Thursday, October 17, 2019

Stooping to Conquer

In a famous essay in 1772, the author Oliver Goldsmith tried to make a comparison between laughing and sentimental comedy.

Borrowing the definition from Aristotle, Goldsmith called comedy "a picture of the frailties of the lower part of mankind, to distinguish it from tragedy, which is an exhibition of the misfortunes of the great."

The problem was, in Goldsmith's view, British comedy had taken to detail the calamities of people in the middle classes rather than poking fun at their foibles, as had been done by comic writers of the Restoration, such as Colley Cibber and John Vanbrugh.

He also claimed to have history on his side. Though the Roman playwright Terence sometimes had his comedies approach the quality of tragedy, Goldsmith observed that Terence always stopped short of rendering his characters truly pathetic. In Goldsmith's opinion, the only advantage of sentimental comedy was its novelty.

More importantly, he warned of what we might be losing in giving up the genre of laughing comedy for a comedy of sentiment:

It is true that amusement is a great object of the theater, and it will be allowed that these sentimental pieces do often amuse us; but the question is, whether the true comedy would not amuse us more? The question is, whether a character supported throughout a piece, with its ridicule still attending, would not give us more delight than this species of bastard tragedy, which only is applauded because it is new?

Goldsmith tested this hypothesis with his own play, She Stoops to Conquer, which opened the following year at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden. George Coleman the Elder was manager of Covent Garden at the time, and he did not particularly care for the piece. Neither did David Garrick, who had turned down the play for Drury Lane.

On the advice of Samuel Johnson, though, Coleman put the play into rehearsal with the actress Mary Bulkley in the leading role of Kate Hardcastle. It ended up a success, and the theatre even chose to use it for their season closer later that year.

At the end of his essay, Goldsmith had written:

It is not easy to recover an art when once lost; and it will be but a just punishment, that when, by our being too fastidious, we have banished humor from the stage, we should ourselves be deprived of the art of laughing.

Fortunately for us, no such calamity occurred, and She Stoops to Conquer continues to delight audiences to this very day.