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Introduction: A Prologue This book challenges at least two major premises of eighteenthcentury literary and cultural studies: first, that the study of eighteenth-century drama can contribute little to how we understand the literary forms and cultural contents of this period; and second, that the subject as figured in the novel emerged inevitably in the eighteenth century as the dominant discursive structure for modeling modern identities. In a genre by genre analysis, I argue not only that the stage functioned as a critical focal point in eighteenth-century cultural discourse, but that in deploying an alternative model of identity based on the concept of character, it marked a site of resistance to the rise of the subject and to the ideological conformity enforced through that identity formation. In elucidating the social, political, economic, and cultural resonances of the various dramatic genres of the period, I illustrate how those dramatic genres manipulated markers of identity such as gender, class, and nation for representation on the eighteenth-century stage. In this introduction, I describe the materials and ideas that inform this project and delineate both its range and its bounds. To date, the study ofeighteenth-century drama has been dominated by what I call the taxonomic impulse, a sustained effort to divide, subdivide, and divide yet again the genres of dramatic production. This taxonomic impulse has been matched by a complementary encyclopedic charge to produce nothing less than a complete historical account of the plays: their plots, their sources, their production and acting histories, their reception, and their box-office receipts. Driven by these dual imperatives, dedicated scholars have amassed a vast historical record of eighteenth-century drama which eclipses that for any other popular form in the period, including the novel. Let me begin, then, by acknowledging that this book would not have been possible if it were not for the work of those dedicated scholars. The vast store of information that has been compiled in multivolume reference works such as The London Stage, 1660-1800: A Calendar ofPlays, Entertainments and Afterpieces and A Biographical Dictionary of Actors, Actresses, Musicians , Dancers, Managers, and Other Stage Personnel in London, 1660-1800, as well as in a number of histories of eighteenth-century drama, provides the necessary foundation for a factually grounded, historically oriented critical study 1 At the same time, however, many of the scholars involved in these projects have turned a dubious eye toward the content of their subject matter and have expressed strong resistance to any efforts aimed at literary interpretation. The indefatigable historian of eighteenth-century drama Robert D. Hume has concluded , for instance, that "We must face the unpalatable fact bluntly. ... Most of the comedies simply need no explication."2 Earlier, Allardyce Nicoll conceded that with respect to the stage the eighteenth century was in many ways a "period of decay and disintegration ... perhaps the greater oblivion that could fall on the dramatic productivity of these years the better."3 Despite these reservations, Nicoll and others still justify the study of eighteenth-century drama insofar as it provides a kind of genealogy for the modern stage. Amid the aesthetic chaos that is so readily apparent to anyone who has read even a handful of these plays, they are intent on locating and identifying the forward-looking traces that anticipate the elements of the well-made play of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. By contrast, this study approaches the materials of eighteenth-century drama as significant in their own right, that is, as worthy of literary and cultural study neither as a fall-away from the dazzling achievements of the Renaissance stage nor simply as a prelude to the well-made play of the nineteenth century. It aims, in short, at picking up where these scholars have left off by drawing on that immense trove of accumulated knowledge to produce an interpretive account of eighteenth-century drama and its cultural work. To do so requires that we interrogate some earlier assumptions and raise questions about what others may have taken for granted. For instance, Nicoll once asserted in a series of passing observations that the eighteenth-century theater was a "sure index" of "public taste and of almost intangible literary and intellectual movements," and that "it was intimately in touch with nearly all the great men of letters of the time" (2:3). This study takes up questions that Nicoll here leaves unpursued: What was the role of eighteenth-century drama in those "literary and intellectual movements...


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