Historical Context

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

The Enlightenment The Enlightenment and The Age of Reason are alternate names used by historians and critics to identify the eighteenth century. While the eighteenth century technically, of course, began in 1700, the term ‘‘eighteenth century’’ when used by literary critics has come to mean the years falling between the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 and the publication of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads (the book that sparked English romanticism) in 1798. In short, the eighteenth century was a period marked by incredible enthusiasm for science, history, and literature that the English had not enjoyed since the end of the Renaissance a century earlier.

The reasons for this sudden renewal of interest in the arts and sciences are complex but can be roughly understood by considering the terrible chaos that the nation had just endured and barely survived. The seventeenth century was marked by a civil war in which King Charles I and his army of loyalist ‘‘Cavaliers’’ fought with an army raised by the Puritan members of Parliament, who felt that Charles had grown too corrupt, too powerful, and too belligerent. Eventually, the Puritans defeated their Royalist opponents; after a trial by his enemies in which he could never have prevailed, Charles I was beheaded in 1649. The monarchy was—so the Puritans believed—abolished, and Oliver Cromwell, the military genius and commander of the Puritan forces, became the nation’s ruler. (He was called ‘‘Lord Protector.’’) After Cromwell’s death in 1658, his son, Richard, assumed the Lord Protectorship, continuing this historical period, known as the Interregnum, without a king. The citizens of England, however, found their new rulers worse than the monarch they had replaced; after a number of secret missions, negotiations, and meetings, the son of Charles I was brought out of hiding (from Scotland) to a tremendously warm welcome in London. Charles II was crowned in 1660, when the monarchy was restored.

This terrible war, coupled with a visitation of bubonic plague in 1665 and the Great Fire of London in 1666, stood in the English mind as horrible examples of the fury wrought both by man and nature. Enlightenment thinkers, therefore, sought to better understand both politics and science in an effort to ensure that similar events would never again occur. In 1662, the Royal Society (a government- funded organization of scientists working together and sharing information) was created; important books from this period include the first edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (1768), Goldsmith’s History of the Earth and Animated Nature (1774), Burke’s Reflections of the Revolution in France (1760), Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1775), and Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776).

The first great dramatist of the age was John Dryden (1631–1700), whose comedy Marriage á la Mode (1673) and tragedy All for Love (1677) were immensely popular and reveal what would become the public’s taste in both modes. Many eighteenthcentury plays are ‘‘comedies of manners’’: plays that feature domestic plots, quick dialogue, and an ironic examination of the behaviors (or ‘‘manners’’) of the upper class. Examples of this genre include Sir George Etherege’s She Wou’d if She Cou’d (1688), William Wycherley’s The Country Wife (1675), William Congreve’s The Way of the World (1700), and Sheridan’s own The School for Scandal (1777), which cemented his fame as a comic playwright. Another popular comic form was the dramatic burlesque, in which theatrical conventions and means of productions became the subjects of satire: the Duke of Buckingham’s The Rehearsal (1671), John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728), Fielding’s The Tragedy of Tragedies (1731), and the famed actor David Garrick’s A Peep Behind the...

(This entire section contains 646 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Curtain (1767) are examples of this form. The Critic is another example of dramatic burlesque, in which the audience laughs at actors playing the roles of actors struggling with their work. By the end of the century, however, drama fell into disfavor while the novel simultaneously exploded on the literary scene.

Literary Style

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SettingThe Critic takes place in two locations: Dangle’s house and the theater where Puff’s play is rehearsed; each setting reflects the values and assumptions of its principal character.

Dangle’s house is a place where actors, singers, writers, and other ‘‘lackeys of literature’’ gather to solicit his approval and patronage. Dangle is a selfprofessed lover of the theater and his home reflects this; for while there, he does not engage in any conversation that is not about the theater. When reading the newspapers, for example, he dismisses the threat of a possible war in order to read about ‘‘theatrical politics.’’ In fact, Dangle’s love of theater is so great and so ingrained in him that he often ‘‘performs’’ in his drawing room as if he were on stage. He finds Sir Fretful’s latest play atrocious yet calls it ‘‘finished and most admirable’’ once he hears Fretful entering the room. Similarly, when Mrs. Dangle attempts to tell Sir Fretful that her husband and Sneer were just laughing at Sir Fretful’s play, Dangle hides the truth from Fretful with the excuse, ‘‘My friend Sneer was rallying just now . . . Sneer will jest.’’ Dangle and Sneer’s greatest performance occurs when they invent a series of negative reviews for Sir Fretful’s work and pretend that they have read them in the newspapers. Because Sir Fretful is Dangle’s friend, Dangle tries not to offend him; it is only through Dangle’s elaborate and comic performance with Sneer that he can reveal what he really thinks about the author. As a man devoted to the theater, Dangle knows a great deal about acting on and off the stage.

