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Critical Backlash

The Covent-Garden tragedy : As it is acted at the Theatre-Royal in Drury-Lane. By His Majesty's servants

The title page for The Covent-Garden Tragedy, found in the Axson Archive

Though Henry Fielding enjoyed positive critical reception immediately following The Author’s Farce, his release of The Covent-Garden Tragedy in 1732 sparked a protracted dispute with the media. 

The Covent-Garden Tragedy, which is Fielding’s attempt to satirize tragedy, details the romantic pursuits of two prostitutes, Stormandra and Kissinda. The play was an enormous flop due to its perceived bawdiness and indecency, and audiences were disgusted by the scenes set in a brothel. 

Though The Index to the London Stage lists five performances during its opening year, The Covent-Garden Tragedy was all but shunned from the stage after its first performance. The Daily Post subsequently published its commentary on the piece, remarking that “The Covent-Garden Tragedy will be Acted no more, both the Author and the Actors being unwilling to continue any Piece contrary to the Opinion of the Town.”

The critical firestorm surrounding Fielding in 1732 began in March, when ‘Dramaticus’ ridiculed The Modern Husband in the Grub-Street Journal (Hume 126).

After The Covent-Garden Tragedy opened (and closed) in June, Fielding’s opponents saw their opening when the Grub-Street Journal author ‘Prosaicus’ viciously attacked the piece on the 8th of June. A week later, ‘Dramaticus’ did the same (Hume 139).

The Covent-Garden tragedy: As it is acted at the Theatre-Royal in Drury-Lane. By His Majesty's servants

Scenes from The Covent-Garden Tragedy; Note the handwritten stage directions found in the Axson Archive's copy

On the 21st of June the Daily Post published a letter from ‘Mr. Hint’—thought to be Fielding, Theophilus Cibber, or the two of them working in tandem—demanding that the critics account for their insults. On the 24th, The Covent-Garden Tragedy was published, and with it Fielding’s infamous Prolegomena which mocked his detractors profusely. In the June Comedian, Thomas Cooke answered Dramaticus’ March article, half-heartedly defending The Modern Husband (Hume 139).

Fielding’s detractors responded with gusto. In the June 29th Grub-Street Journal, ‘A.B,’ Prosaicus, and Dramaticus scorned Hint’s article, with the last snidely ridiculing Fielding’s most recent work, The Mock Doctor, as “miserable stuff.”

Throughout the month of July and two more issues of the Grub-Street Journal, Dramaticus attacked Cooke’s June defense of The Modern Husband, ‘Miso-cleros’ ripped into The Old Debauchees—with numerous citations for Hint’s benefit—and ‘Publicus’ blasted The Old DebaucheesThe Covent-Garden Tragedy, and The Mock Doctor (Hume 140).

Grub-Street Journal

The Grub-Street Journal containing Prosaicus' initial, biting response to The Covent-Garden Tragedy

On the 31st of July, the Daily Courant published a defense of The Modern Husband, and the Daily Post published a lengthy letter from ‘Philalethes’ (thought to be Fielding himself) against the last of the July volleys from Publicus (Hume 140).

In August, four more articles brought fresh assaults upon Fielding and his work. In the first article, Dramaticus denounced The Modern Husband in response to the Daily Courant’s piece. In the second, ‘Bavius’ himself retorted against Philalethes’ Daily Post letter, and in the third he defended his paper against the accusations of Fielding’s Prolegomena. By the fourth week of August, Prosaicus had returned to insult The Old Debauchees (Hume 140).

Although no response from Fielding was forthcoming, Bavius undertook a line-by-line critique of the Philalethes letter in the Grub-Street Journal of September 10th, with the explicit goal of ending hostilities by a decisive rhetorical victory.

Indeed, this controversy ended here, as Fielding ceased to respond to the Grub-Street Journal and his critics for the time being (Hume 141).