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Henry Fielding's Early Career

Public Perception of Henry Fielding--Temple Beau

Title page of The Temple Beau, Fielding's first success on the stage

Henry Fielding published his first work, a pair of poems now known only through advertisements, in 1727, and his first play came four months later. 

Love in Several Masques was a comedy performed at Drury Lane in 1728, where it closed after only four nights due to stiff competition from the first run of John Gay’s wildly popular The Beggar’s Opera (Hume 29).

Fielding left London, studying literature on the continent, before returning in attempt to produce several plays. Don Quixote in England was rejected by the theaters in England, and was not seen again until it was revised and staged in 1734, while The Temple Beau was rejected by Drury Lane, forcing Fielding to look elsewhere. He presented the play to Goodman’s Fields, where it opened in January 1730 (Hume 49). Although this play was “well received,” it was not until March 1730 that Fielding would achieve true popular success with The Author’s Farce (DLB).

The author's farce;  with a puppet-show, call'd The pleasures of the town. As acted at the Theatre Royal in Drury-Lane. Written by Henry Fielding, esq

Title page of the 1750 edition of The Author's Farce, found in the Axson Archive

The Author’s Farce tells the story of an impoverished London playwright, Luckless, who attempts to have his play performed in a theater.

The play elucidates the frustrations of an aspiring author, detailing his attempts to break through the bureaucracy standing between his art and success, and the only catharsis achieved is when Luckless avoids the problem of playwriting entirely and is crowned King of Bantam. The influences of Fielding’s early experiences with the London theater are clear in the play, as the corrupt theater managers Marplay and Sparkish caricaturize of the leading managers of Drury Lane, Colley Cibber and Robert Wilks, who had earlier rejected Fielding’s Don Quixote in England and The Temple Beau (DLB). 

First performed on March 30 at the Little Haymarket Theatre, The Author's Farce enjoyed a lengthy streak of performances and positive critical reception throughout 1730. Performances ran roughly bi-weekly from its initial launch until July 3 of that year, including two performances in which the Prince of Wales was present, an honor accorded only to the most well-received plays of the time, and the play continued to garner popular interest throughout 1731 (Schneider).

The tragedy of tragedies, or, the life and death of Tom Thumb the Great. As it is acted at the theatre in the Hay-Market. With the annotations of H. Scriblerus Secundus [pseud.]

Title page of The Tragedy of Tragedies, or, The Life and Death of Tom Thumb the Great, found in the Axson Archive

One month after its release, Fielding issued as an afterpiece to the play a burlesque entitled Tom Thumb: A Tragedy

Enormously well-received, Tom Thumb was Fielding’s second major success, and was often paired with The Author's Farce as a companion piece, with each play contributing to the success of the other through 1730 and 1731. Within a year of its release, Fielding expanded Tom Thumb into a three act main piece, renaming it The Tragedy of Tragedies or The Life and Death of Tom Thumb the Great, though the afterpiece remained popular and continued to be played following The Author’s Farce and others, including Fielding’s third success, Rape Upon Rape (Schneider). 

Tom Thumb is Fielding’s retelling of the classic English fairy tale of the miniature figure who vanquished the giants. It burlesques the genre of heroic drama through its ridiculous characters and contrived events, including the death of the title character by ingestion by a cow and the suicide of King Arthur after the death of every other character on the stage. 

The overwhelming initial popularity of The Author’s Farce and Tom Thumb faded after the 1731 season, with only one performance of The Author’s Farce and eleven performances of Tom Thumb in the 1732 season, likely due to Fielding’s transition from the Haymarket Theater to the more prestigious Drury Lane. Though both plays burlesque and ridicule the London theater, their widespread and popular reception by the audiences of London served as Fielding’s ticket into this world, giving him the resources to produce his future plays. These plays would also be instrumental in the development of Fielding’s distinct character of farce that would act as a framework for many of his other major works throughout the rest of his career.