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Plays, Volume 3: 1734–1742 by Henry Fielding (review)

From: The Scriblerian and the Kit-Cats
Volume 46, Number 1, Autumn 2013
pp. 34-36 | 10.1353/scb.2013.0048

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The irony of the standard scholarly edition of Fielding’s works bearing the name of the founder of Methodism is one that Fielding himself might have gleefully exploited in his plays. It may also, I hope, excuse one for indulging in enthusiastic testimony. This is a wonderful volume. The third and final installment of Mr. Lockwood’s edition of Fielding’s plays, it is also the sixteenth and final volume of the Wesleyan edition of Fielding’s complete works, and a fitting capstone to this long-term endeavor. As with Mr. Lockwood’s previous volumes, the texts of the plays are carefully established from the first editions, with an Appendix of variants from other editions; each play is introduced with a lively essay that includes detailed information about its composition and sources, as well as thorough accounts of its stage, critical, and textual histories; and there is a wonderful Appendix of songs edited by JoAnn Taricani, with the lyrics set to music for those who would like to sing along.

This volume covers the eventful and eye-poppingly productive last four years of Fielding’s work in the theater (1734–1737), mostly at the Little Theatre at Haymarket, as playwright, manager, and, finally, proprietor. It includes nine plays, seven from the four years preceding the Licensing Act, as well as Miss Lucy in Town, 1742, and the lost and rediscovered play, The Fathers, which was produced by Garrick and Sheridan in 1772. Reading these plays is an uneven ride, with some of Fielding’s sharpest and wittiest writing in the lively “irregular” plays and afterpieces (The Virgin Unmask’d, Pasquin and Tumble-Down Dick, and The Historical Register for the Year 1736 and Eurydice Hiss’d) punctuated by static, even dreary attempts at standard, socially useful five-act comedies (The Universal Gallant, The Fathers). At their best, the sparkling rehearsal plays in particular, Fielding’s plays are well worth reading—and teaching—both as early works of the novelist and as bright, engaging, and funny scripts in their own right. Making a case for the latter position, Mr. Lockwood stresses the forward momentum of Fielding’s career as playwright rather than reading the plays as rough drafts of the novels. While doing so is perhaps inevitable (would there be such a handsome scholarly edition of the plays without Tom Jones?), Mr. Lockwood’s brief is a strong one. And of course one does not need to separate the “two” careers, as Mr. Lockwood has discussed elsewhere in his account of the influence of Fielding’s writing for Catherine Clive (as in the Virgin Unmask’d and Miss Lucy in this volume) on Shamela’s vibrantly insouciant voice (“Fielding from Stage to Page,” Henry Fielding: Novelist, Playwright, Journalist, Magistrate, ed. Claude Rawson, 2008). Likewise, the structural and tonal complexities of Pasquin, Historical Register, and Eurydice Hiss’d suggest the kind of exuberant perspective and almost anarchic comic energy that is integral to Fielding’s prose fiction, even as the novels channel it to the ends of moral comedy. (The novels, indeed, succeed in doing what the formal comedies do not, offering an energetic, entertaining defense of virtue, and perhaps they do so by importing a framing voice that has roots in the irregular variety shows of the rehearsal plays.)

However one chooses to read the complete works, it is Fielding’s most theatrically successful plays that still work best. The Virgin Unmask’d (1735), originally an afterpiece to Otway’s Venice Preserved, was hugely popular, with some 500 London performances throughout the eighteenth century. Mr. Lockwood highlights the “quality of winning predatory innocence” in the title role of Lucy, a role written for Clive, and perhaps, he suggests, with Clive. The bantering dialogue is wonderfully cynical and sharp. Lucy wants a coach and the cute footman, but mostly the coach, and if her father bemoans “the mercenary Temper in the Girl,” the play itself revels in it. In the sequel, Miss Lucy in Town (1742), perhaps coauthored with Garrick and again written for Clive, Lucy is now married to the footman and they are in London staying, unwittingly, at a bagnio. Still delightfully crass and immoral, Lucy pursues her project of...



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