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The Popular Theater of Samuel Foote and British National Identity Susan Lamb For some time now it has been generally recognized that the relative neglect and conventional aesthetic and moral disapproval of the eighteenth-century London theater's most notorious figure, Samuel Foote, must give way to both formal and contextual reevaluations . Much of the impetus behind this general call for reevaluation lies in an appreciation of Foote's extraordinary success and popularity, for in his day he was as well-known and widelydiscussed as David Garrick. Foote was the author of some thirty comedies and was a highly successful wit, actor, and theater manager.1 To dismiss him for reasons moral (he should not have made fun of people) or aesthetic (he wrote farce; his farce is possibly sentimental; his farce is usually topical; his farce is badly plotted) would appear to miss the point. To dismiss as ill-considered the good (if sometimes outraged) opinion of contemporaries ranging from Samuel Johnson to the large numbers of anonymous and semi-anonymous admirers who patronized his plays at the theater and who read his plays in print seems arrogant . Foote must have been doing something interesting—if only we could work out what it was. Though recognizing the limitations to the approach, most critics still attribute Foote's enormous popularity almost solely to his skill as a mimic, his opportunism, and the topical controversy some of his work provoked. The result has been an inordinate number of contributions to Foote scholarship which identify the objects of Foote's mimicry and satire. But during and following Foote's life his works received regular performances at Drury Lane and Covent Garden whether he performed in them or not,2 while such plays as The Englishman Returnedfrom Paris or The Liar, despite a paucity of satirical caricatures of real people, remained popular for decades both on the stage and in print.3 Furthermore , about half of the almost two hundred printings before 245 246Comparative Drama 1800 of Foote's works, including almost twenty printings of the collected works, occurredfollowing Foote's death in 1777.4 This number of printings over about fifty years is remarkable by any standard, and is particularly so by eighteenth-century standards. Topical controversy is by its nature shortlived and therefore would not account for the decades of popularity that many of Foote's works sustained, while the talent of Foote as actor would have limited, if any, relevance to those who read the plays in the privacy of the closet—and none to those who saw the plays cast without him. The enormous popularity of Foote's plays, in other words, did not solely inhere in the audience's love of mimicry and topical controversy as has been generally assumed in Foote criticism. Much of the basis of Foote's popularity and his position in the culture of the third quarter of the eighteenth century still remains to be examined. In the more thorough or recent studies, critics have addressed formal issues such as whether or not Foote is sentimental;5 performance and more strictly theatrical issues such as the function (as opposed to the fact) of Foote's mimicry, his experimental staging, and his theater management;6 and, to a limited extent, how Foote's work fits into larger cultural trends.7 It is within this final line of inquiry that this essay falls. Though most of Foote's plays demonstrate a passing concern with the impact on national integrity of foreign influence, many of them engage the issue directly by exhibiting tourists, expatriates, or colonizers as central characters. The issues which these plays address make them part of the massive and particularly earnest cultural and political restructuring of Wales, England, and Scotland into a national community following the Jacobite uprising of 1745. The process of defining national identity and what is alien to it is a complicated, not entirely logical, and potentially explosive process. An English Catholic family in eighteenth-century Britain, no matter how ancient, was perceived to be composed of foreign "outlanders" (to use the contemporary term), and this perception found reflection in legal, property, educational, and other restrictions .9 In contrast, a Welsh...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 245-265
Launched on MUSE
2016-10-05
Open Access
No
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