The Tragedy of Tragedies Essay - Critical Essays

Henry Fielding

Critical Evaluation

Although Henry Fielding is chiefly remembered as the author of The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews, and of His Friend Mr. Abraham Adams (1742; commonly known as Joseph Andrews) and The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749; commonly known as Tom Jones), he achieved his first literary success not as a novelist but as a playwright. In fact, it is fair to say that for roughly eight years between 1730 and 1737, during a particularly exciting era in the life of the London theater, Fielding was the town’s single most popular and most celebrated playwright. In 1730 alone, for example, four of Fielding’s plays were produced: The Temple Beau at the Goodman’s Fields Theater and, at the Little Theatre in the Haymarket, The Author’s Farce, and the Pleasures of the Town, Tom Thumb: A Tragedy, and Rape upon Rape: Or, Justice Caught in His Own Trap.

Two of these early plays, The Author’s Farce and Tom Thumb, are farce burlesques that lampoon a variety of targets ranging from well-known London actors and playwrights to such popular dramatic genres as heroic tragedy. Both plays were initial successes, and Tom Thumb in particular achieved enormous popularity, running nearly forty nights over a three-month period between April 24 and June 22 to packed houses, at a time when a nine- or ten-night run was considered a success. It was with this type of dramatic satire—high-spirited, immensely entertaining theatrical “hodgepodges” featuring music, dancing, and scenes of burlesque and parody—that Fielding was to achieve his greatest popular and financial success. Unfortunately, it was also this type of satire that eventually proved to be Fielding’s undoing in the theater. The satire of The Historical Register for the Year 1736 (performed in early 1737) proved so biting that it helped bring about the Licensing Act (June 21, 1737) and, only a few days later, the closing of Fielding’s Little Theatre in the Haymarket by order of the British prime minister, Sir Robert Walpole. The closing of Fielding’s theater marked the close of his career as a playwright.

Fielding’s best-known play, The Tragedy of Tragedies, began its theatrical life as a short “afterpiece” titled Tom Thumb. In the London of Fielding’s day, there were sometimes as many as six theaters open at the same time, all of them energetically competing for the theatergoer’s money, and it was common practice...

(The entire section is 1034 words.)