Joseph Addison’s three plays indicate important trends in eighteenth century British theater. Rosamond attempts to combine music and drama as a domestic alternative to Italian opera, an ambition not realized until two decades later, with the success of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (pr., pb. 1728). Cato represents a strain of classical tragedy that produced much declamation and little worth, “immortal in the closet” (as the saying went) but stale on the stage. The Drummer is an early sentimental comedy whose primary virtue was in being less maudlin than its successors.
None of Addison’s plays is a landmark of drama—except Cato, by political accident—but none is bad. In fact, each play has its interesting aspects. All of them suffer from a common flaw, the lack of a central character whose plight engages the audience’s sympathy, and each play suffers individual minor difficulties. Yet each play has distinctive virtues. Rosamond and The Drummer have enough comic characters and dialogue to justify, in conjunction with Addison’s humorous papers in The Spectator, Samuel Johnson’s observation: “If Addison had cultivated the lighter parts of poetry, he would probably have excelled.” Cato’s blank verse, while no rival to Christopher Marlowe’s or William Shakespeare’s, is a solid achievement and is the best poetry that Addison ever wrote.
Rosamond’s three acts tell of the love affair between Henry II and Rosamond Clifford. The main plot concerns Henry’s conflict, his love for Rosamond against his duty to Queen Elinor, and the subplot concerns the man whom Henry has set to watch over Rosamond, Sir Trusty, himself in love with his charge and plagued with a shrewish wife, Grideline. Act 1 displays the characters in their frustrations: the queen jealous, the mistress guilty and lonely, and the guardian melancholy. Only Henry, returning from France and eager to see Rosamond, seems pleased with the situation. In act 2, Grideline sends a page to spy on Sir Trusty, but the young man discovers instead Queen Elinor plotting to kill her husband’s mistress. Hesitating for a moment because Rosamond’s death may lead to Henry’s, Elinor finally issues an ultimatum to her rival: be stabbed or drink poison. Rosamond chooses poison, and when Sir Trusty finds the corpse, he likewise drinks the fatal concoction. Act 3 begins with Henry asleep and dreaming of martial conquest. Spirits grant him a vision of England’s future glory if he gives up his illicit love. Henry awakens and resolves to put Rosamond aside, but hearing of her death, he vows to die in battle. Elinor counters his rashness by revealing that the poison was only a sleeping potion and that Rosamond lives. She retires to a convent to expiate her sin, and Henry returns to Elinor and reestablishes domestic accord. Sir Trusty, awakening to find king and queen happily reunited, now devotes himself wholeheartedly to Grideline.
Addison’s opera had several elements that ought to have made it congenial to audiences of the day. The plot came from English history, a strong appeal to the patriotic instincts of a generation locked in a long war with France. The characters were familiar dramatic types: The royal leads experienced the conflicts of love and honor so common to the protagonists of Restoration heroic tragedy, while Sir Trusty and Grideline knew the jealousies and philanderings fundamental to the Restoration comedy of manners. Finally, the play’s third act offered a spectacular effect: In Henry’s vision, there was a backdrop featuring Blenheim Castle, which was at that moment under construction. The play’s theme—that married love conquers all—likewise accorded well with the sentiments for reform that had been growing...
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increasingly fashionable since the accession of William III.
Contemporaries agreed that an atrocious musical score doomed the play, but it must also be admitted that Addison’s arrangement of the parts must have seemed odd to his audience no matter how mellifluous the music. A plot recitation indicates those elements that were supposed to predominate: several romantic conflicts, a patriotic theme, and an uplifting moral. A close reading of Rosamond, however, reveals that the author’s best effects are in the comic elements. If the London stage of 1707 had been familiar with the musical comedy, as Bonamy Dobrée points out, Addison’s opera would have been comprehensible. It is a play in which the major ingredients are wholesome and bland while the subplot and supporting characters are what the audience enjoys and remembers. The witty but foolish Sir Trusty steals the show. His superficial passion and foolish suicide, meant to contrast with Henry’s love and Elinor’s jealousy, instead made the royal lovers look like caricatures. Surely the effect was unintentional; not until W. S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan’s operettas would ridiculing the aristocracy become public dramatic entertainment.
The Drummer does not suffer from the same tension between main plot and subplot; in fact, the two are nicely harmonized, although the best character in the play is still the male protagonist of the subplot. What The Drummer lacks, in fact, is any strong tension at all. Although its situations and language produce numerous smiles, the play lacks the sharpness that memorable comedy demands.
Addison, drawing on his classical learning, borrowed the plot of The Drummer from the last several books of Homer’s Odyssey (c. 725 b.c.e.; English translation, 1614). Like Homer’s epic, Addison’s play is about a soldier, supposedly dead in a war, who comes home in disguise to find his wife besieged by suitors and his only ally in a faithful servant.
