2. Restoration and 18th Century
2.1. Social and historical context.
The plays of the Restoration period and, for that matter, the whole of the eighteen century, cannot be compared for importance and interest with the drama of the Elizabethan and Jacobean ages.
Every age seems to choose one literary form to specialise in. In the age of reason, we are now concerned with genius, mainly chose the moral or satirical essay in prose or verse. The attitude of the age towards the drama was, although this was not realised fully, fundamentally frivolous: it was able to produce a handful of comedies that still please, but it failed almost completely in tragedy. Its plays seem to specialise in the knowing laugh, the heroic posture that does not convince, or the sentimental tear. Serious analysis of human motive and conduct was reserved to other literary forms.
The Puritans closed the theatres in 1642, and thus destroyed a tradition of play-making and play-acting which could never be recovered. When the King granted patents to Thomas Killigrew and Sir William Davenant to start dramatic companies, English drama had to begin All over again, inventing new techniques, appealing to a new kind of taste. The dates of the two founders of the Restoration theatre show that they had a link with the last drama of the great age, and indeed Davenant claimed to be the illegitimate son of Shakespeare. But the needs of the Restoration audiences were different from those of the earlier period, and the actual physical circumstances of the drama had changed. London had only two dramatic companies now, and only two theatres, one for the Kings Players and one for the Dukes Players.
Davenant had some experience of producing masques in Charles Is reign, and his taste lay in the direction of elaborate staging, the use of many machines, effects tending to the spectacular more than the intimate. Inigo Jones, the architect, had shown what wonderful things could be done on the stage in the masques of Ben Jonson, how lighting and swift changes od scene could strike wonder more than the subtler effects of poetry. Davenant himself had been granted permission in 1656 to put on The Siege of Rhodes at Rutland House, and this play had relief more on song and spectacle than on poetry and plot. Indeed, it has been called the first English opera, and the operatic is one of the qualities we see, certainly, in the new tragedies, many of whose conventions suggest music rather than speech. In the new theatres, the Elizabethan platform-stage was incorporated.
The modern stage began in this period. Instead of the old big platform in front of the proscenium, we have a tiny apron on which acting is practically impossible, everything takes place behind the proscenium, and there is no personal contact between actors and audience. We have lost the old intimacy of the Elizabethan theatre.
Another Restoration innovation was the introduction of women players. At last a more realistic sexual atmosphere was possible on the stage. This gave only a poetic amorousness to the love-scenes. But the realistic thrill was provided in the Restoration period because there really were two sexes on the stage.
The Puritans killed that theatre-going habit which had formerly been diffused among all classes of society. From 1660 on, theatre-going becomes a monopoly of now one class, now another, but never again do we find a drama which is intended to appeal to everybody.
We have no Shakespeare today partly because we do not have Shakespeares audience. They certainly did not want to be moved too much ot make to think. And so Shakespeare and Ben Jonson are almost completely absent from the new theatres.
2.2. Restoration Literature.
The new tradition of language was a French one, just as the new manners and attitude to love were French. When the new dramatists began to appear, the specialised for the most part in comedy which mirrored the manners of the day and in which the main ingredients were lust, cuckoldry, and intrigue, covered by a smart veneer of wit. The senior Restoration comedian was George Etherege, best known for Love in a Tub and She Would if She Could.
It is in the plays of William Wycherley that we get the real cynism, the real turning upside-down of morality (The Country Wife, The Plain Dealer, Timon of Athens).
John Vanbrugh was born within the Restoration period, and his plays come at the end of the century. The Relapse is a continuation of a play by Colley Cibber called Loves Last Shift. He also wrote The Provoks Wife.
William Congreve wrote comedies that deal with the world of fashion, courtship, seduction, but they still hold the English stage (The Way of the World). His other comedies are The Double Dealer, The Old Bachelor and Love for Love. They sparkle and race along, despite the complicated plots and the crowds of characters. Congreve wrote a tragedy called The Mourning Bride.
The new drama produced little that was important in the tragic field. Dryden himself had something of the heart of the matter in him. His Conquest of Granada was perhaps not an outstanding production, but the later blank-verse tragedies (All for Love) are readable and actable still, despite the conventional love versus honour theme and the somewhat unreal psychology. Dryden wrote comedies too (Marriage à la Mode).
Of other playwrights working in the Restoration period proper, one must mention Thomas Otway, whose Venice Preserved is perhaps his finest work. This is a genuine pathetic tragedy, much closer yo anything of the Elizabethan age than even Drydens All for Love.
Decline of drama
With the turn of the century, English drama declines still further. A man called Collier attacked the immorality and profaneness of the English stage, and there was a general movement to clean up comedy and to appeal to middle-class sentiments and taste. Comedy became less witty, less shocking and much duller.
Beginnings of opera
At the beginning of the eighteen century, opera seems likely to steal much of the limelight from drama, and we have the beginning of that idolisation of foreign music which, till recently, killed musical enterprise in England. And so comes a new standard in drama, less subtle, less intellectual and less poetical than anything ever known before.
The new drama
Oliver Goldsmith and Richard Brinsley Sheridan revived the spirit of the Restoration comedy- witty, but purged of coarseness. Burlesque comedy was a fine corrective to the sentimental excesses of the stage. Henry Fielding started his literary career as a dramatist, ending it at the age of thirty because of an unfortunate happening. So the arid stretch of eighteen century drama is relieved by a few cheerful oases. But the desert remains, and we must look elsewhere for the real literary riches of this Age of Reason.
