John Wendell Dodds (essay date 1933)
SOURCE: Dodds, John Wendell. “Conclusion.” In Thomas Southerne Dramatist, pp. 204-19. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1933.
[In the following essay, Dodds examines Southerne's place in the history of English drama.]
In him the poets' Nestor ye defend! Great Otway's peer, and greater Dryden's friend.
—Prologue to Money the Mistress
Thomas Southerne emerges from a candid appraisal of his life and work with a greater importance in the history of the English theatre than he has hitherto been granted by the critics who have touched him only in passing. … [The] esteem in which the poet's work was held by his contemporaries, as well as the unexpectedly long and continuous stage history of his two best plays, would alone support such an estimate. Moreover, his most effective work bears the test of a close critical scrutiny. This is not to say that such an examination reveals in Southerne unsuspected depths of genius, yet it is significant and not a little surprising to find how closely the quality of his most enduring drama approaches the best of its kind. But lest his advocate be accused of a critical myopia not unknown to special pleaders, it is advisable to draw together here the threads of Southerne's activity, and to place them in perspective against the background of the Restoration and eighteenth-century theatre. Thus it will be possible to illuminate with greater clarity his successes and his failures, and more importantly, to indicate his place in the development of English drama.
A “PRACTICAL” DRAMATIST
We find Southerne a man capable, beyond most of his fellow-craftsmen, of adapting himself to a difficult age. His dramatic activity extended over a span of forty-four years, and the history of his artistic life in that period is one of lightly-poised sensitiveness to public taste and opinion. Politically and professionally he was an opportunist; if such a philosophy reflected invidiously on his artistic integrity, it at least brought him financial competency and a high degree of theatrical success. Nor was any taint of hypocrisy his; a character singularly honest and straightforward in its personal relations brought him to his grave as full of honor as of years. He conquered the environment that had beaten down Lee and Otway, greater geniuses than he, and had checkered even Dryden's life with disappointment. That Southerne succeeded where better artists failed makes him a fascinating object of study against the background of the Caroline and Orange theatre.
Not the least of his good fortune came from an ability to find harbor with generous patrons, a feat which he accomplished by sailing with the prevailing political wind. He began his career on the stage as a loyal Jacobite. The Loyal Brother, or The Persian Prince (1682) was a spirited defense of James and a thinly-veiled attack on Monmouth's ambition. On the accession of James to the throne, Southerne entered the king's army and was on the verge of preferment when the Revolution swept down and destroyed all such hopes. When he returned to the theatre, discretion seemed the better part of political wisdom for an ambitious young dramatist. The Wives' Excuse, therefore, he dedicated to Thomas Wharton, who had voted for the Exclusion Bill in 1680 and had been named privy counsellor and comptroller of the household as soon as William became king. In 1695, with Oroonoko, he sued for the patronage of William Cavendish, Duke of Devonshire, who had also been active in advocating the Exclusion Bill and was privy counsellor under William and Mary. Such trimming to the wind of patronage did not escape the eye of contemporary satire. In some verses purporting to represent The Last Will and Testament of Mr. Tho. Brown, published in A Letter From the Dead Thomas Brown, to the Living Heraclitus (1704), Southerne is attacked for his inconstancy:
Item. To S———rn, who for Gain And Place of Trust, turn'd Cat in Pan And a good Cause declining left, Because of present Pence bereft, I give my Inconstancy of Temper, To prove that he's not Idem semper, But with each Point of Mind can vary, And several hooks at several Seasons carry.(1)
The Tryal of Skill, or, a New Session of the Poets, published the same year, satirizes his opportunism in the same manner:
Tom S—Petition'd the next, and besought The Court, that he must be preferr'd, For he two Fat Places already had got, And most grievously wanted a Third.
When the Judges amaz'd at his Temper and Suit, Remanded him back to White-hall, And declar'd, who had lost his Esteem and Repute, Was not fit for their Business at all. …
Such a Question as this drew the Blood into's Face, And away from the Querists he ran, Well knowing how near it came up to his Case, That so lately had turn'd Cat in Pan.
