Elizabeth Inchbald Critical Essays


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The latter half of the eighteenth century witnessed the rise of the cult of sensibility. Scottish writer Henry McKenzie, author of the sentimental novel The Man of Feeling (1771), claimed that “the stimulation of melancholy feelings” led to “social sympathy” and a sense of “the duties of humanity.” The literary heroes of the period are magnanimous, even to their enemies. Novels and plays sought to provoke the tender smile or tear rather than laughter. Though wit was not banished from stage and page, it often was associated with morally ambiguous characters. Elizabeth Inchbald fit squarely into this new cult of sentiment. Because plays were family affairs, dramatists such as Inchbald were careful to exclude ribaldry or questionable morality.

Inchbald’s prefaces to the plays in The British Theatre expressed her views about comedy. She praised David Garrick’s adaptation of William Wycherley’s The Country Wife (pr., pb. 1675) because Garrick had removed parts that a tasteful person might find objectionable. She condemned Sir George Farquhar’s The Beaux’ Stratagem (pr., pb. 1707) for its licentiousness and John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (pr., pb. 1728) because she felt it made vice appealing. She criticized Farquhar’s The Inconstant: Or, The Way to Win Him (pr., pb. 1702) because it sought only to amuse, and she commended her friend and fellow playwright Thomas Holcroft for combining entertainment with instruction.

As in the Restoration comedies that Inchbald condemned, the battle of sexes looms large in her work. However, where the Restoration heroine defends herself with witty repartee, Inchbald’s does so with sentiment. In addition, where the Restoration heroine achieves marriage of equality with a Truewit, Inchbald’s weds a moralizer to whom she surrenders her autonomy. Friendly with the radicals William Godwin and Thomas Holcroft, Inchbald even shared their liberal publisher Joseph Robinson. Politically she was liberal and used her plays to advocate prison reform, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s theories of education, and humanitarian forgiveness rather than punishment. Yet unlike Godwin, Holcroft, and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (from whom Inchbald pointedly distanced herself), she had no quarrel with the existing political or social establishment, nor did she express sympathy with the French Revolution that energized the English radicals. Her plays remain firmly in the sentimental mainstream.

Such Things Are

Although Inchbald sets this play in Sumatra, her central concern is prison reform in England. In the play, the benevolent Haswell (based on contemporary philanthropist and prison reformer John Howard) tours the sultan’s jail and is appalled by what he sees. The keeper points out a man who remains incarcerated because he cannot pay the costs of the trial that acquitted him. Many are political prisoners. Haswell asks the jailer whether “gentleness, or mercy, [might] reclaim them.” The jailer replies, “That I can’t say—we never try those means in this part of the world.” Inchbald implies that this approach is not used in England either.

Inchbald demonstrates the efficacy of Haswell’s method through his encounter with Zedan. When the jailer’s torch is extinguished, Zedan steals Haswell’s wallet. The money Zedan thus secures will allow him and his companions to bribe their way to freedom. Hardened by ill treatment, Zedan rejoices at the thought of Haswell’s chagrin on discovering the theft: “And then the pleasure it will be to hear the stranger fret, and complain of his loss!—O, how my heart loves to see sorrow!—Misery such as I have known, on men who spurn me.” Unaware of his loss, Haswell, before leaving the prison, gives Zedan some coins to buy food. Overwhelmed by the stranger’s generosity, Zedan confesses his theft and returns the purse. Haswell’s action, Zedan says “makes me like not only you, but all the world besides—the love of my family was confined to them alone; but this makes me feel I could love even my enemies.”

Conversely, harsh treatment teaches bloody instruction, which being taught returns to plague the inventor. Thinking that his wife, Arabella, has been murdered, the sultan declares that he has avenged the wrongs committed against her and him “with...

(The entire section is 1783 words.)