Oliver Goldsmith Goldsmith, Oliver (Drama Criticism) - Essay


(Drama Criticism)

Oliver Goldsmith 1730?-1774

Goldsmith was one of the most important writers of the eighteenth century. Although financial necessity drove him to devote most of his time to producing translations, compilations, and popularizations of the works of others, he made notable contributions of his own to nearly every literary form that was in vogue during the period. His most important play, She Stoops to Conquer, was popular from its first performance and remains one of a very few plays from its time that is still performed. It has been credited with ushering in a new era of robust comedy to an English theater overwhelmed by sentimentalism.


Goldsmith was born in County Longford, Ireland, the fifth child of the Reverend Charles Goldsmith and his wife Ann Jones Goldsmith. The family was poor but not in serious financial straits during Goldsmith's youth. He suffered a physical misfortune, though, when around the age of eight he contracted smallpox and was left badly scarred by the disease. This, along with an already unprepossessing appearance, convinced him of his own ugliness and made him the subject of ridicule throughout his life. Goldsmith entered Trinity College, Dublin, in 1745 as a "sizar," an indigent student who Was allowed to attend college for a small fee in exchange for performing menial work at the school. Disappointed with the harshness of his situation, Goldsmith neglected his studies and spent more time carousing than attending classes. Although he left college briefly, he eventually earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1749.

After college Goldsmith cast about for a profession. He considered entering the ministry and also studied medicine for a time. In 1753 he embarked on a walking tour of Europe, which provided the inspiration for several of his later works, including the narrative poem The Traveller and the adventures of George Primrose in the novel The Vicar of Wakefield. After three years of travel he returned to London in 1756. During the next several years he held a variety of poorly paying jobs, but he eventually secured a position writing book reviews for the Monthly Review. This experience introduced Goldsmith to professional magazine writing, a vocation which would eventually provide most of his income. After his association with the Monthly Review ended, he obtained a proofreading job with the novelist and printer Samuel Richardson and continued to contribute essays as well as book and theater reviews to a number of journals. Goldsmith's periodical writing eventually attracted the notice of booksellers, whose sponsorship was important to aspiring writers in the eighteenth century.

From October through November of 1759 Goldsmith wrote the entire contents—essays, short fiction, and reviews—of the complete eight-issue run of the magazine the Bee. At the same time he published his first book, An Enquiry into the Present State of Polite Learning in Europe, an extended essay on European literature and culture. The following year Goldsmith began his most famous series of periodical essays, the "Chinese Letters." Purporting to be a series of letters from a Chinese philosopher visiting London, these sometimes witty, sometimes philosophical pieces provided social satire thinly veiled by fiction. They were collected and published in 1762 as The Citizen of the World. With the success of this work Goldsmith became a prominent figure in London literary society. He became associated with group of well-known intellectuals, including the painter Sir Joshua Reynolds, the actor and theater manager David Garrick, and the writers Samuel Johnson, Thomas Percy, Edmund Burke, and James Boswell. This group, known simply as The Club (later the Literary Club), met regularly in coffeehouses, taverns and one another's homes. Although he was now successful, Goldsmith was unable to handle his money, gambled, and ran up debts.

The Traveller appeared in 1764 and The Vicar of Wake-field in 1766. Goldsmith's first play, The Good Natured Man was first produced at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden on 29 January 1768; five years later She Stoops to Conquer was staged at the same playhouse on 15 March 1773. This was followed on 8 May by a short farce, The Grumbler. Goldsmith died on 4 April 1774, after overdosing on medication he had taken for a variety of intestinal disorders.


Aside from The Grumbler—a one-act adaptation of an adaptation of a French farce—Goldsmith produced only two works for the theater. When The Good Natured Man was first staged, it fared well with audiences, though critics were harder to please. Goldsmith's use of what appeared to be sentimental conventions was at odds with his inclusion of such "low" elements as broad comedy involving lower-class characters. So many critics censured one farcical scene that it was dropped after the first performance. She Stoops to Conquer was a greater success, and it is on this work that Goldsmith's reputation as a dramatist primarily rests. The plot is preposterous, depending on a series of highly unlikely misunderstandings, and many of the minor figures are merely types. However, several of the central characters, particularly Kate Hardcastle and Tony Lumpkin, are considered masterpieces of comic theater. The play, good humored and containing no ulterior motive other than to entertain, remains a viable work of comedy.


