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Moral Reform in Comedy and Culture, 1696–1747 by Aparna Gollapudi (review)

From: The Scriblerian and the Kit-Cats
Volume 46, Number 1, Autumn 2013
pp. 50-52 | 10.1353/scb.2013.0054

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Theater historians have long recognized that a new form of comedy emerged in the early eighteenth century, but there has been little agreement on the exact nature of this new genre or on what to call it. Should this new type of comedy be termed “sentimental” as critics from Ernest Bernbaum to Frank Ellis have suggested? Or is it better described as “humane” or “reform” as Shirley Strum Kenny, Robert Hume, and others have argued? Taking her cue from the latter school, Ms. Gollapudi opts for the term “moral reform comedy,” and she makes a convincing case for using this generic descriptor by showing the prevalence of the reform motif in nine popular comedies from 1696 to 1747. In contrast to the dismissive attitude of Tory contemporaries—an attitude that was uncritically embraced subsequently by many theater historians—Ms. Gollapudi considers seriously the emotional, social, and political impact of the comedy perfected by Cibber, Steele, Charles Johnson, Hoadly, and other Whig writers. But she also attends to this drama’s coercive social and political function; and her focus on the term “moral,” arguably this study’s most interesting dimension, undermines the moral reform comedy’s own virtuous narrative of itself. Reform comedy grew out of the same “ethos of moral regulation” that spawned organizations like the Societies for the Regulation of Manners and (eventually) the 1737 Licensing Act, this book argues, and like those other disciplining structures, it sought to encourage some forms of identity and suppress others.

Her historical and theoretical scholarship, and perceptive, original readings of the plays make this book rewarding. Her first two chapters show how the moral reform movement (spearheaded by Collier) affected turn-of-the-century Cibber, Farquhar, and Centlivre. In addition to the plays, she focuses on how staged spectacle affects an audience. The reformation of the rake at the end of Cibber’s Love’s Last Shift (1696), for instance, was implausible to its audience. Conversely, as she shows by an analysis of The Gamester (1705) and The Inconstant (1702), Centlivre and Farquhar can be included in the pro-reform camp only if we ignore their subversive handling of the “‘well-wrought’ scene of sincere repentance.”

While pro-Collierites presumed a passive and highly susceptible audience that would submit to the moralizing message of the stage, anti-Collierites (like the Restoration playwrights before them) presumed a rational audience at a critical remove from the dramatized representation of virtue or vice. These different assumptions produce Farquhar’s and Centlivre’s ambivalent comedy.

The audience, however, was not merely of interest to the theater and its critics. It was also a central preoccupation of periodicals like the Spectator and organizations like the Societies for the Reformation of Manners, and as Ms. Gollapudi reads two other Cibber plays against this background, she complicates the “cult of womanhood” that emerged at this time—a cult that ostensibly placed the female figure at the center of private and public morality. The domestic woman acquired new powers because of her emerging role as guardian of morality in the bourgeois family. But in Cibber’s The Careless Husband (1704) and The Lady’s Last Stake (1707), the reforming heroine’s ability to exercise agency is severely curtailed in order not to challenge masculine privilege. The broader thrust of this chapter supports feminist scholarship that disputes the claim, first advanced by Lawrence Stone, that a more egalitarian “companionate marriage” arose in the eighteenth century; and it adds a historic dimension to the academic conversation about the female gaze, which has preoccupied theater and film critics in recent decades. The early eighteenth century, as evidenced by the use of the gaze in the moral reform play, was, at best, a moment of “ambiguous authorization” for the woman.

The trope of jealousy is a loaded social construct, and her tracking of its changing representations provides a different ideational framework for companionate marriage in the moral reform play. Charles Johnson’s Generous Husband (1711) and Benjamin Hoadly’s Suspicious Husband (1747) exorcise cuckoldry and rakishness from the idealized bourgeois marriage by desexualizing wives and humanizing jealous husbands. In Steele’s Tender Husband (1705) and Charles Johnson’s Masquerade (1719), party politics inserted itself...

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