Goldsmith and Sheridan: the Champions of anti sentimental comedy- How do you distinguish “The Rivals” and “She Stoops to Conquer” from a “Sentimental Comedy”?


There had been a decay of the spirit of true comedy Before Goldsmith and Sheridan of which the best exponent was Congreve in his masterpiece The Way of the World. The Comedy of Manners, so popular in the Restoration period, was now rapidly degenerating. It became much too coarse, artificial and blatantly immoral.

Towards the beginning of the eighteenth century, revulsion of feeling set in against this type of coarseness and immorality and a change in tone and moral outlook was soon discernible change brought about by this time, not by puritanical suppression but by the force of public opinion. Great social and economic changes also affected the fortunes of English Comedy with the rise of the middle- class. Matters soon came to a head with the publication of Jeremy Collier’s “Short View of the Profaneness and Immorality of the English Stage” in 1698, which gave expression to the middle-class protest against the grossness into which the Restoration Comedy of Manners had sunk.

By the second half of the eighteenth century, the Sentimental Comedy had fully established itself on the English stage. When Goldsmith and Sheridan began to write for the stage, the Sentimental Comedy had completely replaced the Comedy of Manners which was so popular in the days of the Restoration. When it had passed through a heyday of extraordinary brilliance, Richard Steele, the famous essayist, was the first to import the new spirit into his drama. It was he who first made ‘sentiment’ and ‘morality’ take the place of profligacy and to sentimentalize comedy using it deliberately for social propaganda and moral reformation. In the hands of later dramatists, pure sensibility degenerated into sentimentalism. Laughter was ultimately banished from its legitimate place and tears took its place and filled the vacuum.

The Sentimental Drama simply revealed in the excess of pathos and tearful situation in which wronged innocence was held up to draw forth the sympathetic tears of the audience. In the words of Allardyce Nicoll: “Comedy had departed from its original home, in the place of laughter, tears ; in place of intrigue, melodramatic and distressing situation ; in place of rogues, gallants and witty damsels, pathetic heroines and serious lovers and honest servants.—That is what we discover in the typical Sentimental Drama of the late eighteenth century. We are in the world of drama, not of comedy; in the realm of emotions, not of the intellect.” In the second half of the eighteenth century, the characteristics of the Sentimental Comedy became more clearly defined and the process of moral reformation was carried a step further when wit and humour were completely replaced by ‘conscious moralization’ and the comedy became professedly moral in its purpose and outlook. All this became evident in the dramatic writings of the leaders of the Sentimental School, viz, Hugh Kelly and Richard Cumberland. In their writings, there was little life of the true spirit of Comedy— Even the intrigue of the earlier comedy now gave place to melodramatic situations with their crude appeals to emotion and the gallant rogues and witty damsels,—the heroes and heroines of the Comedy of Manners—now gave place to serious lovers and weeping heroines. Whenever such a state of things persisted in literature, it invariably gave rise to a reaction.

This reaction against Sentimental Comedy gave birth to the revival of the Comedy of Manners in a new setting. The attack was launched from various quarters but none was as effective as the one led by Goldsmith and Sheridan. Those who were unable to go against the trend of sentimentalism satirized it in Prologue and Epilogue; others put their protest in the mouths of their characters. It was left to Goldsmith and Sheridan to declare and open revolt against the systematic attempts of the sponsors of the Sentimental Comedy to kill the comic muse. They stemmed the tide of a weeping age and once more taught men how to laugh more and passed on to the nineteenth century, the traditions of the Comedy of Manners of earlier times, perfected by Congreve. Goldsmith registered his opposition to the Sentimental Comedy in his essay “On the Theatre” and then illustrated his ideas in a comedy, “The Good-natured Man” as well as in “She Stoops to Conquer”. But the dramatic work of Sheridan marks the height of this reaction against Sentimental Comedy. His three comedies, viz., “The School for Scandal”, “The Rivals” and “The Critic” were, thus, responsible for the revival of true dramatic literature—the Comedy of Manners—in English. From the deliberate challenge, in the later Prologue to “The Rivals”, to the authority of “the Goddess of the Woeful Countenance,” the Sentimental Muse to the mockery in The Critic, of the ‘edification’ derived from the tearful travails of labouring sentiment. Sheridan constantly ridiculed the efforts of ‘genteel comedy’ to convert the theatre into a ‘School of Morality’. In the play also, Sheridan satirized the heroine of Sentimental Comedy in the person of Lydia Languish who is ready ‘to die with disappointment’ when ‘the prettiest distress imaginable’ and the prospect of ‘one of the most sentimental elopements’ seem about to trade into the common light of conventional matrimony. In the main plot of “The Rivals” Sheridan was able to carry out his challenge to perfection but in the Julia-Faulkiand episode of the sub-plot he seems to have yielded to the prevailing temptation to sentimentalism. It is the sentimental element in this play that makes his attack against it, only half-hearted. But one thing he achieved viz., his aim was not moral preaching through sentimental effusions, In the mature play, “The School for Scandal” Sheridan held up to ridicule the sententious moralizing of the “weeping sentimental comedy” in the role of the hypocritical Joseph Surface. But even here Sheridan does not completely exclude sentiment from this play. Sheridan’s attacks on the sentimental drama culminate in “The Critic” which satirizes this type of drama from the very outset. In spite of these drawbacks, i. e., sentimental elements in an avowedly anti-sentimental play, “the strength of Sheridan’s dramatic talent lay in wit, and wit is the sworn enemy of sentimentality, and cannot live side by side with it at least in a play. Wit had been the chief quality of the drama before these sentimental generations had grown up, and Sheridan’s plays go back in spirit to the drama of the late seventeenth century, the Restoration comedy of which Congreve’s witty plays are the cream.”

Reference: R. J. Rees: An Introduction of English Literature to the Foreign Students.
                  George Saintsbury: History of English Literature


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