Critics generally attribute the difference between the successes of Goldsmith's two comedies to the author's increased confidence in his dramatic abilities. In The Good Natured Man Goldsmith attacked—not altogether successfully—the sentimental comedy that had dominated the English stage for fifty years. With She Stoops to Conquer, most critics agree, he was able to abandon all conventions of sentimental comedy and present instead a straightforward, robust, and, above all, funny play. (Some commentators, however, have contended that She Stoops to Conquer adheres to many of the conventions that it seeks to overthrow.) Throughout the centuries, the play has retained its popularity with readers and theatergoers. Audiences unconcerned with possible shades of authorial control have continued to enjoy the play as an entertaining theatrical comedy. Virginia Woolf noted that fine critical distinctions "fade out in the enjoyment of reading" She Stoops to Conquer. "When a thing is perfect of its kind," she added, "we cannot stop, under that spell, to pick our flower to pieces. There is a unity about it which forbids us to dismember it."

Principal Works

(Drama Criticism)


The Good Natur'd Man 1768

She Stoops to Conquer; or, The Mistakes of a Night 1773

The Grumbler: A Farce [adaptor; from Charles Sedley's translation of David Augustin de Brueys' Le Grondeur] 1773


An Enquiry into the Present State of Polite Learning in Europe (essay) 1759

The Citizen of the World; or, Letters from a Chinese Philosopher Residing in London to His Friends in the East. 2 vols. (essays) 1762

The Life of Richard Mash, of Bath, Esq. Extracted Principally from His Original Papers (biography) 1762

The Traveller; or, A Prospect of Society (poetry) 1764

The Vicar of Wakefield: A Tale (novel) 1766

The Deserted Village: A Poem (poetry) 1770

The History of England, from the Earliest Times to the Death of George II. 4 vols. (history) 1771

The Retaliation: A Poem (poetry) 1774

Author Commentary

(Drama Criticism)

Remarks on Our Theatres (6 October 1759)

SOURCE: "Remarks on Our Theatres," reprinted in The Bee and Other Essays by Oliver Goldsmith, Oxford University Press, 1914, pp. 3-7.

[In the following, which was first published in the first number of the journal The Bee in 1759, Goldsmith censures the artificiality of the acting style prevalent on the London stage of his time.]

Our theatres are now opened, and all Grub Street is preparing its advice to the managers; we shall undoubtedly hear learned disquisitions on the structure of one actor's legs, and another's eyebrows. We shall be told much of enunciations, tones, and attitudes, and shall have our lightest pleasures commented upon by didactic dullness. We shall, it is feared, be told, that Garrick is a fine actor, but then, as a manager, so avaricious! That Palmer is a most promising genius, and Holland likely to do well, in a particular cast of character. We shall have them giving Shuter instructions to amuse us by rule, and deploring over the ruins of desolated majesty in Covent Garden. As I love to be advising too, for advice is easily given, and bears a show of wisdom and superiority, I must be permitted to offer a few observations upon our theatres and actors, without, on this trivial occasion, throwing my thoughts into the formality of method.

There is something in the deportment of all our players infinitely more stiff and formal than among the actors of other nations. Their action sits uneasy upon them; for as the English use very little gesture in ordinary conversation, our English-bred actors are obliged to supply stage gestures by their imagination alone. A French comedian finds proper models of action in every company and in every coffee-house he enters. An Englishman is obliged to take his models from the stage itself; he is obliged to imitate nature from an imitation of nature. I know of no set of men more likely to be improved by travelling than those of the theatrical profession. The inhabitants of the Continent are less reserved than here; they may be seen through upon a first acquaintance; such are the proper models to draw from; they are at once striking, and are found in great abundance.

Though it would be inexcusable in a comedian to add anything of his own to the poet's dialogue, yet as to action he is entirely at liberty. By this he may show the fertility of his genius, the poignancy of his humour, and the exactness of his judgement; we scarce see a coxcomb or a fool in common life that has not some peculiar oddity in his action. These peculiarities it is not in the power of words to represent, and depend solely upon the actor. They give a relish to the humour of the poet, and make the appearance of nature more illusive; the Italians, it is true, mask some characters, and endeavour to preserve the peculiar humour by the make of the mask; but I have seen others still preserve a great fund of humour in the face without a mask; one actor, particularly, by a squint which he threw into some characters of low life, assumed a look of infinite solidity. This, though upon reflection we might condemn, yet, immediately, upon representation, we could not avoid being pleased with. To illustrate what I have been saying by the plays I have of late gone to see: In The Miser, which was played a few nights ago at Covent Garden, Lovegold appears through the whole in circumstances of exaggerated avarice; all the player's action, therefore, should conspire with the poet's design, and represent him as as epitome of penury. The French comedian, in this character, in the midst of one of his most violent passions, while he appears in an ungovernable rage, feels the demon of avarice still upon him, and stoops down to pick up a pin, which he quilts into the flap of his coat-pocket with great assiduity. Two candles are lighted up for his wedding; he flies and turns one of them into the socket; it is, however, lighted up again; he then steals to it, and privately crams it into his pocket. The Mock-Doctor was lately played at the other house. Here again the comedian had an opportunity of heightening the ridicule by action. The French player sits in a chair with a high back, and then begins to show away by talking nonsense, which he would have thought Latin by those whom he knows do not understand a syllable of the matter. At last he grows enthusiastic, enjoys the admiration of the company, tosses his legs and arms about, and in the midst of his raptures and vociferation, he and the chair fall back together. All this appears dull enough in the recital, but the gravity of Cato could not stand it in the representation.

