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Reviews 385 Richard W. Bevis. The Laughing Tradition: Stage Comedy in Garrick’s Day. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1980. Pp. x + 282. $18.00. This book provides the best discussion to date of a subject that resists tidy definition: what elements, in what combinations, went into the writing of English comedy between the 1737 Licensing Act and 1780? No simple answer emerges, but Bevis has set out the questions and sug­ gested categories for some answers. His interest differs from that of Mark Auburn in Sheridan’s Comedies (1977), not being tied to one dramatist, and from John Loftis’ Sheridan and the Drama of Georgian England (also 1977) in detail, broad chronological range, and generic basis. Bevis follows the fortunes of what he calls the “laughing tradition,” a term he borrows from Goldsmith and broadens to include both mainpieces and afterpieces. Bevis distinguishes the laughing tradition from the sentimental and from the many varieties of “illegitimi” that flourished on the eighteenth-century stage in England. His argument, in a nutshell, is that such recent scholars as Arthur Sherbo, Robert D. Hume, Auburn, and Loftis have been on the right track in repudiating the longstanding dogma of “sentimental dominance” during the eighteenth century. A Prologue, eight chapters (divided into four parts of two chapters each), an Epilogue, and an Appendix on “The Critical Tradition” make up the book. The first part, “The Context of Comedy,” questions the basis for labelling Georgian comedy “sentimental.” Bevis follows Sherbo in arguing against Nettleton and Bembaum, but he has a somewhat different perspective on the subject. For the literary critic interested in what is considered almost as a Platonic Form of comedy, audience reception is not a reliable gauge of merit. Indeed, Bevis says, “this dis­ trust can only be heightened by a sober contemplation of what they [the original audience] liked” (p. 21). As he points out, the scholars who solidified the dogma of sentimental dominance were working from incomplete and in some cases re-written scripts. They selected “typical” plays without reference to the Larpent manuscripts, and without taking into account the performance records now available in The London Stage. Not all plays that were licensed and performed achieved publi­ cation. The more a play depended on stage business, the less likely it was to be published, regardless of its success on the stage. Hence studies based only on published plays give undue emphasis to sentimental comedy, a form with definite ties to the novel. And even when published, many plays were altered: the stage directions were often shortened or eliminated; in extreme cases, passages, characters, and whole acts were re-written to appeal to the novel-reading public. Under these circum­ stances, recourse to the Larpent manuscripts in the Huntington Library is a necessity, and Bevis’ use of them is one of the major strengths of his study. Part II takes up “The Rivals of Laughing Comedy.” Bevis reluctantly accepts Sherbo’s “subjective criterion of psychic and emotional response to an artistic whole” as the basis for assessing the sentimental component of a play (p. 50). While admitting that “no single element identifies” a sentimental comedy, Bevis also allows for the possibility that dynamics within a play will undercut the sentimental component, and he can 386 Comparative Drama point to examples of such undercutting in discussions of particular plays. In spite of differing definitions, various recent scholars have agreed that approximately as many mainpiece comedies fall in the laughing tradition as in the rival category during the mid-eighteenth century. Classifying afterpieces is almost as difficult as dealing with the mainpieces. Bevis has little to say about the more theatrical, less literary forms such as pantomime, processions, burletta, and comic opera: though they may have worked on some of the same principles as the comedy he is tracing, they left shadows too pale to be taken into account in this study—or so Bevis feels, at any rate. Part III considers the “Comic Genres” developed during these forty years and seeks to establish a typology that allows for the admixture of sentiment to laughing comedy. In Chapter 5 Bevis says he will use the term laughing comedy for “traditional, non-sentimental...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 385-387
Launched on MUSE
2018-07-11
Open Access
No
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