- Plays about the Theatre in England, 1737–1800, or, The Self-conscious Stage from Foote to Sheridan by Dane Farnsworth Smith, M. L. Lawhon (review)
- Comparative Drama
- Western Michigan University
- Volume 16, Number 1, Spring 1982
- pp. 88-90
- View Citation
- Additional Information
88 Comparative Drama ideas that were to be exhibited and portrayed in action on the stage” (p. 71). This statement is central to the book, and it is without question a key to the early drama, influencing as well the Renaissance stage. If Professor Wickham is no longer in the vanguard of criticism of early drama, he nevertheless contributes to our greater understanding of these plays in this flawed volume. It is to be hoped that the fourth and final volume of Early English Stages will again challenge scholars, though we would desire that we should find it less frustrating than this third volume. CLIFFORD DAVIDSON Western Michigan University Dane Farnsworth Smith and M. L. Lawhon. Plays about the Theatre in England, 1737-1800, or, The Self-conscious Stage from Foote to Sheridan. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1979. Pp. 293. $18.00. The publication of this posthumous book completes a survey begun by Professor Smith in 1936 with his Plays about the Theatre in England, 1660-1737 and carried on throughout the whole period from a different vantage point in his Critics in the Audience of the London Theatres from Buckingham to Sheridan, 1671-1779 (1953). The principal virtue of the present book is its wide range of reference to little-known plays. Its principal shortcoming, to be blunt, is lack of point. Material is gathered and surveyed, but to no particular end. The result is a book which manages to be both informative and curiously vacuous. Nothing beyond the commonplace is said about the “self-consciousness” of the stage, and, since much of the most interesting material concerns the 1780s and 1790s, the title is misleading. The organization is odd, to say the least. After a minimal five and a half page introduction, we get four chapters focusing on particular writers (Foote, Garrick, the Colmans, and Sheridan), followed by five with “subject” focuses. Thus chapter 5 concerns “Plays about Plays” and “Music, Opera, and Foreign Entertainments” as they appear in this drama. Chapters 6-9 concern, respectively, actors, authors, spectators, and “The House” itself as subjects for the drama. The author-focused chapters are disappointing. One cannot say enough in twenty-odd pages to tell us much new about the plays of Foote or Garrick, let alone those of Sheridan. The treatment of Foote, for example, is simply an unstructured mini-sketch of his career. The reader familiar with Simon Trefman’s Sam. Foote, Comedian (1971) will find nothing of interest here. One gets little sense from Smith and Lawhon that Foote presents an exceptional, almost a unique satiric perspective on the theatre, and that he wrote from a consistent theory and a set of techniques of which he had superb command. The chapter on Garrick is merely flaccid description, and badly out of proportion at that. We hardly need half a chapter of redundant commentary on The Jubilee, especially when we get only two pages on A Peep Behind Reviews the Curtain, and those just plot summary. Much could be done with A Peep. Its techniques deserve close analysis. It has a lot to tell us about how Garrick viewed his theatre, and how he chose to satirize it for its profit. Here and throughout the book the authors miss or downplay a key element in many of these works—a tension between the public status of the theatre and the views held by actors, managers, and writers. The theatre people are belligerent but defensive; the writers are often highly critical of the ways theatres were run in practice, though they remain committed to support of the theatre in principle. The tensions which run through these plays—between performers and audience, writers and actors, writers and managers, actors and managers—tell us a lot about the way the London theatre actually worked, and to find so little sense of the theatrical life of the times in this book is definitely disappointing. Sheridan’s The Critic should certainly be one of the high points in this enterprise. Unfortunately, it is not. On the structure and impact of the play this discussion is poor. No use is made of important studies by John Loftis and Mark Auburn (both published...