The opening night on November 7, 1722, at Drury Lane of The Conscious Lovers proved to be an important event in the development of English drama, marking the end of Restoration comedy and the beginning of sentimental comedy. The play was a success as indicated by what was then considered a long initial run—eighteen nights.
Sir Richard Steele is probably most widely acclaimed for his journalism in The Tatler, The Spectator, The Guardian, and The Theatre and for his contribution to the periodical essay. His appointment to the governorship of Drury Lane by George I enabled him, however, to maintain close contact with theatrical affairs. When Steele in this controlling position came under attack for failing to support new plays, he undertook The Theatre, which appeared twice weekly from January 2, 1720, to April 5, 1720. This periodical was closely allied to The Conscious Lovers, which was at that time called Sir John Edgar.
For his spokesman in The Theatre, Steele chose Sir John Edgar, the title character of the unfinished play on which he was working for approximately ten years. Sir John Edgar’s son Harry, who appears in the periodical, is taken from his counterpart in the drama. Like the dramatic character, Harry has an overwhelming filial devotion and a reckless friend named Myrtle. In No. 3 of The Theatre, Steele again borrows from the play when he proposes a board of theatrical visitors that parallels in description several of the dramatic characters of the play—Mr. Sealand and his daughter Lucinda, Charles Myrtle, and Humphrey. Sir John Edgar was titled The Conscious Lovers shortly before it was produced, and Sir John Edgar and his son were renamed Sir John Bevil and Bevil Junior.
The Conscious Lovers has a threefold purpose. The first purpose, probably the least significant, is to attack the practice of dueling. That this was a subject of concern for Steele is apparent by its frequency as a topic in his periodical essays. Steele wished to promote the idea that a man who refused to duel was not a coward or a knave. A scene in act 4 between Bevil and Myrtle is designed to exemplify this theory.
Steele’s second purpose is to justify the merchant as worthy of a high position in social circles. The merchant was much abused by Restoration dramatists. Steele was not the earliest author to make this point in dramatic form. The Beaux Merchant, a play “by a Clothier” identified as John Blanch, published in 1714, crusades for just recognition for merchants and precedes the production of The Conscious Lovers. In The Conscious Lovers, Steele’s mouthpiece for this issue is apparently Mr. Sealand, who says in act 4: “We Merchants are a Species of Gentry, that have grown into the World this last Century, and are as honourable, and almost as useful, as you landed Folks, that have thought yourselves so much above us.” Indeed, the two most despicable characters of the play, Mr. Cimberton and Mrs. Sealand, suffer from the flaw Mr. Sealand points out—assumption of superiority by right of gentle birth.
The third purpose for writing The Conscious...
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