The theatre, so hard a task-master to many a starving playwright, proved rich in financial reward to this fortunate Irishman. From the very first, when he “raised the price of prologues” by paying Dryden twice as much as had ever been given for one, he was active in obtaining the highest possible returns for his labors.2
The changing morality in Southerne's play is another evidence of his sensitiveness to new dramatic fashions. Between 1690-93, when the comedy of manners was still the accepted comic tradition, he turned out in rapid succession three plays that were conventionally ribald in conception and execution. He wrote them with a pen dipped in the common well of Restoration cuckoldry and wenching. Double-entendre, cynical attacks on the church, fifth-act victories for debauchées, a sparrow-like concentration on the one all-important business of sex—these were there in abundance. Even the sub-plots of The Fatal Marriage and Oroonoko were comedies of manners in miniature. By 1695 Southerne had written five plays all stamped with the formula of lubricous wit. It was the fashion.
Then in 1698 the storm of Collier's Short View descended on this infected stage and sent the worried playwrights scurrying for shelter. The extent of their baffled rage may be determined by anyone who will examine Vanbrugh's or Congreve's disconcerted replies to the indictment. Accepting tacitly the parson's premise that “the business of Plays is to recommend Virtue and discountenance Vice,”3 they found his position impregnable, and went down to a fore-doomed argumentative defeat. To be sure, the stage was not reformed overnight—some of the most brilliant examples of the comedy under fire came after 1698—but Collier had brought to the surface purgative tendencies that had been running underground for over a decade, and were ultimately to result in a drama made safe for sensibility. For us, the important thing is Southerne's reaction to the dispute.
Collier does not include Southerne in his survey of iniquity. Our poet was as liable as any to attack, but Collier was gunning after bigger game. For his share of the general abuse Southerne had to wait until 1719, and Arthur Bedford's Serious Remonstrance In Behalf of the Christian Religion, Against the Horrid Blasphemies and Impieties which are still used in the English Play-Houses, etc. In this strident and extravagant book—the reductio ad absurdum of Collier—Southerne is included with the other innumerable heretics. Chapter and verse of The Fatal Marriage are cited to show “The Devil honour'd by the profane Cursing of the Stage,” and “The Scriptures perverted to the Honour of the Devil.” Type examples selected for anathema are such phrases as “Confusion,” and “The Devil is in it.” But in spite of the fact that he was not singled out by Collier for attack, Southerne sensed that a new scale of values was entering the theatre, and forthwith he gave up comedy, turning instead to a form least likely to give offense—classical tragedy.
Southerne's acceptance of the new code is pointed out in Charles Boyle's Prologue to The Fate of Capua.
But he despairs of pleasing all the nation, 'Tis so debauch'd with whims of reformation. He's done his best: here is no wanton scene To give the wicked joy, the godly, spleen. Not one poor bawdy jest shall dare appear, For now the batter'd, veteran strumpets, here Pretend at least to bring a modest ear.
By 1726 the reformation was almost complete, and in Money the Mistress Southerne gave himself over to moralized comedy, where the sentiments were “honourable and virtuous” and the manners “instructive of youth.”4
Even if Southerne had not declared his purpose to write down to the public taste, a survey of his plays in chronological order would show his progressive attempt to adjust his methods to popular demand. When he began to compose plays in 1682, the heroic wave, whose crest had just broken with Dryden's rejection of rhymed tragedy, was still strong, and a heroic manner seemed the most logical for a young dramatist to adopt. In two years he followed The Loyal Brother with The Disappointment, a curious medley of intrigue, comedy, and sentiment, which showed him fumbling for a suitable medium and at the same time anticipating in a striking way the drama of sensibility. Then, after six years of silence, there came the rapid succession of his comedies of manners, each run from the same mold. Then a turn to tragedy and within two years The Fatal Marriage and Oroonoko, tragi-comedies similar in mood and effect. The mingling here of a serious and a humorous action was in accordance with what Southerne considered the popular demand5 and with Dryden's pronouncement in his Preface to Sebastian, King of Portugal (acted 1689): “the Genius of the English cannot bear too regular a Play … the English will not bear a thorow Tragedy; but are pleas'd, that it should be lightned with Under-Parts of Mirth.”6 Between Oroonoko in 1695 and The Fate of Capua in 1700, however, came Collier, and an increasingly strong aversion on the part of the critics to tragi-comedy. So Southerne's next two plays, The Fate of Capua (1700) and The Spartan Dame (1719), were written to fit not only the changed morality but also the taste for more regular tragedy of critics who were bending more and more to French neo-classicism. And then, in 1726, the final comedy, this time a complete capitulation to the...
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