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Chapter Three Tragedy's Tragic Flaw National Character and Feminine Unruliness If eighteenth-century plays about plays held the line of defense against foreign invaders, then it was tragedy's task to work the offense in an attempt to "liberate" the English nation. Plays about plays often made this point about the cultural work of this dramatic genre. Drawing an analogy between theater and nation, they figured successful tragedy as the antidote to both a faltering national stagecraft and an ailing national morality.1 Indeed, they projected tragedy's dignity and authority as an index for the nation's strength and stability. The performance of tragedy was represented as a means to envision and to ensure the future health and prosperity of England as a nation. Projected thus as a metonymic emblem of the country's struggle against foreign attacks and internal moral degeneracy, tragedy was commissioned to resolve the crisis in national confidence by offering a theatricalized, yet sincere, vision of both the English nation and the heroic individuals who would champion and exemplify that nation. Not insignificantly, moreover, the realization of the one was to be accomplished only through the articulation of the other. Tragic heroes were to embody the virtues and principles of the nation, and, reciprocally, the nation's prospects were to be expressed as aggregate functions of those personified virtues . The character of the nation was to be authenticated, paradoxically, through the fictional character of its tragic heroes. Given such high expectations, it might seem disappointing to find that more than any other dramatic genre of the eighteenth century, tragedy has been accounted , almost unanimously, a "failure." In an influential article titled "The Failure of Eighteenth-Century Tragedy," Eugene Hnatko concluded, for instance, that "Eighteenth-century tragedy failed ... because of all types of literature it seemed so admirably suited to what the age saw as the purpose of all writingmoral instruction-and the fulfilling of that purpose was inimical to the very nature of tragedy."2 On a very different note, Allardyce Nicoll offered: "The trouble in the age was lack of orientation. No single tragic dramatist, save Lillo and to a lesser extent Moore, knew precisely at what he would aim ... everyone felt the want of spirit in the tragedy of the time."3 What is interesting about these appraisals, however, is that where Nicoll identifies the highest achievement of eighteenth-century tragedians-the development of domestic tragedy by Lillo and Moore-Hnatko identifies their lowest point. His contempt is only too palpable when he writes, "In a way George Barnwell ... is appropriately the triumph of ... simplified morality, appropriately because ... morality has always been associated with the middle classes" (466). In short, Hnatko situates the cause of tragedy's failure precisely where Nicoll locates its only source of success: in the tum to domestic rather than heroic individuals and to particular rather than universal questions about action and morality. For Hnatko, tragedy "failed" because it betrayed its expansive "nature" and pursued questions on a contracted scale. For Nicoll, tragedy lacked spirit because it failed to develop extensive responses to those very questions. How, we might ask, can this tum to the individual and the particular constitute , at one and the same time, the sign of tragedy's diminishment and its finest achievement? How can we account for the stark contrast in these points of view as well as for Nicolls and Hnatko's ultimate agreement that tragedy lost its force in the eighteenth century? Moreover, if Nicoll and Hnatko are right in these aesthetic judgments, the question they leave unanswered remains what precisely motivated this timidity or crisis in representation? What was the cause of this "lack of orientation" and why was this uncertainty particularly acute for tragic playwrights? In the pages below, I will argue that the genre was troubled not so much by a "lack of orientation" or a sense of "failure" as by a historically and culturally specific crisis over the character of tragedy itself. That is, while Hnatko and Nicoll each claim that the entry of the middle classes into tragic representation definitively altered the quality of the genre, neither one takes into consideration either the actual status of the middling classes in the eighteenth century or what that position might have meant in terms of representation on the tragic stage. They argue as if a coherent middle-class ideology were already in place, and they assume that allusions to middle-class morality resonate with self-evident meaning . In doing...


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