Act 1 depicts the estate of Lady Trueman, supposedly haunted by the drumbeating ghost of her husband, Sir George, killed fourteen months before in battle. The ghost is actually a disguised suitor for the widow’s hand in marriage, the London beau Fantome, who has secured the help of a servant, Abigail, in his plot to drive away another suitor, the foppish Tinsel. Though Lady Trueman acts kindly toward Tinsel, she in fact despises both men. When the real Sir George turns up alive in act 2, he enters the household disguised as a conjurer in order to observe his wife’s behavior. Throughout act 3, Vellum, Sir George’s faithful steward, attempts to help his master expose Tinsel and subvert Fantome by wooing Abigail. In act 4, Fantome disposes of his rival but unknowingly loses Abigail’s assistance. In act 5, Sir George tests his wife to determine if she still loves her husband; convinced by her reaction, the real Sir George routs the pseudo-Sir George by appearing as the drumbeating ghost of himself. Sir George and Lady Trueman are reunited, and Vellum earns Abigail’s love as well as her rich bribe from Fantome.
Sir George and Lady Trueman are more convincing lovers than Henry and Elinor. Because they do not begin so very far apart, reconciliation is natural. Though fearful that his widow may have been too quick to forget him, Sir George really knows all along that his spouse has more heart than the typically coquettish wife. Though Lady Trueman is quick to have suitors, she keeps them at a distance.
Vellum, not in love with the same woman as his lord, does not undercut Sir George’s character as Trusty undercut Henry’s. Vellum, in fact, is a reluctant lover, becoming a wooer of Abigail only to help his master and only after he discovers that she responds to his stewardly approach to love. A steward is a careful man who always itemizes and lists what is valuable and keeps an eye on it. Addison skillfully uses the steward mentality both to depict Vellum as a delightful eccentric and to use him as a weapon against the unstewardly figures Tinsel and Fantome, who know how to value nothing.
In addition to Vellum, who is the highlight of the play, Addison creates some humor with three bumbling servants—a butler, a coachman, and a gardener—of whose credulity Sir George takes advantage in order to pass himself off as a conjurer. These four, however, do not have enough stage lines to offset the blandness of the major characters. Sir George and Lady Trueman are loving but not very witty with each other, and the fops Tinsel and Fantome are without any distinguishing or distinctive foolishness. Abigail, who has some tendency to be vixenish, slides without ado from corrupted betrayer to protective intriguer. The Drummer on the whole does not disappoint the reader, but it cannot lure one back for a second encounter.
If Rosamond and The Drummer show Addison’s comic touch, Cato contains his best poetry. For several decades after its first performance, Cato maintained a firm stage reputation as well as a solid critical repute, but largely on the strength of its political appeal, the high esteem in which Addison was generally held, and a weakness for declamation among audiences that should have known better. In more recent times, the glaring discrepancy between the main plot and the subplot has become impossible to ignore and the absence of human feeling in the tragic protagonist too obvious to be obscured by the play’s virtues. Only the language, which develops subtle and rich image patterns, saves the play from being a mere museum piece.
The main plot and subplot are so different that the play is better summarized in two parts than act by act. The hero is Cato, often praised as the ideal Roman magistrate, who as consul and senator opposed the dictatorial ambitions of Julius Caesar. Cato has led a senatorial army in defense of the Republic, but it is now reduced to a small force trapped at Utica. Like many other cornered generals, Cato confronts, in addition to the enemy, mutiny among his own troops and desertion by allied contingents. Cato personally faces a severe dilemma. Should he fight a glorious but futile battle, dying in defense of his principles? Should he slink out of Utica alone in hopes of raising new allies and a new army elsewhere so that he can carry on the struggle? Should he surrender his troops to avoid senseless bloodshed but commit suicide to prevent falling into his enemy’s hands? After successfully combating mutiny in the ranks, Cato chooses suicide in order to remain the master of his own destiny.
The subplot, patterned after the romantic dilemmas of Restoration heroic tragedy, seems today to be made out of soap-opera materials. With Cato at Utica are his two sons Marcus and Portius, both of whom are in love with Lucia, the daughter of a Roman general. Portius knows he is his brother’s rival and feels badly; Marcus does not know and spills his heart’s love to Portius; Lucia knows that both men love her and refuses to choose one lest she make the other despair. With Cato, too, is his daughter Marcia, herself pursued by two suitors: the Roman senator Sempronius and the Numidian prince Juba. Marcia refuses to consider either until the army’s fate is decided. Sempronius, however, refuses to wait and plans to revolt against Cato and carry off Marcia. The mutiny helps bring out all the lovers’ true feelings. Marcia resists Sempronius and confesses to loving Juba, whom she mistakenly believes has been killed in the rebellion. Lucia refuses Marcus’s proposal—painfully delivered by the torn Portius—and the rejected suitor throws himself bravely but recklessly into battle against Sempronius’s rebels. Marcus’s heroic death leaves Portius and Lucia free to wed, as are Juba and Marcia.
