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Chapter Two Plays About Plays An "Abstract Chronicle" In the opening scene of Richard Brinsley Sheridan's The Critic (1779/ 1780), the lead character Dangle defends his addiction to theater and provides a justification for "affect[ing] the character of a critic" by arguing, "the stage is 'the mirror of nature,' and the actors are 'the abstract, and brief chronicles of the time' ... pray what can a man of sense study better?"1 Later, in the opening scene of the second act, Puff-a self-avowed "practitioner in panegyric"-declares, almost as if addressing Dangle's prior claim, "No, no, sir; what Shakespeare says of actors may be better applied to the purpose of plays; they ought to be 'the abstract and briefchronicles of the times'" (I.ii, p. 147; II.i, p. 155). Although Dangle and Puff are to be viewed with some suspicion, Sheridan's management of these characters ensures the introduction of basic questions that had been rehearsed again and again in eighteenth-century plays about plays: what is the relationship between the stage and society and what "ought" it to be? Is the governing principle of theatrical representation mimetic or metadramatic? Should the stage act merely as a reflective mirror, or should it act more like a microscope, turning a discriminating and indeed critical eye on society? Should the player or the play's purpose operate as the predominant figure shaping our understanding of the play's meaning? And finally, if we determine what is meant by "player" and "purpose," in what sense can we say that either acts as the "'abstract and brief chronicles of the time' "? In the previous chapter, I made the case that the stage not only presented identity as an effect of character, but that in so doing it reflected and capitalized upon, rather than concealed and compensated for, the general "crisis of character " that was of such widespread concern in eighteenth-century culture. In this sense, "character," as it was produced on the stage and represented by "players," can be viewed as an "abstract" of the particular anxieties over the stability of identity and identification that were in circulation at the time. In this chapter, I focus on plays about plays in order to begin the process of elucidating the kinds of"purposes" that were engaged by eighteenth-century dramatists and to demonstrate how those "purposes" constitute an "abstract chronicle of the time." In beginning my exploration of the dramatic genres of the eighteenth century with plays about plays, rather than, say, with tragedies or comedies, I have at least two related goals in mind. First, I want to continue to illustrate how the concept of character circulated on stage and in play texts by taking it up in the genre that was most explicit about acknowledging and exploring the significance of form. Second , I want to explore how the stage capitalized on the crisis of character to position its own authority and to begin to detail the kinds of cultural and ideological values that were promoted from that position. Before we can arrive at such an elaboration, however, we need to establish the basic contours and interests of plays about plays in the eighteenth century and to situate the genre more fully and more particularly amid the hurly-burly of eighteenth-century cultural life. The Interests ofEighteenth-Century Plays About Plays It might be best to begin this process by examining the general presumptions made about this genre across time and investigating whether those suppositions held in the eighteenth century or whether we need to reorient our perception of the genre in this period.2 As a genre, plays about plays, and more specifically plays with a play within, have often been relished by theorists and critics as occasions for explicating the ontological concerns of a particular era. Indeed, the expression of ontological anxiety has often been taken not only as the very mark of the genre, but as the generic crux to which all discussions and judgments of such plays must ultimately refer. On this score, as one might already anticipate from my discussion of character in the previous chapter, eighteenth-century plays about plays have often been judged not merely as deficient, but as wholly devoid of any intellectual or aesthetic merit. This occurs because an investigation into the experience of ontological anxiety generally presumes, and indeed is dependent upon, representations of forms of subjectivity and consciousness that cannot be found on the eighteenth-century stage. Yet...


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