells lottery tickets, knows “what an abundance of rich men will one month reduce to their former poverty.” The brief plot follows the rocky love affair of Mr. Stock’s younger brother Jack, who has no inheritance and whose beloved puts all their hopes for a happy married life on winning a ten-thousand-pound first prize. Fortunately, the lovers’ natural affection survives the inevitable disappointment when their ticket does not win.
Eurydice shows a more imaginative use of farce’s freewheeling style. The play depicts the visit of Orpheus to the Underworld in pursuit of his wife, Eurydice. Orpheus, singing ballad opera instead of strumming the lyre, charms Pluto, god of the Underworld, into granting permission for Eurydice to return to earth. Eurydice, however, is reluctant to return to modern London, where married love is accorded little respect. If Orpheus is like other modern husbands, he will soon lose interest in her. She wonders if she is not better off in a kingdom where she is free to govern herself. After much singing about the advantages and disadvantages of either choice, Eurydice finally decides to stay, and Orpheus departs alone, warning other husbands to appreciate their wives while they have them. Eurydice was not well received by its first audience, which took an unexpected dislike to one character, the ghost of an army beau. This reception led Fielding to write a sequel, Eurydice Hiss’d, about an author whose play, though imperfect, is unjustly scorned by theatergoers.
The Lottery and Eurydice are typical English farces, with a certain zaniness that results from making the plot fit the satiric theme. There was another tradition of farce, however, that Fielding explored in the 1730’s. This other tradition was French; its major practitioner was Molière. Its satire is general (the incompetence of doctors, the social vanity of the nouveau riche), its structure built on the traditional devices of fast-paced action, intrigue, and disguise rather than on ludicrous situations. One might call it the “well-made farce”: The plot leaves no loose ends. Such plays demand especially skillful actors; Fielding, who was always aware of how much a play’s success depended...
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