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Gentility and the Comic Theatre of Late Stuart London is the most complex, closely reasoned, nuanced consideration we have of how gentility was staged and what it meant in England from 1690 to 1725. Moreover, because Mark S. Dawson draws on evidence from many sources and ranges from the rise of citizen comedy around 1600 to its wane in the 1730s, he illuminates a broad spectrum of early modern England's attentiveness to gentility. Dawson's goals are multiple, but basically he examines determinations about gentility as a continual process of arguing for advantage over what constitutes and characterizes the dominant social group, of contending over claims to power, determined by factors that include economics, politics, status, and representation. He seeks therefore to understand delineations of social power at places where claims to and boundaries of gentility were disputed. So he scrutinizes such sites as the presentations and receptions of the cuckolded "cit," the seating arrangements for theater audiences, the characterizations of satiric "fops," and the controversies over enactments of gentility on stage and in life by theater professionals.
Dawson argues against economic, political, and social historians as well as literary scholars who have characterized the identification of gentility during this period as gradually extended beyond blood lineage with land to include ever greater acknowledgment of economic achievement. He presents a compelling case that the characterization of gentility, the labeling of gentlemen, represents shifting and multiple determinations whereby members of that society waged a fierce contest over views, employments, and rearrangements of social stratification centered on the power of branding. To examine this labeling contest over clout he analyzes much more than comedies. He also examines contemporary satiric ballads, conduct books, reviews, letters and memoirs, audiences and theater seating, [End Page 654] polemics, dedications, prologues and epilogues, and recent critical, theatrical, social, economic, and political histories as well.
After an introduction Dawson addresses his topic through four major parts. "Gentility and Power" makes a compelling argument about the multivalent interpretations of the wealthy citizen cuckold, his wife, and his wellborn land-poor nemesis: it does not demonstrate a gradual acceptance of upward merchant mobility so much as present a scene putting wealthy merchants in their properly subordinate place, revealing the insecurity of the gentry as born rulers, and displaying factions vying for the right to govern. "The Social Microcosm of London's Playhouses" provides a less satisfying because more speculative and circular argument about social stratification in the playhouse and audience. "Gentility as Culture" turns to more interesting subjective estimates of the fop, not so much as satire aimed at sexually different identities or upward mobility or French affectation but instead as satire of the notion of the self-evident superiority of gentle blood: this recognizes contingent rather than essential inherited elite status and warns the gentry to heed the signs that authorize rule. "Managing the Theatre's Social Discourse" provocatively characterizes the Collier controversy not as contention over the theater's licentiousness but rather as contention over the revolutionary potential in successful representations of the genteel on stage and in lifestyle by common actors and actresses, producers and writers, along with their claims to gentility that validated and promoted themselves and their profession.
Mark S. Dawson offers a scrupulous investigation of the context of comedy's representations and contentions over the primary social discrimination that dominated considerations of clout in late Stuart London. In so doing he warns against oversimplified conclusions by way of scrutinizing stereotypes and reinterpreting their deployment. He thereby provides as well a model for employing literary evidence to interpret social structuration. Thus he also provides a model of critically interpreting evidence over which scholars contend on behalf of other perspectives such as gender and economics. So finally he implicitly questions once again the primary presupposition of all who work at reading culture through literature: how valid and reliable are literary presentations of a society we are contemplating? Our evidence is necessarily circular because...