Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1330
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 Lovers was, as Steele states in the prologue, “To chasten wit, and moralize the stage.” In this endeavor Steele was taking up the cry for dramatic reform that was precipitated by the bawdiness and cynicism of Restoration comedy. Jeremy Collier’s attack on the theater in 1698, titled A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage , was widely read. Steele, however, held that the stage could serve...
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a beneficial, educational purpose. On April 16, 1709, he wrote inThe Tatler (No. 3), “I cannot be of the same opinion with my friends and fellow laborers, the Reformers of Manners, in their severity towards plays; but must allow, that a good play, acted before a well-bred audience, must raise very proper incitements to good behaviour, and be the most quick and most prevailing method of giving young people a turn of sense and breeding.” Steele put his theory in motion with the production of The Conscious Lovers. That it was thought to achieve its purpose can be seen among other things in King George I’s gift to Steele of five hundred guineas for the play’s contribution to the reform of the stage.
The reform of the stage that Steele achieved came by replacing Restoration comedy with another type—sentimental comedy. The first attempt at this variety of comedy was made in 1696 with Colley Cibber’s Love’s Last Shift. The play, however, was tainted by bawdy Restoration dialogue and hypocrisy. Although Steele wrote other plays in this vein, it was not until The Conscious Lovers that a decisive turning point occurred and the sentimental drama seemed to find its place in the history of English drama. Sentimental drama is marked by a number of elements. One is the idea of the innate goodness of people rather than the idea of the depravity of the self that marks Restoration comedy. Second, sentimental comedy makes appeal to the emotions that surpasses the appeal to the intellect, again in direct opposition to Restoration comedy. Third, in sentimental comedy there is an obvious moral. Fourth, sentimental comedy makes an attempt to place the ideal in a realistic setting, which leads to a certain amount of improbability and exaggeration. Fifth, there is a stress upon pity and the evocation of tears. Sixth, there is a tendency to serious discussion of ethical questions. Seventh, there is an element of mystery, such as the lost child recovered, and, eighth, there are romantic love scenes.
Steele is also credited with establishing several character types that regularly appear in sentimental comedy: a man and maiden whose concepts of marriage are untainted by cynicism or contempt for the institution; the loyal friend; the debauchee redeemed in time for the fifth-act curtain; the rejected mistress who is reunited with her lover in marriage; and the loyal wife who, though tempted, remains virtuous. The Conscious Lovers has hints, if not fully formed representations, of both the characteristics and the characters of the sentimental comedy.
Steele’s model for the new dramatic hero is young Bevil, who exudes innate goodness by his filial devotion, romantic love, gentlemanly behavior, and lack of narcissistic tendencies. He provides quite a contrast to the Restoration comedy hero. The comedy of the play is provided by Tom and Phillis, whom Steele worked into a farcical subplot at the suggestion of Cibber. Tom and Phillis imitate their social betters and thus provide a satirical look at the manners and customs of the time. More humor is provided by Cimberton, a character who recalls Restoration comedy. He boldly exhibits a self-love that blinds him to the true virtues of Lucinda and enables him to see her only as a means to his self-improvement. Steele’s new play does not release itself completely from previous models, for Cimberton is the epitome of a Restoration character.
The influence of Steele’s The Conscious Lovers went beyond England. When the first professional company of actors in America decided to move to New York from Williamsburg, they confronted considerable difficulty in obtaining a license to perform because of the Puritan influence in the area. Once they obtained the license, they chose a play from their repertory that they felt would satisfy the moral ethics of the Puritan community. Steele’s The Conscious Lovers, billed as “a moral comedy,” opened on September 17, 1753, was a success, and thus contributed to the beginning of theater in New York City. The Conscious Lovers was also significant to American theater in another way. The first play written by an American on a native subject and produced by professional actors was Royall Tyler’s The Contrast, produced at the John Street Theatre on April 16, 1787, by the American Company. For the context of the play, Tyler borrowed heavily from The Conscious Lovers. Thus, The Conscious Lovers became not only noteworthy in the history of English theater but also instrumental in beginning the history of American theater.