Introduction: Rethinking Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Drama


Robert Markley


In 1983, in a special issue of The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Inter- pretation entitled "New Approaches to Restoration Drama," James Thompson called for a rethinking of the grounds of interpretation in order to "address [the] most basic and crucial questions about our concepts of history and literary history and the relationship between them." Until scholars undertake this project, he argued, "historicism [will retain] its laissez-faire character which ensures a free-for-all of contexts and backgrounds, with histories of ideas free to draw from any history and any idea."1 Twenty-five years later, rethinking the problems of history and interpretation in late seventeenth- and eighteenth-century drama remains crucial to understanding the literary culture of the period, even if the values and assumptions that underlie "history" and "literary history" have changed. In that 1983 special issue, Thompson and his fellow contributor Michael McKeon were concerned with historicizing the drama in the terms of (then) recent work in Marxist theory; Michael Neill with exploring the generic relationships between the "heroic heads" of Restoration tragedy and the "humble tails" of erotic and satiric comedy; and Harriett Hawkins with countering providentialist interpretations of Restoration comedy and exploring the ways in which contemporary audiences and latter-day critics perceived the drama.2 If some of these concerns now belong to a half-forgotten past of scholarly contention, the problems of literary history, cultural context, and reception continue to provoke debate, critical self-reflection, and reassessments of the relationship between dramatic literature and the turbulent history of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The contributors to this special issue of Comparative Drama—Laura Rosenthal, Tita Chico, Diana Jaher, Jean Marsden, and James Thompson—explore, in different ways, questions that could not have been posed in the 1980s: the nature and purpose of feminism in the theater, the specter of slavery onstage, and the complexities of depicting the stabilities and instabilities of class relations. In the process, these scholars both extend and challenge what we might call first-generation revisionist criticism of the drama. In important ways, the differences between rethinking the drama in the 1980s and the 2000s reflect changes that have occurred within the profession as a whole: if Thompson and McKeon during the heyday of Reaganomics described the urgent necessity of criticism's historicizing—and radicalizing—its values and assumptions, the contributors to this issue see that urgency in terms of moving beyond the critical legacy they have inherited and reconsidering the roles played by the drama in representing Restoration and eighteenth-century gender politics, property law, and comic theory.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the critical revolutions of the last few decades, drama remains a sideshow for many critics of the long eighteenth century, who continue to revisit and recast the late twentieth-century project of examining the history of the novel. Although Ian Watt's account of the rise of the novel in the eighteenth century has been extended, challenged, rewritten, dismissed, and resurrected, its status as a marker of a conceptual history of modernity is taken more or less for granted, even as "modernity" itself has become an exceedingly vexed term.3 To the extent that "the novel," literary "realism," the middle class, empiricism, bourgeois subjectivity, and modernity itself tend to be defined in mutually constitutive and mutually reinforcing terms, the drama is either treated as a retrograde showcase for a declining aristocratic ideology or assimilated to a narrative of incipient modernization. In different ways, the essays in this special issue resist both of these alternatives by asking questions that disrupt the overarching narrative of a Whiggish or progressivist historiography. In this respect, they also implicitly put pressure on the Habermasian notion of the rise of the public sphere in the eighteenth century and its assumptions that the dissemination of print culture and the popularity of the coffeehouse created a conceptual space in which political and socioeconomic debate could take place without deferring to the demands of partisanship, class prejudice, and religious bias.4 In different ways, the essays in this special issue recall our attention to the performative spaces of Restoration and eighteenth-century playhouses where fictions of rational discourse were characteristically parodied, satirized, or recast. Rather than providing disinterested analyses of the hot-button issues of, say, slavery, gender inequality, and class antagonism, the theater displays the contradictions and paradoxes of trying to accommodate jarring views and value systems in the two-hours traffic of the stage.

As Laura Rosenthal argues in her essay in this issue, the libertine comedy of the 1670s explores the complex relationships that exist between traditional social structures—family, community, and nation—and individuals' erotic, and often, transgressive desires. William Wycherley's The Country Wife, she argues, is less concerned with the process of psychological individuation that characterizes the novel than with the ways in which social formations respond to challenges by incorporating rather than punishing or ostracizing sexual dissidents. This recognition of the complexity of social interpellation assumes different forms after the 1690s. Tita Chico suggests in her analysis of the female virtuoso in Susanna Centlivre's comedy The Basset-Table that the crucial problem for Valeria is to redefine women's fashionable existence so that it can include scientific study and intellectual pursuits. By trying to transform the objects of upper-class consumption into the subjects of her experimental inquiries, Valeria negotiates the ideological tensions that underlie constructions of women's "private" space, their dressing rooms, within a patriarchal household.5

The problems of trying to yoke the incommensurate values of English liberty and plantation economics occupy playwrights and audiences in plays set in the West Indian colonies. In examining the role of Aboan, the hero's firebrand lieutenant, in Thomas Southerne's Oroonoko, Diana Jaher explores the endemic problem of trying to reconcile masculinist virtue with the exploitation of African slaves. In staging the tensions that inhere in the emerging debates about the slave trade at the end of the seventeenth century, Southerne poses a crucial question: to what extent will playgoers sympathize or even identify with characters and transgressive views that they likely reject outside of the theater? In the late eighteenth century, Richard Cumberland's The West Indian and George Colman the Younger's Inkle and Yarico deal with the problems of redefining onstage a national, affective identity that can finesse or transcend the moral dilemmas posed by plantation slavery. By situating these late eighteenth-century comedies in the context of contemporary theoretical work on comedy, Jean Marsden examines the complex ways in which sentimentality informed dramatic theory and practice. The competing modes of comedy produced on the late Georgian stage—satiric social comedy in the Restoration mode and sentimental works of the sort that Marsden analyzes—provoked complicated reactions among members of the audience. In discussing Sheridan's The School for Scandal, James Thompson calls attention to the ways in which the ambiguities of the play are reflected in the reactions of twentieth-century critics. By setting satire against sentiment, Sheridan ironically turns antitheatrical diatribes on their head by encouraging, rather than condemning, tensions between moral and aesthetic judgment in the theater.

