drama, Western

Eighteenth-Century Drama

The influence of Restoration comedy can be seen in the 18th cent. in the plays of Oliver Goldsmith and Richard Brinsley Sheridan. This century also ushered in the middle-class or domestic drama, which treated the problems of ordinary people. George Lillo's London Merchant; or, The History of George Barnwell (1731), is an important example of this type of play because it brought the bourgeois tragic hero to the English stage.

Such playwrights as Sir Richard Steele and Colley Cibber in England and Marivaux in France contributed to the development of the genteel, sentimental comedy. While the political satire in the plays of Henry Fielding and in John Gay's Beggar's Opera (1728) seemed to offer a more interesting potential than the sentiment of Cibber, this line of development was cut off by the Licensing Act of 1737, which required government approval before a play could be produced. The Italian Carlo Goldoni, who wrote realistic comedies with fairly sophisticated characterizations, also tended toward middle-class moralizing. His contemporary, Count Carlo Gozzi, was more ironic and remained faithful to the spirit of the commedia dell'arte.

Prior to the surge of German romanticism in the late 18th cent., two playwrights stood apart from the trend toward sentimental bourgeois realism. Voltaire tried to revive classical models and introduced exotic Eastern settings, although his tragedies tend to be more philosophical than dramatic. Similarly, the Italian Count Vittorio Alfieri sought to restore the spirit of the ancients to his drama, but the attempt was vitiated by his chauvinism.

The Sturm und Drang in Germany represented a romantic reaction against French neoclassicism and was supported by an upsurge of German interest in Shakespeare, who was viewed at the time as the greatest of the romantics. Gotthold Lessing, Friedrich von Schiller, and Goethe were the principal figures of this movement, but the plays produced by the three are frequently marred by sentimentality and too heavy a burden of philosophical ideas.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

See more Encyclopedia articles on: Theater