2.3. Poetry in the Age of Reason.
Eighteen century England had all these things too: trade flourished, and empire was growing, two formidable rivals (Holland and France) had been soundly trounced, there was no more trouble between King and Parliament. The middle-class was firmly established and the Whig party dominated the century, but the middle-class, through marriages into the aristocracy, was drawing in something of aristocratic culture. It was not an age of conflict, but of balance. The rule of reason seemed possible, progress was not empty myth, and with some satisfaction men looked back to that sunlit Roman age where order and taste ruled, wherein they saw clearly reflected an image of their own achievement.
In art, the spirit of the period was classical. Social conventions are more important than individual convictions, reason is more important than emotion, form is more important than content. Despite the calm surface of order that ruled the eighteen century, the opposite of the classical was slowly being prepared, to burst out at the time of the French Revolution. This opposite we call romantic and we associate it with the individual rebelling against society and with an unwillingness to accept conventional artistic forms. The Romantic is much concerned with himself, highly emotional, and generally impatient of the restrictions which a stable society demands.
The greatest poet of the period is Alexander Pope. In many ways he sums up the eighteen century: son of a prosperous merchant, he lacks neither money nor leisure. But, though the voice of the age, he is in many ways outside it. A Catholic, he could not go either to a public school or university, elegant and strong in his work, he was weak, dwarfish, and ugly in himself. Being a classical poet, he accepted the world as it was, participated in the life of society, and worked off any resentment he may have felt about two accidents in birth into satire, or allowed it to melt into philosophical acceptance. Pope is essentially the singer of order in the universe and of order in society. We can expect his works to be philosophical, or critical and satirical.
The essay on Man hardly seems to show any advance on the formal virtues of the earlier essay. Pope seems early to have attained perfection in the narrow field of the heroic couplet, and Pope is indeed the only English writer of whom the word perfection can be used. This shows both the limitations and the peculiar strength of the Augustan view of art: the greatest artists are rarely perfect because they are always experimenting with new ways of using language.
Popes essay on man must seem too simple in its fundamental premises for us to take seriously as philosophy. But as a collection of pithy couplets, summing up admirably the rational notions of the day, it is superb.
The most delightful poem is The rape of the lock, a story of the theft of a curl from the hair of a young lady of fashion.
As a translator, Pope interpreted Homer for the Age of Reason. He became wealthy as well as famous with the translation of the Iliad. This is a remarkable performance, but we can sympathise with the critic who said it was very pretty but not Homer.
Thomas Gray is best known for his Elegy in a country church-yard, which uses the heroic quatrain of Drydens Annus Mirabilis. Gray did expend great trouble on the polishing of his verse, and the Elegys easy flow is the result of hard work more than inspiration. In every stanza we meet lines that have become part of the English language, sounding almost Shakespearian in their familiarity, but Gray had nothing of the swiftness and fluency of the great Elizabethan. Every effect was worked for, and Gray deserves his success. The poem is loved perhaps chiefly because it appeals to that mood of self-pity which is always ready to rise in all of us.
Finally, there was William Blake, perhaps one of the greatest of the English poets, certainly one of the most original. Blake is known to most people as the author of the Songs of Innocence and such poems as Tiger, tiger, burning bright. But his achievement is massive and his aim is immense. He wished, using the twin arts of poetry and drawing, to build up a huge mythology of his own, which should portray symbolically the forces always at war with each other in the soul of a man.
Blakes powers and gods are solid and huge and sometimes frightening. His philosophy has a simple enough basis: he rejects reason and law and conventional religion, and says that mankind can be fulfilled only through the senses and the imagination. Blakes short poems are always remarkable, always highly individual.
2.4. Prose in the Age of Reason.
Daniel Defoe was a journalist, and that fact itself draws him to our own time. He is in many ways the father of the modern periodical, purveying opinion more than news, and The Review, which he founded in 1704, is the progenitor of a long line of well-informed magazines. He was capable of irony, however, and his Shortest Way with the Dissenters states gravely that those who do not belong to the Church of England should be hanged. This pamphlet was seriously taken by many, but when the authorities discovered they had been having their legs pulled, they put Defoe in prison. The most interesting of Defoes documentary works is the Journal of the Plague Year.
The novel develops with Samuel Richardson, a professional printer who took to novel-writing when he was fifty. He liked to help young women with the composition of their love-letters, and was asked by a publisher to write a volume of model letters for use on various occasions. He was inspired to write a novel in the form of a series of letters, a novel which should implant a moral lesson in the minds of its readers. This novel was Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded. It is a strange sort of reward, and a strange basis for marriage, according to our modern view, but this moral persists in cheap novelettes and magazines even today.
The greatest novelist of the century is Henry Fielding. He started his novel-writing career almost by accident. Moved to write a parody of Pamela, he found his Joseph Andrews developing into something far bigger than a mere skit. With Fielding one is inclined to use the term picaresque, a term originally applicable only to novels in which the leading character is a rogue. It is a term which lends itself to description of all novels in which the bulk of the action takes place on the road, on a journey, and which eccentric and low-life characters appear. Fieldings Jonathan Wild is truly picaresque.
Tobias Smollet is responsible for Roderick Random, Peregrine Pickle an d Humphry Clinker. Roderick Random is the first of a long line of novels about life at sea, a line which can boast distinguished names like Conrad and Herman Melville.
Laurence Sterne produced a remarkable and eccentric novel in his Tristam Shandy, which breaks all the rules, even of language and punctuation, and deliberately excludes all suggestions of a plot, so that- despite the considerable length of the book,- nobody gets anywhere, nothing really happens, and the hero does not succeed even in getting himself born until half-way through! The author deliberately hinders all movement: just when we think a story is about to develop, Sterne introduces an incredible digression. There are lewd jokes, patches of sentimentally- often saved, just in time, from becoming mawkish by an ironical stroke- and grotesque Rabelaisian episodes.