Puff is, as he boldly asserts, a ‘‘Professor of the Art of Puffing,’’ and the theater where he rehearses his tragedy contains a multitude of ‘‘puffed up’’ actors and effects that revolve around Puff’s preposterous script. At the theatre, Puff is invincible: he dismisses any remark about his play, however sugarcoated, and is always confident of his authorial and directorial powers. Puff’s theatrical triumph occurs at the end of the play when his cast reenacts the defeat of the Spanish Armada: this hodgepodge of special effects, music, and actors portraying ‘‘The procession of all the English rivers and their tributaries’’ is laughable, rather than spellbinding, due to its highly ‘‘puffed’’ staging. Sheridan’s point is that these ‘‘puffy’’ plays are a staple of British theater; by setting most of The Critic in a theater, Sheridan calls attention to his audience’s taste—or the lack of it.

The Prologue Almost all eighteenth-century plays featured prologues, recited on their opening nights by notable celebrities or writers and later reprinted in newspapers. As Mary E. Knapp points out in her 1961 study, Prologues and Epilogues of the Eighteenth Century, one purpose of the prologue was to ‘‘cajole the audience into a pleasant frame of mind so that they would be in a friendly mood before the curtain was drawn up.’’ Another important function a prologue served was to point out the upcoming play’s themes so that the audience could more readily identify them as the drama unfolded. The prologue to The Critic (written by Richard Fitzpatrick, a member of Parliament and lover of the theatre) is a history in miniature of the contemporary London stage and the degree to which it has decayed. Fitzpatrick begins by noting that ‘‘The Sister Muses’’—tragedy and comedy—have, like earthly rulers, been misled by ‘‘evil counselors.’’ Tragedy has fallen, since the time of John Dryden (1631–1700), into a series of plays featuring only ranting and raving characters who ‘‘bellow’’ so loudly that they no longer resemble real people. Comedy likewise has suffered by a preponderance of salacious jokes that cause ‘‘female modesty’’ to become ‘‘abash’d.’’

Fitzgerald, however, surprises the audience by explaining that the cures of these theatrical illnesses are sometimes worse than the diseases. Tragedy is no longer so histrionic, but ‘‘Now insipidy succeeds bombast.’’ Comedy has been cleansed of inappropriate jokes, but now ‘‘the purest morals’’ are ‘‘undefil’d by wit.’’ Fitzgerald’s goal here is to communicate to his audience what he sees as the faults of his own era’s theater—faults that will be exposed and exaggerated throughout The Critic. Fitzgerald also assists Sheridan’s cause by enlisting the audience as the playwright’s partners in satire, telling them that The Critic will ‘‘brave the critick’s rage,’’ enrage ‘‘brother bards,’’ and even ‘‘Newspapers themselves defy.’’ If The Critic is to succeed as a comedy, its ‘‘chief dependence’’ must be the ‘‘alliance’’ of the audience, whose support will help Sheridan deflect the outcry he is sure will come his way as a result of his satire.

Compare and Contrast

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

1700s: Adam Smith’s groundbreaking treatise on economics, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, is published in 1776. The book outlines the laissez-faire notion of economics that holds that the government should not interfere in business or trade.

Today: Great Britain and the United States have, to some extent, adopted Smith’s ideas, although attempts by the U.S. government to break up the Microsoft corporation sparked many debates about the role of the government in commercial affairs.

1700s: Alexander Pope and Samuel Johnson’s lengthy poems and essays (such as Pope’s 1711 work An Essay on Criticism and Johnson’s 1765 Preface to Shakespeare) are widely read; in their work, each writer offers his notions of what constitutes quality drama and poetry.

Today: Literary criticism has somewhat given way to literary theory, a discipline that examines not only the workings of literary pieces but the ways in which these pieces are the products of economic struggles and gender identity.

