Samuel Foote developed his theory of comedy over a fifteen-year period in several critical works. According to Foote, the main purpose of comedy is to correct vice and folly by ridiculing them while pleasing and delighting the imagination. By representing fashionable foibles and extravagant humors, comedy teaches people to avoid folly. Foote’s comic design was to amend the heart, improve the understanding, and please the imagination. In his A Letter from Mr. Foote, Foote outlined the requirements of comedy: Comedy should be true to nature; it must represent exactly the peculiar manners of a people; it must faithfully imitate singular absurdities and particular follies. Comic imitation and representation provide an example to the entire community.
Foote himself likened his comic-satiric method to that employed by Aristophanes, William Shakespeare, Molière, John Dryden, Alexander Pope, Jean de La Bruyère, and Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux. For Foote, character was the greatest comic requisite, and his definitions of two comic character types—the “humorist” and the “man of humor”—constitute his major contribution to comic theory. According to Foote, the humorist possesses some internal disposition that makes him say or do absurd and ridiculous things while firmly convinced that his actions are correct and acceptable. Foote’s man of humor is the pleasant person who enjoys the humorist’s eccentricities or affectations and exposes them.
Foote’s plays Taste and The Orators exemplify his comic method, although an analysis of any of Foote’s plays must necessarily be incomplete since it depends on the printed version, while almost every performance was different. Taste was first produced at Drury Lane on January 11, 1752. Foote’s target in this play was the booming art market of the time, the notoriously ignorant and gullible society poseurs who craved antiques and works of old masters only because of the current fad, and the dishonesty of dealers and auctioneers who preyed on them. The play, staged only five times during the 1752 season, was a failure because, according to the critical judgment of the day, the audience lacked taste and did not understand the method or objectives of Foote’s satire. Foote’s satiric approach was high burlesque. In order to appreciate high burlesque, an audience must be aware of certain standards of true taste and judgment and therefore be able to recognize the discrepancy between these standards and the pretensions of the characters in the play. Audiences who were devoted to a similar mad pursuit of trends were unlikely to appreciate Foote’s humor on the subject.
Foote’s theory of taste is similar to the theories of the leading formulators of a standard of taste in the eighteenth century such as David Hume, Edmund Burke, Sir Joshua Reynolds, James Beattie, Oliver Goldsmith, and Joseph Addison. All held the same fundamental requisites to a standard of taste: sensibility, imagination, judgment, education, common sense, morality, and objectivity. In Taste, Foote develops these principles by exhibiting the follies of people who lack these requisites. Foote’s “connoisseurs,” Lord Dupe, Novice, Lady Pentweazel, Squander, and Sir Positive Bubble, are so overcome by the fashionable craze for mutilated objects that are promoted as antiques, for foreign artworks, and for foreign artists that what little intellect they may have suspends operation.
Foote, in the preface to Taste, presents his views on education and morality as necessary to a standard of taste. He says that he is determined to satirize the barbarians who have prostituted the study of antiquity to trifling superficiality, who have blasted the progress of the elegant arts by unpardonable frauds and absurd prejudices, and who have vitiated the minds and morals of youth by persuading them that what serves only to illustrate literature is true knowledge and that active idleness is real business.
In the context of the play itself, the virtuosi do not know art. Lady Pentweazel thinks that the Mary de Medicis and the Venus de Medicis were sisters in the Medici family instead of paintings. Novice and Dupe think that they can evaluate the age and worth of a coin or medal by tasting it. Puff, the auctioneer, is able to convince Dupe, Novice, and Sir Positive that broken statuary and china are more valuable than perfect pieces. Lord Dupe demonstrates a complete lack of common sense when he purchases a canvas that has all the paint scraped...
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