Article Title

"Art against art": Sentimentality, Mid-Century Drama, and the North American Crises


Denys Van Renen


This essay examines two plays, George Colman the Elder’s The Jealous Wife (1761) and Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Camp: A Musical Entertainment, that stage the viability of the theater and other artforms against the backdrop of the Seven Years’ War and the American Revolution. At the center of Colman’s play is Mrs. Oakly, a character sometimes derided as “tiresome,” because she refuses to credit her husband’s blandishments and will not be silenced by her brother-in-law, a Major. Yet she operates as a “playwright” who creates lively characters and heightens suspense in an environment that seems subdued because of how the military seems to flatten society. She also resists the ways in which her husband employs the idiom of sentimentalism, a largely male mode in the play that stifles input and dissent. Against these socio-cultural obstacles, she largely prevails for she fosters a community that responds to her “play.” She effects one of the aims of drama: to entreat others to participate in the intellectual and social life of the nation and to establish an enduring social imaginary. Amidst the hysteria of invasion from the Continent and the concomitant audience expectations for military spectacle, Sheridan is not as sanguine about the efficacy of the playhouse. Nevertheless, he, too, depicts various artforms—pastoral motifs, textiles, even needlework—as stitching together the individuals who descend on the camp at Coxheath to take in the mobilization of the war efforts. In the end, Sheridan articulates how a society that does not take its cue from artistic enterprises languishes in anomic conditions.

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