- Fielding, the Hoadlys, and the Composition of Pasquin
Fielding’s Pasquin, premiered by his troupe at the Little Hay-market on 5 March 1736, was not only a great popular success but also an artistic breakthrough. It marked, with the four plays that followed it in 1736–37, “a significant advance in the creation of a unique form suited to his decidedly individual talents.”1 This form was Fielding’s adaptation of the rehearsal play, first popularized in the Duke of Buckingham’s Rehearsal (1671), the burlesque of contemporary dramatic conventions by the mock staging of a play within a play, complete with the fatuous commentary of its author. The distinctive feature of Pasquin, the best of Fielding’s attempts in this subgenre, was that it presented the mock rehearsal of two plays, a biting, yet bumbling, comedy and a farcical tragedy.
Fielding’s heady success with Pasquin was somewhat soured by an escalating wrangle with John Rich, rival manager of Lincoln’s Inn Fields and Covent Garden. In the previous winter, Fielding had offered Rich a play of his, perhaps The Fathers: or, The Good-Natur’d Man, but this proposal was met with “indifference.”2 In Pasquin, Fielding’s next play, Rich is satirized with some asperity. Rich’s counterattack on Fielding and Pasquin culminated in his production of Marforio, a play by Edward Phillips, which appeared at Covent Garden on 10 April 1736, [End Page 235] failed badly, and was never published.3 Rich’s assault, which was made orally and (through Phillips) in Marforio, is largely irrecoverable. One especially damaging charge, however, may be reconstructed from an obscure passage in Fielding’s sarcastic Dedication to Rich of his play Tumble-Down Dick (first performed and published, 29 April 1736). Rich seems to have insisted that the premise and structure of Pasquin, the depiction of the rehearsal of a comedy and a tragedy, as well as much of its wit, was taken from a play he himself had produced at Lincoln’s Inn Fields in spring 1731, The Contrast: A Tragi-Comical Rehearsal of Two Modern Plays: Match upon Match; or, No Match at All, and the Tragedy of Epaminondas. This charge was particularly awkward for Fielding because The Contrast was, in fact, written by Fielding’s close friends, John and Dr. Benjamin Hoadly.4
In the passage from Tumble-Down Dick, Fielding replies adroitly to Rich’s slur, with mock deference to Rich and considerable praise for John Hoadly, whom he considered the principal author of The Contrast:
It was to a play judiciously brought on by you in the May-month [i.e., May 1731], to which I owe the original hint, as I have always owned, of the contrasted poets, and two or three other particulars, which have received great applause on the stage. Nor am I less obliged to you for discovering in my imperfect performance the strokes of an author, any of whose wit, if I have preserved entire, I shall think it my chief merit to the town. Though I cannot enough cure myself of selfishness, while I meddle in dramatic writings, to profess a sorrow that one of so superior a genius is led, by his better sense and better fortune, to more profitable studies than the stage.5
In keeping with the pretended decorums of the mock Dedication, Fielding interprets Rich’s vulgar charges of literary theft as complimentary allusions to his discovery in Fielding’s play of fine strokes preserved [End Page 236] from an admittedly much superior author. With this awkward matter out of the way, Fielding can turn his energies fully in the Dedication and play itself to his attack on Rich’s pantomimes and their debasement of the British stage.
The Contrast, with its creative and critical overview of the faults of contemporary comedy and tragedy, was clearly an intriguing work in its own right, as well as an important model for Fielding’s Pasquin, that first realization of the “significant advance” in his dramatic powers. The play, however, was never published. According to a common story, which first appeared in print in 1776, several decades after the play’s brief run...