The ‘Prologue’ to She Stoops to conquer was written not by Oliver Goldsmith, but by David Garrik, a member of Dr. Johnson’s literary circle, and a friend of both Johnson and Goldsmith. The prologue was meant to be read by a popular contemporary actor, Woodward, who was also supposed to have played the key part of Tony Lumpkin. However, although Woodward withdrew from the play, the ‘prologue’ was actually read by him. Unlike many other prologues of contemporary dramas, the ‘prologue’ to She Stoops to conquer is not a declamation but it is in the nature of a dramatic scene. Woodward enters the stage dressed in black, the colour of mourning, holding a handkerchief to his eyes, and the very first thing he says is that the reason why he is crying is that the Muse of Comedy (Thalia), who had been ailing for a long time, is now on the verge of death. If she really dies, his tears will not stop flooding, for it would mean the end of his carrier as an actor, well versed in the art of comic characterization. After the death of comedy, he would have to play tragic roles, and he knows that he would not succeed in them, since he can not shed even a single tear when playing a role. When the Muse is dead, he and Shutter (another comic actor) shall be the chief mourners. The Muse of comedy will be succeeded by a value is doubtful drama of mongrel breed which deals in sentimentality. He and his friend have grown nervous, and console themselves with frequent cups of wine. The only alternative for them would be to play sentimental roles and he tries to see whether he can play them. Pressing his heart and fixing his gaze on the ground he assumes a sententious look and delivers common in sentimental drama, but he gives up the attempt in disgust.
The ‘prologue’ makes an important critical point by commending Sentimental drama, much agog on the contemporary stage, which might seize hold of the stage if pure comedy were banished. ‘Sentimental is labeled mongrel’ because it is neither comedy nor tragedy. The ‘prologue’ brands it as a mawkish drab of spurious breed’: This reminds us of Goldsmith’s pretended obituary on Colly Cibber, one of the chief protagonist of sentimental drama, in one of his latest poems entitled Retaliation. He expresses a wonder in that poem about why Cibber thought it necessary to bedizen comedy to make it look like tragedy or rather like tragedy ending with a happy but contrive note. The point made in the ‘prologue’ about the threat which ‘Sentimental Comedy’ posed for genuine comedy, as well as for comic actors, is quite serious. The type of ac ting which was required for sentimental plays is nicely ridiculed by the speaker:
“My heart thus pressing fixed my face and eye with a sententious look, that nothing means (Faces are blocks in sentimental scenes)”.
By David Garrick, Esq.
Enter MR. WOODWARD,
dressed in black,
and holding a handkerchief to his eyes.
Thus I begin, “All is not gold that glitters.
“Pleasure seems sweet, but proves a glass of bitters.
“When ignorance enters, Folly is at hand;
“Learning is better far than house and land,
“Let not your virtue trip, who trips may stumble,
“And virtue is not virtue, if she tumble”.
The last two lines contain a sexual allusion which makes the parody all the more ridiculous Woodward gives up the attempt to play and speak in the manners of sentimental characters. He again makes an implicit criticism of hybrid comedy by saying that he would rather prefer to play in tragic role even when he would be performing his favourite task of making the audience laugh.
The speaker finally asserts that there is still a ray of hope for him, as a certain doctor (Goldsmith) is going to try five doses of a powerful but harmless medicine (five acts of a play). The aim is to cheer up the heart of a dying maid and brings strength in her failing muscles. It is a kind of magic charm which he assures the audience, spectators to decide whether the playwright is a successful practitioner of medicine or not.
The ‘prologue’, then is significant because it throws light upon the nature of comedy that Goldsmith aims to write. Goldsmith is purpose is to revive the springs of comedy that is fun, wit and laughter, from the bondage of dearful sentimental comedies that were rampant on the English stage causing major damage to the pure comic spirit. The ‘prologue’ is thus a kind of advertisement, and a preamble to the play.