This volume meets the high standards set by its predecessors in the Wesleyan Edition of the Works of Henry Fielding. Mr. Lockwood is both a gracious and a thorough editor, one who opens the volume by acknowledging the continuing relevance of “Charles Woods’s 1934 Harvard dissertation on Fielding’s plays”—a work that never was published, and, seventy-five years later, might be easy to overlook.
Fielding was an extraordinarily prolific playwright. Between April 1731 and January 1734, he “produced ten plays as well as the revised version of The Author’s Farce.” Not only did he write rapidly, he wrote so well that many of the plays included here became part of the eighteenth-century British theatrical repertoire.
Mr. Lockwood’s introductions to the individual plays include sections on “Background,” “Composition and Sources,” “Stage History,” “Critical History,” and “The Texts.” The circumstances in which these plays were written and produced were fraught with political (the Walpole vs. Pulteney rivalry) and social controversy, and sometimes are difficult to reconstruct. “Why did Fielding suppress the Grub-Street Opera?” has dogged Fielding studies and likely never will find an answer. “Why did Fielding dedicate The Modern Husband to Robert Walpole?” is another question that Mr. Lockwood raises but cannot close. In these cases his thoroughness becomes something of a liability; we read dense reviews of possible explanations (Mr. Lockwood does not wear his learning lightly) only to be told “that is guesswork,” “There is simply no evidence,” “that is all guesswork.” In this volume, unlike his first, Mr. Lockwood tends to push back against, even as he acknowledges, political readings of the plays. He follows Robert Hume in emphasizing Fielding’s stagecraft, his desire to attract audiences.
Mr. Lockwood highlights Fielding’s successful association with the actress Catherine Raftor Clive; the volume’s frontispiece reproduces an engraving of her taking the role of Isabella in The Old Debauchees. His relationship with Clive suggests that Fielding could write so rapidly because he was immersed in the theater. But Mr. Lockwood says very little about what he learned from a contemporary like Lillo, from the successes of Steele, Vanbrugh, and Cibber. Fielding’s debt to ballad opera, as Gay pioneered it, is obvious, and Mr. Lockwood notes it. But this volume does not give a full sense of the multifariousness of Fielding’s precedents.
Recent work by Frederick G. Ribble on Fielding’s Pasquin has emphasized the “almost dizzying reflexivity” of that extremely successful rehearsal play and has put Fielding in the green room, frequenting rehearsals, responding to Rich and others. Perhaps in the third and final volume of the plays, Mr. Lockwood, with all manner of political cul-desacs awaiting him, will say more about Fielding’s back-and-forthness with other writers and performers, including himself.