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.
MAJOR DRAMATIC WORKS
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."