That Cato should have to see to his children happily married as the Republic collapses about him indicates one of the imbalances in the play. Addison, in apparent deference to the theatrical taste of the time, tried to combine a complicated love plot with a tragedy in the Senecan mold that discusses important political issues through declamation. The two plots never mix onstage: The oil of romance remains atop and befouls the waters of political philosophy.
Cato himself is a paragon of virtue. Addison follows most classical authors in depicting the Roman senator as the epitome of Stoic virtue. Seneca, Cicero, and Plutarch all described Cato as a human rock steadfast amid the storms of Fortune. Cato was an attractive model of secular, civic virtue to eighteenth century Englishmen who had seen the results of religious, sectarian virtue in the religious civil wars of the seventeenth century. Reviewing the text of Cato before its production, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu praised Cato’s plain and great sentiments.
Yet for all the ideals that Cato represented to a contemporary audience, the dramatic fact is that he does not engage one’s sympathy. As Samuel Johnson put it, the play’s “hopes and fears communicate no vibrancy to the heart.” Although Addison has created in the first three acts enough dilemmas to bring out a character’s humanity, Cato shows none of it in the last two acts. His reaction to Marcus’s death in act 4, glorying in the corpse’s wounds as a sign of virtue, seems exaggerated and monstrous. In act 5, he contemplates the immortality of the soul before he commits suicide, but so superficially that he seems to be carrying out a ritual rather than reflecting on eternity. He advises Portius to retire to his estate—prudential wisdom indeed, but not consistent with his own fate or that of Marcus. Worst of all, as a contemporary reviewer observed, Cato lacks the reversal of fortune, the moment of realization by a despairing protagonist such as Oedipus that strikes an audience with terror and pity. Cato suffers throughout the play, but he never contributes to his downfall. He stands against superior armed forces and malevolent fate until he chooses no longer to be overwhelmed.
Although Cato’s story is not tragic, it is not unmoving. It is a brave tale, a portrait of human greatness, and a paean to devotion to principle. The audience senses these qualities, however, more through the language of the play than through its action. Addison builds around a central metaphor a pattern of imagery that makes sense of otherwise discordant love complications and cardboard characters.
The central metaphor is that of the man who stands so calmly and resolutely amid the storms of civil war that his virtue shines like a beacon through the darkness, the wind, and the rain. Throughout the play, Addison images the forces of rebellion—Caesar, Sempronius, the mutinous troops—as storms that batter Cato. In contrast stands Cato’s soul, whose virtuous flame never flickers amid the external mayhem. Shielded by virtue, Cato’s soul is all placidity. In each act, this opposition of internal harmony and external chaos becomes an index by which the other characters in the play can be judged.
In language rich with contrasting images of harmony and discord, calm and storm, peace and battle, Addison measures each character against the standard, and with each character the loftiness of the standard becomes more apparent. Sempronius, though like Cato a senator, proves un-Roman because the outer storm of Caesar’s rebellion sets off in him corresponding inner storms of rebellion against Cato and of lustful passion for Marcia. Marcus is inwardly as blown about by passion and resentment as is Sempronius, but at least Marcus directs his untamable energies into his country’s cause. Juba, prince of a desert kingdom, accustomed to riding the whirlwind of his own desires, gradually acquires a Cato-like serenity by learning the Stoic philosophy.
The remaining characters—Portius, Marcia, and Lucia—are already Cato-like as the play opens. Despite their personal dilemmas about love, each focuses more on Cato’s plight and resolves not to let personal fears or jealousies conquer as long as the great man’s fate hangs in the balance. In the course of the play, none is lost to frustrated passion; having withstood the storms of civil war as well, each emerges at the play’s end pure and rejuvenated:
So the pure limpid stream when foul with stains,Of rushing torrents, and descending rains,Works itself clear, and as it runs, refines;’Till by degrees, the floating mirrour shines,Reflects each flow’r that on the border grows,And a new Heaven in its fair bosom shows.
As is revealed in Cato and his other plays, in keeping with the increasingly intellectual preoccupations of the middle class, Addison tried his hand at both the comic and the serious, the delicate and the moral, and the domestic and the philosophical. Even when light in tone, his works reflect the polite society of the day, while revealing an underlying common sense that informs his essays and drama alike. Drawing on his scholarly background, Addison synthesized popular and learned aspects of Augustan society. As a stylist, he gained the respect of his era, and he has continued to exert a formidable influence on later writers.