Taken together, then, the essays in this issue gesture, in various ways, toward an alternative perspective on literary history—the defamiliarization that comes from reading the literature of the long eighteenth century through the theater rather than through the novel. At important moments in a variety of canonical novels (Henry Fielding's Tom Jones and Frances Burney's Evelina, for example), characters troop to the theater and give novelists the opportunity to comment on actors, performances, and plays. The novelists' attention to these imagined spectacles suggests the extent to which they and their readers responded to the variegated performance of social identities in a public venue where, for some members of the audience, being seen was as important as seeing the play. At the risk of generalizing, it seems a safe assumption that, for a good portion of the long eighteenth century, writing for the theater was more lucrative than writing novels, particularly for women such as Aphra Behn, and the economic lure as well as the cultural power of the theater is too often downplayed in the cottage industry devoted to eighteenth-century novelists.6 To move, twenty-five years later, beyond the "free-for-all of contexts and backgrounds" that Thompson decried is, in part, to resituate the theater as an integral part of literary history rather than as a "background" for the novel.

As the essays in this issue of Comparative Drama attest, the drama of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries cannot be read as a coherent whole, as a well-knit collection of subgenres that have distinct phases of development, or that rise and fall in lockstep with changing sociopolitical conditions. Perhaps to a greater extent than the novel, the drama registers transformations in the canon of literature as well as in the repertory of producible and profitable plays, and there is a great deal of scholarly work yet to be done on the ways in which the theater participates in the "crises of governance" that attended Britain's changing imperial and economic fortunes throughout the century.7 Although the drama often seems to work to shore up specific ideologies of privilege, power, and moral virtue, as it does in Cumberland's The West Indian, it also foregrounds the very conflicts of party politics and social antagonism that characterize Behn's comedies of the early 1680s (The Roundheads, The City Heiress), Centlivre's extraordinarily popular play, A Bold Stroke for Wife, and many other plays besides. In redirecting our attention to works such as The Basset-Table and Inkle and Yarico as well as revisiting canonical comedies like The Country Wife and The School for Scandal, Rosenthal, Chico, Jaher, Marsden, and Thompson remind us that the discourses of modernity are never far removed from the performativity of the theater.


1. James Thompson, “Histories of Restoration Drama,” The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation 24 (1983): 172, 171.

2. Thompson, “Histories of Restoration Drama,” 163–72; Michael McKeon, “Marxist Criticism and Marriage à la Mode,The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation 24 (1983): 141–62; Michael Neill, “Heroic Heads and Humble Tails: Sex, Politics, and the Restoration Comic Rake,” The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation 24 (1983): 115–40; and Harriett Hawkins, “The ‘Example’ Theory and the Providentialist Approach to Restoration Drama: Some Questions of Validity and Applicability,” The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation 24 (1983): 103–14.

3. For representative views, see Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel (Stanford; Stanford University Press, 1957); Nancy Armstrong, Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987); Michael McKeon, Origins of the English Novel, 1660–1740 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987); J. Paul Hunter, Before Novels (New York: Norton, 1990); James Thompson, Models of Value: Eighteenth-Century Political Economy and the Novel (Durham: Duke University Press, 1996); Deidre Lynch, The Economy of Character: Novels, Market Culture, and the Business of Inner Meaning (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998); and William B. Warner, Licensing Entertainment: The Elevation of Novel Reading in Britain, 1684–1750 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1998); On the critique of modernity, see Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993).

4. See Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, trans. Thomas Burger, with the assistance of Frederick Lawrence (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991). On the critique of Habermas’s conception of the public sphere, see Ann C. Dean, Talk of the Town: Figurative Publics in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 2007), and Tony Pollock, Gender and the Fictions of the Public Sphere, 1690–1755 (New York: Routledge, 2008).

5. See also Tita Chico, Designing Women: The Dressing Room in Eighteenth-Century Literature and Culture (Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 2005).

6. See Cheryl Turner, Living by the Pen: Women Writers in the Eighteenth Century (New York: Routledge, 1992); George Justice, The Manufacturers of Literature: Writing and the Literary Marketplace in Eighteenth-Century England (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2002); Rebecca Elisabeth Connor, Women, Accounting, and Narrative: Keeping Books in Eighteenth- Century England (New York: Routledge, 2004), 67–90; Betty Schellenberg, The Professionalization of Women Writers in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005); and Robert Markley, “Aphra Behn’s The City Heiress: Feminism and the Dynamics of Popular Success on the Late Seventeenth-Century Stage,” Comparative Drama 41 (2007): 141–66.

7. Daniel O’Quinn, Staging Governance: Theatrical Imperialism in London, 1770–1800 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), 1.

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