Meanings of All for Love, 1677-1813
In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:
The ongoing emphasis in literary studies on the work of literature as cultural artifact, or as one in a number of “texts,” literary and otherwise, that derive meaning only from their interdependence, has had surprisingly little impact on Restoration and eighteenth-century theater studies, particularly the discussion of plays themselves. Since the playwright’s script is but one factor in any performance, concern for intertextuality should lead to exploration of the mutability of any durable play’s meaning, especially in a theater world that constantly evolves, as this one did. Yet, whether located in aesthetics, in political or social issues, or even in the circumstances or personalities around which a play is written, the meaning or significance assigned to that play is almost invariably a fixed one. This critical tendency neglects two remarkable features of drama in the so-called long eighteenth century: the extent to which audiences dictated the content and mood of plays, and the extent to which audiences, theaters, and new plays differed from each other. In prologue after prologue as well as in critical commentaries, playwrights and theater connoisseurs lament that the tastes of audiences—on which a play’s success depended—debase the fare proffered. Such objections (and the sheer number of them) point to the subordination of the playwright’s aesthetic concerns to audience expectations about a play.1 This raises interesting questions about those plays that had any longevity during this period but that do not have a readily apprehensible universality of the kind generally attributed to, say, Shakespearian drama. If, as they did, audience demands kept pace with the rapidly changing political and cultural milieus and theater personnel and atmospheres, then in order to appeal to these ever-changing demands the durable plays of this period must be endowed with qualities that are incompatible with the fixed meanings sought for them.
1Howard Weinbrot remarks, for example, “In 1701 George Farquhar makes plain what the poet should study to understand native genius: ‘The rules of English Comedy don’t lie in the Compass or Aristotle, or his Followers, but in the Pit, Box, and Galleries.’” See Britannia’s Issue: The Rise of British Literature from Dryden to Ossian (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 1993), 160. Of the innumerable prologues that complain about audience power over the playwrights, the original prologue to George Etherege’s The Man of Mode (1676) is typical in the abuse it hurls at the audience it is courting: “A muse o’th’better sort’s ashamed to own ye. / Nature well-drawn and wit must now give place / To gaudy nonsense and to dull grimace.” See George Etherege, The Man of Mode, ed. W. B. Carnochan (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1966), 5. Paula Backscheider underscores the audience’s influence when she points out that “reactions of first-night audiences could determine revisions. In an age when the name of the playwright did not appear on playbills or in newspaper advertisements, the playwright literally lost control of the text as no other category of writer did.” See Paula Backscheider, Spectacular Politics: Theatrical Power and Mass Culture in Early Modern England (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993),127.
"Meanings of All for Love, 1677-1813,"
Comparative Drama: Vol. 38
, Article 2.
Available at: https://scholarworks.wmich.edu/compdr/vol38/iss2/2