- Prologues, Epilogues, Curtain-Raisers, and Afterpieces: The Rest of the Eighteenth-Century London Stage
As Daniel J. Ennis’s and Judith Bailey Slagle’s enthusiastic Introduction to Prologues, Epilogues, Curtain-Raisers, and Afterpieces: The Rest of the Eighteenth-Century London Stage makes abundantly clear, the purpose of this collection of essays is to correct the “disproportionate attention to the mainpieces of the long eighteenth century” (13) by examining works that are “in some ways the most important and enduring remains we have of the eighteenth-century London stage” (25). The editors’ insistence that we study not just plays but the total “theatrical experience” is certainly legitimate. Even a casual glance at The London Stage reveals that audiences did not just see plays at the theater: in addition to a mainpiece, they witnessed a variety of “divers Entertainments,” such as singers, musicians, dancers, and mimes. And there has never been a better time to study these ancillary entertainments. Pierre Danchin’s monumental edition of the prologues and epilogues of the Restoration and eighteenth century makes this rich storehouse of information more accessible than ever. And Eighteenth Century Collections Online makes searching for and obtaining digitized copies of even rare texts almost effortless. Nevertheless, the interpretive problem this collection seeks to remedy—the “tension between the popular, innovative, topical and vital tertiary pieces… and the respectable, didactic, and (gulp!) boring mainpieces” (25)—seems slightly exaggerated. The editors must go back to mid-twentieth-century surveys to find resistance to this material. Indeed, of the thirty-one works included in the Introduction’s bibliography, only three were published since 2000. If there is still [End Page 63] an aversion to the study of prologues, epilogues, afterpieces, pantomime, dance, and theatrical painting, it is one shared with all drama of the Restoration and eighteenth century.
Of all the forms identified in the title, the prologue and epilogue receive the most attention, figuring heavily in four of the book’s ten essays. Paul McCallum’s “Cozening the Pit: Prologues, Epilogues, and Poetic Authority in Restoration England” does a good job of showing how the subject matter and rhetorical strategies employed by writers of prologues and epilogues can help us better understand the intersection of politics and poetry, and the literary construction of audience and author. How playwrights used ancillary entertainments and extraliterary matter (such as dedications and prefaces) to assert authorial control over their works is, in fact, a theme shared with many essays in this collection. Diana Solomon’s lively contribution, “Tragic Play, Bawdy Epilogue?”, surveys the seemingly unusual practice of unsettling generic conventions by concluding a tragedy with a racy epilogue and focuses on the celebrated and controversial epilogue to Ambrose Philips’s The Distrest Mother (1712). Solomon perhaps gives too much weight to the seeming contradiction between The Spectator’s endorsement of the epilogue and Addison’s and Steele’s criticisms of the English stage. The Tatler and Spectator are full of self-contradictions, perhaps most notably their condemnation of critics and criticism while engaging in the practice themselves. But Solomon’s essay, like McCallum’s, helps demonstrate how prologues and epilogues could transcend their original occasion and have a significant and lasting impact on audiences, authors, actors, and critics.
In a similar vein, Robert Sawyer’s “Prologues and Epilogues: Performing Shakespearean Criticism in the Restoration” tackles an important and surprisingly under investigated topic. While criticism in play prefaces and dedications could easily be skipped, criticism in prologues and epilogues had a captive audience. And writers of prologues and epilogues often took this opportunity to educate their audience about their plays, their craft, and even the history of English drama. Sawyer’s focus is Dryden’s ambivalent attitude towards Shakespeare—how Dryden could praise Shakespeare’s natural genius while dismissing his work as “flat” and “insipid”—and he surveys Dryden’s print criticism before finally focusing on the prologue to the Dryden–Davenant Tempest (1667). But Dryden’s attitude towards Shakespeare is only problematic for modern...