1700s: Satire dominates literary taste: by the time of The Critic’s premiere in 1779, works such as John Wilmot Rochester’s ‘‘A Satyr against Mankind’’ (1679), Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726), John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728), Alexander Pope’s The Dunciad (1729), and Laurence Sterne’s Tristam Shandy (1767) prove themselves popular with the reading public.

Today: Satire still flourishes in all genres: works such as Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust (1937), Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961), Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five (1969), and David Rabe’s Hurlyburly (1984) are known for their satire and dark humor, much like that found in the work of Swift and Gay.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Sources Auburn, Mark S., Sheridan’s Comedies, University of Nebraska Press, 1977, pp. 165–75.

Austen, Jane, Love and Friendship, Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1922, p. 167.

Boswell, James, The Life of Samuel Johnson, Penguin Books, 1986, p. 101.

Dibdin, Charles, The Musical Tour of Mr. Dibdin, in Sheridan: Comedies, edited by Peter Davison, Macmillan Education, 1986, p. 193.

Jason, Philip K., ‘‘A Twentieth Century Response to The Critic,’’ in Sheridan: Comedies, edited by Peter Davison, Macmillan Education, 1986, p. 207.

Knapp, Mary E., Prologues and Epilogues of the Eighteenth Century, Yale University Press, 1961, p. 9.

Macey, Samuel L., ‘‘Sheridan: The Last of the Great Theatrical Satirists,’’ in Sheridan: Comedies, edited by Peter Davison, Macmillan Education, 1986, p. 198.

Morwood, James, The Life and Works of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Scottish Academic Press, 1985, p. 106.

O’Toole, Fintan, A Traitor’s Kiss: The Life of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997, pp. 151–57.

Quintana, Ricardo, ‘‘Introduction,’’ in Eighteenth Century Plays, Modern Library, 1952, pp. xvi–xix.

Review of The Critic, in Sheridan: Comedies, edited by Peter Davison, Macmillan Education, 1986, pp. 191–92.

Review of The Critic, in Sheridan: Comedies, edited by Peter Davison, Macmillan Education, 1986, pp. 192–93.

Further Reading Aristotle, Horace, and Longinus, Classical Literary Criticism, translated by T. S. Dorsch, Penguin Books, 1975. This collection features Aristotle’s Poetics, his treatise on tragedy that stands as the supreme piece of criticism for tragedies of any age.

Eighteenth Century English Literature, edited by Geoffrey Tillotson, Paul Fussell, and Marshall Waingrow, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1969. In addition to The Critic, this comprehensive anthology features selections from all the famous Enlightenment writers, such as Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, Samuel Johnson, James Boswell, John Gay, Henry Fielding, and Edward Gibbon. This is an indispensable book for any student of Enlightenment literature or thought.

Eighteenth Century Plays, edited by Ricardo Quintana, Modern Library, 1952. This collection of eight plays features Sheridan’s first play, The Rivals; the volume also contains John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera and Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer, two other popular Enlightenment comedies. Quintana’s introduction surveys the eighteenth- century theater.

O’Toole, Fintan, A Traitor’s Kiss: The Life of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997. This recent (and critically praised) biography examines Sheridan’s plays and political career in detail, often discussing the significance of Sheridan’s Irish roots.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Auburn, Mark S. Sheridan’s Comedies. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1977. The first chapter characterizes the nature of comedy between 1748 and 1780, emphasizing Sheridan’s role in its development. A separate chapter is devoted to The Critic.

Ayling, Stanley. A Portrait of Sheridan. London: Constable, 1985. Places The Critic in its social and political context. Describes Sheridan’s involvement with the theater.

Danziger, Marlies K. Oliver Goldsmith and Richard Brinsley Sheridan. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1978. The initial chapter places Sheridan’s plays in their social and literary context. Another chapter analyzes The Critic as a complex study of the relationship of art and life.

Durant, Jack D. Richard Brinsley Sheridan: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1981. Lists the major editions of Sheridan’s work and offers nearly 300 pages of critical studies dating from 1816 to 1979. Extensive annotations.

Loftis, John. Sheridan and the Drama of Georgian England. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1976. Contains a chronology of Sheridan’s life and a bibliography that includes critical studies of Sheridan’s plays, background studies, and biographies. Connects The Critic to the political climate that influenced the play’s satire and to the burlesque tradition.


Critical Essays