In short, there is hardly a character in comedy to which a player of any real humour might not add strokes of vivacity that could not fail of applause. But instead of this we too often see our fine gentlemen do nothing, through a whole part, but strut, and open their snuff-box; our pretty fellows sit indecently with their legs across, and our clowns pull up their breeches. These, if once, or even twice, repeated, might do well enough; but to see them served up in every scene, argues the actor almost as barren as the character he would expose.

The magnificence of our theatres is far superior to any others in Europe where plays only are acted. The great care our performers take in painting for a part, their exactness in all the minutiae of dress, and other little scenical proprieties, have been taken notice of by Ricoboni, a gentleman of Italy, who travelled Europe with no other design but to remark upon the stage; but there are several apparent improprieties still continued, or lately come into fashion. As, for instance, spreading a carpet punctually at the beginning of the death scene, in order to prevent our actors from spoiling their clothes; this immediately apprises us of the tragedy to follow; for laying the cloth is not a more sure indication of dinner, than laying the carpet of bloody work at Drury Lane. Our little pages also with unmeaning faces, that bear up the train of a weeping princess, and our awkward lords in waiting, take off much from her distress. Mutes of every kind divide our attention, and lessen our sensibility; but here it is entirely ridiculous, as we see them seriously employed in doing nothing. If we must have dirty-shirted guards upon the theatres, they should be taught to keep their eyes fixed on the actors, and not roll them round upon the audience, as if they were ogling the boxes.

Beauty, methinks, seems a requisite qualification in an actress. This seems scrupulously observed elsewhere, and for my part I could wish to see it observed at home. I can never conceive a hero dying for love of a lady totally destitute of beauty. I must think the part unnatural, for I cannot bear to hear him call that face angelic, when even paint cannot hide its wrinkles. I must condemn him of stupidity, and the person whom I can accuse for want of taste will seldom become the object of my affections or admiration. But if this be a defect, what must be the entire perversion of scenical decorum, when, for instance, we see an actress that might act the Wapping Landlady without a bolster, pining in the character of Jane Shore, and, while unwieldy with fat, endeavouring to convince the audience that she is dying with hunger.

For the future, then, I could wish that the parts of the young or beautiful were given to performers of suitable figures; for I must own, I could radier see the stage filled with agreeable objects, though they might sometimes bungle a little, than see it crowded with withered or misshapen figures, be their emphasis, as I think it is called, ever so proper. The first may have the awkward appearance of new-raised troops, but in viewing the last, I cannot avoid the mortification of fancying myself placed in an hospital of invalids.

Of the Stage (1759)

SOURCE: "Of the Stage," in An Enquiry into the Present State of Polite Learning in Europe, 1759, reprinted in The Works of Oliver Goldsmith, Vol. II, edited by Peter Cunningham, John Murray, 1854, pp. 56-61.

[In this essay, Goldsmith finds the current state of drama in England debased and vulgar.]

Our Theatre has been generally confessed to share in this general decline, though partaking of the show and decoration of the Italian opera, with the propriety and declamation of French performance. The stage also is more magnificent with us than any other in Europe, and the people in general fonder of theatrical entertainment. Yet still as our pleasures, as well as more important concerns, are generally managed by party, the stage has felt its influence. The managers, and all who espouse their side, are for decoration and ornament; the critic, and all who have studied French decorum, are for regularity and declamation. Thus it is almost impossible to please both parties; and the poet, by attempting it, finds himself often incapable of pleasing either. If he introduces stage pomp, the critic consigns his performance to the vulgar; if he indulges in recital and simplicity, it is accused of insipidity, or dry affectation.

