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Chapter Four Constituting Parodies of Identity Manners, Humours, and Intrigue on the Comic Stage In this chapter, I turn to comedy as the genre most intimately associated with the representation of social relations. In contrast to tragedy, which, as demonstrated in the previous chapter, works toward the articulation of public virtue through the suppression of the private, we will see that eighteenthcentury comedy works to investigate and expose the private social relations that made public life possible. Indeed, where eighteenth-century tragedies either pass over or subordinate the family to the imagined communities they project and publicize, we will see that comedies represent both the private negotiations among individuals and the public conditions that govern and naturalize those negotiations. Before we proceed with the particulars of these arguments, however, it is important to note that comedy was called upon to carry out this kind of cultural work during a time of considerable change both in the social order reflected in the drama and in the very nature of comedy and its generic distinctions. In 1698, Jeremy Collier had launched his infamous attack on the theater, A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage. Directed primarily against the "lewdness" and "debauchery" of the heated sex comedies that had commanded the stage in the Restoration period, this tract and the pamphlet exchanges that followed cast a sharp pall over the pursuits of comedy1 Significantly, moreover, this decidedly moral turn against the comic stage was not an isolated event. Rather, as Robert D. Hume has pointed out, a change in attitude toward the comic stage had been afoot since the early 1690s. Collier's voice was only one among many to call for a reform not only of "lewd" stage representations but also of the prevalent attitude of harsh cynicism that had held the comic stage in thrall for so long.2 This moral turn had at least two effects on comic representation: first, a new comedic genre, sentimental comedy, emerged; and second, a kind of laughter developed in the laughingstrain that was not so much satirical and cynical as it was amiable and skeptical.3 At least in part, this splitin comedybetween the "laughing" and the "sentimental" kind was an artificial one, a division historically sustained at least as much by rhetoric and personal interest as by substance.4 The spirit of laughter never abandoned the stage to sentimentality in the ways that Oliver Goldsmith might have usbelieve, and elements oflaughter and sentiment mingled freely in plays in ways that often prevented sharp distinctions from being drawn.5 Nevertheless, the fact remains that two distinct strains in comedy did emerge in this period, enough so to be taken up and reflected upon by eighteenth-century playwrights, critics, and theorists. And in this, the first of two chapters to discuss comedies, I focus on those of the laughing kind-the comedies of manners, humours, and intrigue-in order to explore what happened to comedy and to comic character when "Success in ... Debauchery" no longer constituted the primary impetus of plot structures.6 With respect to this transformation in the laughing strain, a number of useful and insightful observations have been offered. Shirley Strum Kenny has gone so far as to classify this much overlooked body of comic works as "humane comedy," a comedy in which good nature prevails and characterization and action take precedent over displays of wit and cruelty7 Robert Hume has also adopted this appellation and in extending Kenny's account points to the "increasing predominance of intrigue" as the engine of action in these comedies. Indeed, he goes so far as to argue that "Where once sex, cuckoldry, the love game, satire on cits and fops, social display, humours, and conversation occupied a major place, now authors rel[ied] on plot for plot's sake"8 Significantly, however, neither Kenny nor Hume situates these changes in the context of broader historical change. In other words, they fail to note that what is significant about the timing of this shift in tone is that it also intersected with a series of fundamental transformations in the political, economic, and financial orientation of English culture. Indeed, the 1690s were marked not only by the transition to the Whiggish reign of William and Mary, but also by the establishment of laws and institutions of finance that would provide the basis for England's rise as a center of capital, commerce, and trade. In this light, what is striking about a...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780812201949
Related ISBN
9780812236392
MARC Record
OCLC
606607593
Pages
312
Launched on MUSE
2014-01-01
Language
English
Open Access
No
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