Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Top Twelve Plays (of the late 18th century)

I was recently reading Ve-Yin Tee's book Coleridge, Revision and Romanticism. In it, there's a wonderful chart of the the dozen most performed plays in London from 1776 to 1800. Some of them might surprise you.

Number one was The School for Scandal by Richard Brinsley Sheridan. In one sense, this isn't surprising at all, as the 1777 comedy is arguably the best play written in English during that period. What is remarkable is that Sheridan's contemporaries acknowledged that fact. The top place did not go to some flash in the pan that was forgotten a hundred years later.

The classic comedy also beat out earlier works, including John Gay's 1728 play The Beggar's Opera. This would have been my guess for number one, as it was a perennial favorite throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. During the last quarter of the 18th century, it had only 32 fewer performances than The School for Scandal. However, it had 61 performances more than the next-placed play.

That would be Isaac Bickerstaff's 1762 comic opera Love in a Village. I haven't read it, either. I guess there had to be at least one flash in the pan in there. The next most performed play was yet another comic opera, but it was by someone you've heard of--and how do I know that?

Because it was by Sheridan, a writer I just mentioned. Sheridan wrote a comic opera? Why yes, he did! It's called The Duenna, and it was first performed two years before The School for Scandal. The plot involves an elopement that parallels Sheridan's own courtship with Elizabeth Ann Linley.

Number five was Hamlet. Finally, we get to Shakespeare! It's not surprising that Hamlet was the late eighteenth century's most performed work by Shakespeare (and most performed tragedy by any author). What is surprising is that even in an age that tended to worship the Bard, Shakespeare's plays weren't as popular as some more recent works.

Coming in just after Hamlet is Inkle and Yarico, a comic opera by George Coleman the Younger. First performed in 1787, this piece wasn't around as long as the other comic operas that beat it out for higher slots. Still, it received more performances than Shakespeare's next most popular play.

Macbeth came in at number seven. Having seen Macbeth at the Armory earlier this year, there's a special place in my heart right now for the Scottish play. Defeated by Inkle and Yarko? Really? I'll just have to console myself with the fact that it had more performances than the second most popular Coleman play.

Okay, so The Spanish Barber, an adaptation of The Barber of Seville, was actually by George Coleman the Elder, father of the Inkle and Yarico author. Who can keep them both straight, though? In any case, Mr. Coleman beat out the next most popular play by Shakespeare. What was it? Othello? King Lear?

Nope. The Merchant of Venice was the third most popular Shakespeare play of the late eighteenth century. Technically, though, it tied for third place with Romeo and Juliet. Both had 119 performances on the London stage between 1776 and 1800.

Number eleven was Hannah Cowley's delightful comedy The Belle's Strategem. I saw an excellent production of this play by the Prospect Theater Company a number of years ago. As far as I'm concerned, it's just as good as The School for Scandal.

Rounding out our dozen is James Cobb's The Haunted Tower. I've never read this one, but it's on my list of plays I should know.