Oliver Goldsmith (1730-1774)
Oliver Goldsmith was born into a lower middle class Anglo-Irish family. He worked his way through Trinity College, Dublin, studied medicine in Edinburgh, and toured parts of Europe before taking up a life of writing in London. In 1761, he met Samuel Johnson, become an important member of his literary circle. He is best known for a comic novel, The Vicar of Wakefield, a poem about urbanization, The Deserted Village, and a stage comedy, She Stoops to Conquer.
Goldsmith, by Joshua Reynolds, ca. 1773
By reputation, Goldsmith was brilliant but insecure, and well-meaning and good-natured, but often foolish or gauche in social situations.
The Play’s the Thing . . .
In many regards, a play is a very different beast than most other forms of literature. What are the primary differences between drama, and (say) novels and poems?
Drama is PERFORMANCE!!!!
As a performance, Drama occurs in three dimensions, and unfolds in real time. The presence of the “author” is usually almost entirely effaced. How did your experience of this play differ from your reading of the play?
Theatre and Society
Westminster, site of the Court The “City,” financial and business hub of London
The 18th-century theatre district, in the fashionable “Town”
Southwark, site of the Elizabethan theatres.
The shift in the locale of the London theatres after 1660 signals a change in the composition of the audience, which in turn had important effects on drama in performance. Given the new proximity to the fashionable “Town” and the Court, what changes might we expect to see?
Covent Garden Theatre, ca. 1808
What might part of the attraction of the theatre for the “fashionable” world of the beau monde be?
New Theatre Designs
The most important innovation was the introduction of a new design for playhouses. Elizabethan theatres had been • Circular • Open air • With all action occurring on a “thrust” stage • With minimal stage props, scenery, or special effects. The new theatres, by contrast, were in many respects far more recognizably “modern” in their design . . .
Reconstruction of the Globe Theatre, ca. 1599
Proscenium arch “Flats” (movable scenery boards)
Back stage (raked)
“The Pit,” the favoured area for fashionable spectators
Scene from the Restoration opera Ariane, performed at Drury Lane Theatre.
New Stages (cont’d)
“Flats” (movable scenery boards) Proscenium arch
Back stage (raked upwards)
Onstage boxes for seating
Modern reconstruction of the stage layout for the Restoration production of Ariane at Drury Lane Theatre.
Using the Stage
The eighteenth-century stage was divisible into two clear parts, defined by the proscenium. Productions of comedy and tragedy tended to use these stage spaces differently. Given that tragedy was usually “about” larger-than-life figures in exotic settings, how might you stage it here? Comedy is “about” people whose status and lifestyle reflects the social nature of the audience. How might you stage comedy?
English Theatre in Decline
English theatre had been in the doldrums since 1737, when the Licensing Act closed down all but two officially-sanctioned theatres, and imposed strict government censorship on all plays. This move had driven many of the best playwrights (most notably the future novelist Henry Fielding) away from the theatre. From an advertisement for “The Golden Rump,” a threatened satirical play of 1737
Sentimentalism on Stage
At the same time, the rise of “sentimentalism” in drama since at least the 1720s emphasized “weeping” over “laughing,” and overt moralizing over the subtle exploration of ideas. Satire was largely neglected in favour of “feel-good” comedies in which unquestionably virtuous people suffered pitiably before triumphing over one-dimensional depictions of wickedness, usually by reforming the...