In "An Essay on the Theatre; or, A Comparison Between Laughing and Sentimental Comedy," Goldsmith distinguishes between "hard" and "soft" comedy. Instead of the “Weeping Sentimental Comedy" which gratified audience sympathies at injustice suffered by innocent worthies, Goldsmith's 1773 essay advocated the "laughing comedy," which offered a "natural portrait of Human Folly and Frailty." She Stoops to Conquer opens with a prologue by actor and impresario David Garrick declaiming on the state of the theatre and sentimental comedy. Mr. Woodward, who speaks the monologue, weeps, saying, "Would you know the reason why I'm crying?/The Comic Muse, long sick, is now a-dying!" In She Stoops to Conquer and his earlier play The Good-Natur'd Man, Goldsmith sought to rescue that muse. His writing, according to Louis Kronenberger in an introduction to the 1964 Heritage Press edition of the play, led "an assault on the sentimental comedy that had held the boards for upwards of fifty years.'' No mere iconoclast, Goldsmith does more than critique the past. In fact, according to Oscar James Campbell in his introduction to Chief Plays of Goldsmith and Sheridan: The School for Scandal, She Stoops to Conquer, The Rivals, She Stoops to Conquer is "a virtual School for Comedy." Goldsmith's play incorporates and transforms elements of both the earlier Restoration Comedy of Manners and contemporary Sentimental Comedy and "opened the door'' to a new kind of comedy.
Goldsmith's comedy has its roots in serious philosophical debate. In his 1651 Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes describes original human nature as a constant state of war, with minimal social cohesion and strong dominating weak. Hobbes's ideas influenced the Restoration comedy, an urban comedy of manners in which power and polish led to social manipulation and dominance. By the 1690s, Locke and others argued that people's innate moral sense made them naturally good and happy. This led to the "soft," "sentimental," or "reform" comedy, which lacked laughter and attempted to teach virtue by making audiences feel sympathy and empathy for the suffering of the innocent. These were comedies only in having a happy ending, for the same reason that Dante named his poem The Divine Comedy.
In She Stoops to Conquer Goldsmith tries to correct both the rakish mannerism of the Restoration comedy and the pathos of the Sentimental comedy. For example, while Restoration comedy privileged urban sophistication over rural simplicity, Goldsmith reverses the trend. "In Restoration comedies countrymen appeared as fools in London drawing rooms,'' noted Campbell. In She Stoops to Conquer, "Tony, on his own turf, easily hoodwinks the city dudes into mistaking an old house for an inn." For Goldsmith, country life seems not unfashionable exile but the repository of the...
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