From the nature, therefore, of our theatre, and the genius of our country, it is extremely difficult for a dramatic poet to please his audience. But happy would he be, were these the only difficulties he had to encounter: there are many other more dangerous combinations against the little wit of the age. Our poet's performance must undergo a process truly chemical, before it is presented to the public. It must be tried in the manager's fire, strained through a licenser, and purified in the Review or the newspaper of the day. At the rate, before it can come to a private table it may probably be a mere caput mortuum, and only proper entertainment for the licenser, manager, or critic himself. But it may be answered, that we have a sufficient number of plays upon our theatres already, and therefore there is no need of new ones. But are they sufficiently good? And is the credit of our age nothing? Must our present times pass away unnoticed by posterity? We are desirous of leaving them liberty, wealth, and titles, and we can have no recompense but their applause. The title of 'learned' given to an age, is the most glorious applause, and shall this be disregarded? Our reputation among foreigners will quickly be discontinued, when we discontinue our efforts to deserve it, and shall we despise their praise? Are our new absurdities, with which no nation more abounds, to be left unnoticed? Is the pleasure such performances give upon the perusal, to be entirely given up? If these are all matters of indifference, it then signifies nothing, whether we are to be entertained with the actor or the poet, with fine sentiments, or painted canvas, or whether the dancer, or the carpenter, be constituted master of the ceremonies.

But they are not matters of indifference. Every age produces new follies and new vices, and one absurdity is often displaced in order to make room for another. The dramatic poet, however, who should be, and has often been, a firm champion in the cause of virtue, detects all the new machinations of vice, levels his satire at the rising structures of folly, or drives her from behind the retrenchments of fashion. Thus far, then, the poet is useful; but how far the actor, that dear favourite of the public, may be so, is a question next to be determined.

As the poet's merit is often not sufficient to introduce his performance among the public with proper dignity, he is often obliged to call in the assistance of decoration and dress to contribute to this effect. By this means a performance which pleases on the stage, often instructs in the closet, and for one who has seen it acted, hundreds will be readers. The actor then is useful, by introducing the works of the poet to the public with becoming splendour; but when these have once become popular, I must confess myself so much a sceptic as to think it would be more for the interests of virtue, if stage performances were read, not acted; made rather our companions in the closet than on the theatre. While we are readers, every moral sentiment strikes us in all its beauty, but the love scenes are frigid, tawdry, and disgusting. When we are spectators, all the persuasives to vice receive an additional lustre. The love scene is aggravated, the obscenity heightened, the best actors figure in the most debauched characters, while the parts of morality, as they are called, are thrown to some mouthing machine, who puts even virtue out of countenance by his wretched imitation. The principal performers find their interest in choosing such parts as tend to promote, not the benefit of society, but their own reputation; and in using arts which inspire emotions very different from those of morality. How many young men go to the playhouse speculatively in love with the rule of right, but return home actually enamoured of an actress. I have often attended to the reflections of the company upon leaving the...

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Overviews And General Studies

(Drama Criticism)

Ricardo Quintana (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: "Goldsmith's Achievement as Dramatist," in University of Toronto Quarterly, Vol. XXXIV, No. 2, January, 1965, pp. 159-77.

[In the essay below, Quintana provides a comprehensive survey of Goldsmith's theatrical activities.]


Despite the fact that Goldsmith occupies a secure place among eighteenth-century dramatists, the precise nature of his achievement as a playwright has yet to be explored with the care which the subject deserves. Since this is a matter which concerns Georgian comedy in a broad sense as well as Goldsmith's own comic artistry, it is one of no little...

(The entire section is 19966 words.)

She Stoops To Conquer

(Drama Criticism)

Stephen Gwynn (essay date 1935)

SOURCE: "She Stoops to Conquer," in Oliver Goldsmith, Henry Holt and Company, 1935, pp. 263-289.

[In the excerpt below, Gwynn traces the initial production and reception of She Stoops to Conquer.]

In Lloyd's Evening Post of March 15-17 … there appeared this "Theatrical Intelligence":

The characters of the new Comedy, called "She Stoops to Conquer, or the Mistakes of a Night," performed on Monday night at Covent Garden Theatre for the first time were as follows:

Hardcastle Mr. Shuter.

Mr. Marlow Mr....

(The entire section is 16445 words.)

Further Reading

(Drama Criticism)


Bevis, Richard. "True-Born Irishmen." In The Laughing Tradition: Stage Comedy in Garrick's Day, pp. 205-14. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1980.

Investigates The Good-Natured Gentleman and She Stoops to Conquer within the context of British theatrical history.

Donoghue, Frank."'He Never Gives Us Nothing that's Low': Goldsmith's Plays and the Reviewers." ELH 55, No. 3 (Fall 1988): 665-84.

Contends that through his essays on the theater Goldsmith attempted to influence the reviewers of his own plays "by instructing them how to judge him."


(The entire section is 876 words.)