She Stoops to Conquer – A Deliberate Reaction against Sentimental Comedy

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Before Goldsmith and Sheridan appeared on the scene there had been a decay of true comedy and sentimentalisation was growing up. Pity was creeping into the world of intellectual laughter. The Comedy of Manners had passed through a heyday of extraordinary brilliance and licentiousness, with the Restoration dramatists. But after the Stuarts, the standard of public decency rose higher, and Jeremy Collier’s “A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of English Stage” chastised dramatists into reckless moods.

The main characteristics of the sentimental comedy are summed up by Nicoll thus: “It is evident that comedy has departed far from its original home. In place of laughter, tears; in place of intrigue, melodramatic and distressing situations; in place of rogues and gallants and witty damsels, pathetic heroines and serious lovers and honest servants – this is what we discover in the typical sentimental drama of the eighteenth century. We are in the world of ‘drama’ not of comedy; in the realm of the emotions, not of intellect.” It also banished eminently the drama of middle and upper class society with conversations and scenery to match.

Mainly Goldsmith and Sheridan were the dramatists who stemmed the torrent of a weeping age and taught men how to laugh once more. In 1759, Goldsmith attacked the sentimental comedy of the day in “The Present State of Polite Learning”. Nine years later, he put his theories into practice in Good Natured Man. In his preface to it, he confessed he was “strongly in favour of the poets of the last age (the age of Shakespeare) and strove to imitate them.” To delineate character from has been his principal aim. He hoped that “too much refinement will not banish humour and character from ours, as it has already been done from French theatre.” This play was a new departure because it dealt with ‘low’ characters. Nearly all the plays of the period treated of the foibles of fashion. Goldsmith chose the humours and characters of ordinary persons. Comedy had to be ‘genteel’ and with that object, had frequently to shun ‘nature’; against this shunning and falsification, Goldsmith stood out. He brought back not the wit of Congreve but the spirit of Shakespeare.

Though Goldsmith wrote She Stoops to Conquer in order to fill his extravagant purse, he was also determined to vindicate his conception of the comic muse. In his “Essay on Sentimental Comedy” he brings forward the strange contention that tragedy should deal with the sufferings of the nobly-born, while comedy should confine itself to the frailties and weaknesses of the commonalty. He hated sentimental comedy because it portrayed the sufferings of the commonalty. Added to this, the sentiments expressed, and the language used was an imitation of the thought and speech of the aristocracy. So Goldsmith made up his mind to be natural in his treatment although his Good Natured Man had been condemned by critics as ‘low’.

The play reveals a peculiar fusion of powers. It is not the Comedy of Manners, yet it clearly owes part of its inspiration to that school of which Farquhar was one of the last true representatives. In atmosphere it approaches more closely to Shakespeare’s romantic comedy. There is the sly smile, the concealed wit, the emotional and sincere kindness which marks out the comedies of Shakespeare. Tony Lumpkin is related to Falstaff. He is a fool and yet a wit; his follies make us laugh at him but his clever tricks cause him to be the source of laughter in other men. The play abounds in the element of farce.

The play is built upon the foundation of human nature as it is, and its characterisation is sound, being both original and recognisably true to life. In structure, the play has one central story, easily followed and full of dramatic opportunity. In every scene the geniality of the author is apparent, warming the audience/reader into friendliness towards him as well as his stage-characters. The keynote of the whole play is its naturalness, as opposed to the artificial sentiments of the sentimental comedy. Macaulay observes, “The mirth of The Good Natured Man is sober when compared with the rich drollery of She Stoops to Conquer, which is, in truth, an incomparable farce in five Acts. Pit, boxes, and galleries were roaring with laughter. If any bigoted admirer of Kelly and Cumberland ventured to hiss or groan, he was speedily silenced by a general cry of “Turn him out,” or “Throw him over’ . . .”