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Chapter Five Sentimental Comedy: Or, The Comedy of Good Breeding While the last chapter explored what happened to comedies of manners , humours, and intrigue when comedy turned away from "Success in ... Debauchery" as its primary end, this chapter will examine what happened to comedy when it forswore the ironic perspective that had dominated the comic tradition for so long.1 For if sentimental comedies marked a departure on the English stage, it was a departure, as I shall contend, away from that ironic perspective and towards a rhetorical posture ofsincerity. In this chapter, I want to explore what it meant for comedy to lay claim to sincerity in an eighteenthcentury context and to look in particular at what kinds of motives and interests lay behind the sentimental strain of comedy that first emerged in this period and would continue to confound and perplex comic taxonomies for years to come. It has become almost conventional to begin discussions ofsentimental comedy with a nod to Spectator No. 65, Steele's famous attack on George Etherege's Man ofMode.2 In my examination of the genre, I would like to open instead with an overview of Spectator No. 51, which offers not only a more extensive essay on the differences between laughing and sentimental comedy, but also, I would argue, a far more revealing one. The essay begins with a pseudo-letter from a "Young Woman in Town" who finds that from a "very careful Education" she has contracted a "great Aversion to the forward Air and Fashion which is practised in all Publick Places and Assemblies" and which she attributes "very much to the Stile and Manners of our Plays." The focus of her particular complaint is a line from Steele's The Funeral (1702), in which the mildly rakish Campley anticipates the moment when he will "fold these Arms about the Waste of that Beauteous strugling, and at last yielding Fair!"3 Our young woman protests, "Such an Image as this ought, by no means, to be presented to a Chaste and Regular Audience"; she solicits the Spectator's "Opinion of this Sentence" and recommends in general that the "SPECTATOR" consider "the conduct of the Stage at Present, with Relation to Chastity and Modesty."4 Allowing the justice of the young woman's criticism, the Spectator, in this case Richard Steele, moves with characteristic alacrity to respond to the challenge of what he too censures as the "Smuttiness" of the stage.5 Steele contends that all "Bawdry," all "Luscious Expressions," arise on stage for no other reason than the poverty of poetic invention. When an author exhausts his store of refined wit, he or she will turn more often than not, Steele claims, to the expedient of "Description which gratifies a sensual Appetite."6 This being the common case, he knows of one "who has professedly writ a Play [solely] upon the Basis of the Desire of Multiplying our Species, and that is the Polite Sir George Etherege; if [he] understand [s] what the Lady would be at in the Play called She Would if She Could." While "Other poets have, here and there, given an Intimation that there is this Design, under all the Disguises and Affectations which a Lady may put on," Etherege, claims Steele, "has made sure Work of it; and put the Imaginations of the Audience upon this one Purpose, from the Beginning to the End of the Comedy: ... [F] or whether it be, that all who go to this Piece would if they could, or that the Innocents go to it, to guess only what She would ifshe could, the Play has always been well received" (l: 216-17). Deploying an astounding and tantalizing array of elaborate and playful circumlocutions for sexual intercourse, Steele takes issue with what he considers an excessive concern in Restoration and early eighteenth-century comedies with "the Desire of Multiplying our Species." While this concern is expressed bluntly enough, it acquires even greater resonance when set against the criteria that Steele offers for those who had a "mind to be new in [their] way of writing." For the hero of such writings, Steele enjoins, would be one who is, "Temperate, Generous, Valiant, Chaste, Faithful, and Honest ," in short, a man of"good Breeding" rather than a man who thinks of nothing but breeding (l: 219-20). I take this distinction to be a definitive one both in drawing comparisons between laughing and sentimental comedies and in providing an extensive historical and...


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