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Introduction to Theatre Online Course

Dr. Eric W. Trumbull, Professor, Theatre/Speech

This page last modified: November 3, 2004

Eighteenth Century Theatre


Resource: Wilson/Goldfarb, Chapter 13 (cont.)

Objectives for this lesson:

Students will examine:



Serious Drama in the 18th Century

Other 18th Century Forms

Staging in the 18th Century



Restoration comedy, an aristocratic and seemingly amoral form of theatre, declined, at least in part because of the rise of a conservative Protestant (Puritan) middle class.

Such works as Jeremy Collier’s 1698 A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage helped lead popular sentiment against the Restoration theatre.

During the 1700’s, the concept of Rationalism (The Age of Reason), faith in reason, began to take over from faith in God – Rationalism begins to lead away from the strict rules of Neoclassicism. This comes from a faith in man.

Part of this led to the movement of Sentimentalism in the theatre. – asserted that each person was essentially good.

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Sentimentalism: characterized by an over-emphasis on arousing sympathetic responses to misfortune.

Begins in England, 1690’s to 1730’s.

Resulted in Sentimental Comedies / tearful comedies: more conservative, middle-class, sentimental, moralistic.

Sir Richard Steele (1672-1729) – sought to arouse noble sentiments…wanted a "pleasure too exquisite for laughter."

The Conscious Lovers (1722) – sentimental comedy with protagonists drawn from the middle class. The heroine, Indiana, after many trials, is discovered to be the daughter of a rich merchant – so she can marry, and thus a happy resolution. Servants have some funny scenes.

The 18th century view held that people are good; their instincts let them retain goodness. People could retain virtue by appealing to virtuous human feelings.

Oliver Goldsmith (1731-1774) -- wrote "laughing comedies" – sentimental comedies intended to make people laugh ??

She Stoops to Conquer (1773) – mistaken identities, benign trickery, keep two lovers apart.

Richard SheridanThe Rivals (1775 – Mrs. Malaprop was a character).

School for Scandal (1777)

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Serious Drama in the 18th Century:

Joseph Addison (1672-1719) – Cato (1713) is considered a masterpiece.

Heroic Tragedy:

Written in "heroic verse," which used "couplets," verses of iambic pentameter that are rhymed; it was an attempt to reproduce the French "Alexandrine" verse, which used 12 syllables per line and has no equivalent in English.

Dealt with conflicts between love and honor or duty, contained violent action, were melodramatic (the heroes were flawless and the heroines chaste).

These eventually declined in public favor – they were easily ridiculed and parodied.

Became replaced with more Neoclassical plays, such as:

John Dryden (1631-1700) – All for Lovea reworking of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, with neoclassical ideals.

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Other 18th Century Forms:

Ballad Opera – sections of dialog alternating with lyrics set to popular tunes.

John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728) satirized British politics, using Georg Frederick Handel’s Messiah and other tunes,

A precursor to musical comedy.

Farce was also popular. Henry Fielding was popular in the 1730’s.

Pantomimes – became popular by 1715 – combined dancing, mime (silent mimicry), done to music, with elaborate scenery and special effects – done as an afterpiece after plays. They combined commedia, farce, mythology.

The Harlequin came from these pantomimes – with his magic wand, the scenery would change. Primarily visual and aural entertainment. Because the scenery was commissioned, there was often innovative scenery.

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Staging in the 18th Century Theatre

Generally Italianate, but English theatres used a forestage – the apron.

Two doors were in the proscenium opening on to the apron.

Most of the acting was done on the forestage.

The apron had been as large as the stage space, but by 1750, it was back to being as small as in Italy and France.

Theatres increased in size: from seating 650 people during the Restoration to 1500 people by 1750.

The stage jutted out into the pit, there were still galleries and boxes (private galleries).

Grooves were installed in the rakes stages. Usually stock sets were used, lit by candle-light, costumes were elaborate and contemporary.


Most Revolutionary Change!!:

Women on stage!

Acting companies used women for all female parts except witched and old women.

It was common for "lines of business" to emerge: the kind of role one would play and seldom stray from. Many companies used "possession of parts": an agreement that when an actor joins a company he "owns" a particular role.

This led to traditionalism and conservatism.

Vocal power and versatility seemed to be essential.

"Playing for points" was common: getting applause and doing an encore after particular speeches; as you can imagine, this wasn’t very realistic.

Some acting companies shared salaries, playing "benefits" to earn up to a year’s salary (the opposite of what a "benefit" is today).

The "repertory" system was common: rotating a large number of plays.

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You can take short study quizzes based on textbook materials by going to the Student Online Learning Center page for our textbook...


The Next Section is Romanticism.



This page last modified: November 3, 2004