Modern English plays

August 11, 2017
Modern English Shakespeare

THE MODERN English drama is represented in The Harvard Classics by two comedies of the eighteenth century and by four tragedies of the seventeenth and the nineteenth. Since literary fashions change from age to age, and since the authors of these plays were, even when contemporaries, men of markedly different tastes, it is natural that the six dramas should be more or less conspicuously dissimilar. Each is great because it follows an ideal; each is great in a different way because its ideal is not that of the others. Which of these ideals is absolutely the best, is a question that critics have much debated, sometimes acrimoniously: Dryden has been pitted against Shakespeare, Goldsmith against Sheridan, Shelley against Browning, and so on. Interesting as such contentions may be, they tend to obscure rather than enlighten the mind of him who approaches these plays simply with the desire to enjoy each to the full. To him comparisons are odious because, instead of leading him to appreciate many plays of many kinds, they may confine his enjoyment to those of one school. Yet, though he may set aside the vexatious question of the relative worth of the purposes that inspired these dramatists, he will not gain the greatest possible delight from them until he understands what each of them was trying to do.


Genial Goldsmith delighted in the kind of humor that is characteristic of “the plain people” and that is spontaneously enjoyed by them. The accidental predicaments into which all of us stumble, to our embarrassment and the amusement of bystanders; the blunders of well-meaning but untrained servants; the practical jokes, without malice, that ever delight youth; the shy awkwardness of lovers; even the clownish tavern jest and joviality; these are in Goldsmith’s merry eyes sources of wholesome laughter. It troubles him not that Young Marlow continues to believe a country house an inn, and the host’s daughter a maidservant, nor that Mrs. Hardcastle mistakes her own garden for a distant heath; he ignores the improbability of such situations as arouse instinctive laughter. It is the unsophisticated human beings who blunder in and out of these straits that he wishes to depict; and he draws simple folk like Mr. and Mrs. Hardcastle, Tony Lumpkin, and Diggory, with extraordinary zest, fidelity, and kindly yet shrewd humor.


Sheridan, the statesman, orator, and wit, wrote of the fashionable world, and for it. In conformity with its conventional existence and its taste for regularity, he admitted no improbabilities into the plot of “The School for Scandal.” As men and women of fashion tried to be elegant, witty, or epigrammatic in speech, he aimed to bestow like graces...
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