Of George Lillo’s seven plays, only The London Merchant was both a popular and critical success when first presented, and only it and Fatal Curiosity continued to be performed long after most plays of their period had been forgotten. These homiletic domestic tragedies, which reflect their author’s creed as a Dissenter, had a profound effect on the Continental drama of the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century.
During a playwriting career that spanned less than a decade, Lillo tried his hand at most popular dramatic forms: ballad opera, heroic drama, masque, prose tragedy, blank-verse tragedy, even adaptations of Elizabethan domestic tragedy (Arden of Feversham) and Shakespearean romance (Marina, a reworking of the last two acts of William Shakespeare’s Pericles). Lillo worked within the bounds of tradition but at the same time went beyond past practice. For example, his first play, Silvia, is a ballad opera of the sort that had become popular in the wake of John Gay’s success with The Beggar’s Opera in 1728. In it, Lillo follows Gay’s pattern of punctuating the action with dozens of familiar tunes, and he includes burlesque and seriocomic elements. The pastoral motif dominates, however, and Lillo’s announced intention—“to inculcate the love of truth and virtue and a hatred of vice and falsehood”—foreshadows the strong didacticism and sentimentalism of his two major plays that were to follow.
Lillo was a relatively inexperienced playwright when he offered The London Merchant to Theophilus Cibber, manager of a summer company acting at the Drury Lane. Though the famous actor David Garrick credited Lillo with “the invention of a new species of dramatic poetry, which may properly be termed the inferior or lesser tragedy,” the drama of hapless George Barnwell is actually in the tradition of such Elizabethan domestic tragedies as the anonymously authored Arden of Feversham (1592) and A Yorkshire Tragedy (c. 1606). Further, earlier in the eighteenth century there were such middle-class forebears as Lewis Theobald’s The Perfidious Brothers (pb. 1715) and Aaron Hill’s The Fatal Extravagance (pb. 1720), the latter based on A Yorkshire Tragedy. Thomas Otway during the Restoration and Nicholas Rowe early in the eighteenth century also wrote plays whose sentimentalism and pathos verged on the melodramatic. Despite these predecessors, Lillo’s achievement in The London Merchant is notable, for it is a realistic prose drama that...
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Burke, Helen. “The London Merchant and Eighteenth Century British Law.” Philological Quarterly 73, no. 3 (Summer, 1994): 347. Burke presents an argument surrounding the final gallows scene of The London Merchant and relates the play to contemporary life.
Canfield, J. Douglas. Heroes and States: On the Ideology of Restoration Tragedy. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2000. Canfield examines many Restoration tragedies, including Lillo’s The London Merchant.
Faller, Lincoln B. The Popularity of Addison’s “Cato” and Lillo’s “The London Merchant,” 1700-1776. New York: Garland, 1988. Faller attempts to explain why The London Merchant, which seems awkward and didactic to modern readers, achieved such success in the eighteenth century. He finds that the balance of sentimentalism, realism, and tragedy that went into establishing this domestic drama appealed to its contemporary audience.
Fields, Polly Stevens. “George Lillo and the Victims of Economics Theory.” Studies in the Literary Imagination 32, no. 2 (Fall, 1999): 77-88. Fields theorizes that Lillo meant The London Merchant to be an argument against the dominant economic trend represented by John Law as well as a presentation of mercantile theory.
Haggerty, George. Men in Love: Masculinity and Sexuality in the Eighteenth Century. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999. Haggerty uses Lillo’s The London Merchant to discuss the eroticized bonds of male friendship.