Playwrights

Playwrights

Playwrights during this period comprised a diverse set of men and some women writing in various genres. This group emerged directly from the previous generation of playwrights, who were the first set of playwrights of the Restoration period. Many developments led to unique roles of playwrights in the system. Colley Cibber, for example, not only wrote plays but also authored and acted parts for himself while simultaneously part-managing the theater.

This period also saw the rise of criticism and new genres as a result of it. The previous generation of playwrights - including John Dryden and William Wycherley - came to be considered by many critics as excessively immoral, and many playwrights moved to sentimental comedy as a result. Not all conformed though; some such as George Farquhar continued in the old style, while others like Congreve stopped writing for the stage. Heroic drama also made a sudden comeback after it had been largely absent for many years with plays such as Thomas Southerne's Oroonoko and Mary Pix's Ibrahim.

Another unique dynamic playwrights in this period enjoyed was the competition between the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane and Lincoln's Inn Fields Theatre. Because of the rivalry, playwrights could move from one theater house to another as they liked, which was helpful because it allowed playwrights flexibility in choosing suitable actors and actresses for their character roles. Playwrights also communicated directly with audiences and responded to criticism through prologues and epilogues. Overall, playwrights in London held a complex relationship with theater houses, actors, critics, and audiences, changing to support the public's interests while holding their own ground as well.


Colley Cibber
William Congreve
George Farquhar
Mary Pix
John Vanbrugh

A comparison of Cibber cast lists

Cast lists of Cibber's adaptation (below) of Dryden's Marriage a la mode (above) and the original play. As can be seen in the shortened cast list of The Comical Lovers; or Marriage a la mode, Cibber often got rid of characters he considered unnecessary to simplify the plot.

Colley Cibber

Cibber wrote plays that he thought will both garner popular success and promote him as an actor and playwright.

His first play, Love's Last Shift (1696), pampered both those who wanted "the crispness of restoration comedy" and those who wanted "bourgeois moral sentiments" to guide the corrupted audience. Cibber also “wrote himself into the play” by creating and acting the fop character of “Sir Novelty Fashion.” The play was a success, establishing Cibber as a successful comedian and an able playwright who knew how to accommodate to a variety of audience.

Once he established himself as a playwright and actor, Cibber collaborated with other playwrights in producing adaptations. Of the twenty-five plays attributed to him, ten were adaptations from Dryden, Corneille, Fletcher, Shakespeare, and Molière.

Cibber drew the attention of the town by giving humorous spins and removing “ambiguities of poetry” from serious, complex works like Shakespeare’s Richard III.

The Oxford National Dictionary of National Biography describes his adaptation methods as follows:

“His method, especially in his early plays, was simple: he kept all the theatrical fun of the sexual intrigues and wit of the plots of his Restoration predecessors, excised the grosser of their verbal sallies and innuendos, and made sure that the reprobates were brought to reform, retribution, and redemption at the hands of a good woman in the last act of the play.”

In producing adaptations in such manner, Cibber must have been playing it safe. Made advisor to the manager of Drury Lane in 1701, Cibber must have been under pressure to produce morally acceptable yet popular plays.

Portrait of William Congreve

William Congreve

William Congreve

In 1689, still “very much a Boy,” William Congreve wrote a draft of his first play The Old Batchelor. The Drury Lane Theater produced The Old Batchelor for the first time in March 1693. It was an immediate success, running distinctly long and featuring many well-known actors. Before the end of the month, the published edition had been reprinted twice. Therefore, when Congreve's second play, The Double Dealer, failed to garner the same enthusiasm as the first when it premiered around November 1693, Congreve was disappointed.

In 1695, the United Theater at Drury Lane split over a major dispute, and many leading actors - led by Thomas Betterton - left to form the Lincoln Inn's Fields Theatre. Congreve's latest play Love for Love had already been accepted at Drury Lane prior to the split, but Congreve had not yet signed the contract. As a result, he was able to move its production to the new theater. Love for Love thus became the first play to be produced at Lincoln's Inn Fields, and it was a tremendous success, earning Congreve a healthy profit and image. Love for Love was soon followed by Congreve's first and only tragedy. Lincoln Inn's Fields premiered The Mourning Bride in February 1697, and it, too, was a major success. 

Congreve's crisis came in the form of Jeremy Collier, a bishop who was a vocal critic of the London theater. Collier wrote A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage in 1698, and among other playwrights, he specifically targeted Congreve. Collier argued that the English theater since the Restoration had been overly immoral and encouraged a return to more moral drama. Collier was not alone in his concern; it was a common theme in many critics at the time and an attitude that led to the rise of sentimental comedy. Congreve responded to Collier in July 1698 with his Amendments of Mr. Collier's False and Imperfect Citations, and in 1700 he published yet another comedy, The Way of the World. But The Way of the World received a mixed response and eventually turned out to be Congreve's last major theatrical work. 

Congreve represents the significant influence critics had on the theater world. Even though almost all of his plays were quite successful, Congreve stopped writing plays soon after the Collier controversy, demonstrating the strong effect the backlash had on him. Of course, the controversy was not the only factor in leading Congreve to stop, but it certainly played a major part in ending his short-lived career as a playwright.

Portrait of George Farquhar

George Farquhar

George Farquhar

Before the end of the 17th century, 20-year-old Irish-born George Farquhar made his way to London at the suggestion of the man who would be his life-long friend and favored leading actor, Robert Wilks. Once there, Farquhar debuted his first play Love and a Bottle in December 1698, and he released a short novella entitled The Adventures of Covent Garden. Around this time, Farquhar fell ill with a recurring sickness that would plague him throughout his short life.

In 1699, Farquhar became an overnight sensation with the debut of his The Constant Couple, making the 21-year-old the most talked about playwright of the season. A slew of publications followed, including the sequel to Constant entitled Sir Harry Wildair, several prologues and epilogues for other plays, a collection of letters and poems entitled Love and Business, and the controversial treatise that both marked the change in the theater climate and a shift within Farquhar’s own writing – Discourse upon Comedy.

Written as a response to Jeremy Collier’s Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the Stage, which lambasted traditional laughter comedy, Farquhar’s Discourse criticized the rising popularity of “sentimental” or “moral” comedies. In his mind, these tear-provoking plays that aimed to teach morality to audiences were both anachronistic and dull. Insulted critics assailed his next comedy, The Inconstant, but Farquhar shortly thereafter debuted another play entitled The Twin-Rivals, which he wrote in a mock-sentimental style in an attempt to disgrace the budding genre. 

Discouraged by his recent plays’ mediocre reception, Farquhar took a three-year break from writing, in which he married, fought in the army, and lost his lieutenancy in an attempt to gain a captain’s commission. Though he returned to London disheartened, Farquhar proceeded to write two of his best and most popular comedies: 1706’s The Recruiting Officer and 1707’s The Beaux’ Stratagem.

Farquhar was now a success and at the height of his career, but shortly after the debut of Stratagem, he succumbed to illness and died at the age of 30. With him died his fight of wit against the overwhelming surge of morality in the theater, but his example set the stage for the resurgence of laughter-based comedy later in the 18th century.

Mary Pix, portrait
Mary Pix

Mary Pix

Despite receiving significant acclaim from later critics, Mary Pix was considered only mediocre during her lifetime. Still, she was a major female playwright of the period, producing perhaps a dozen published works between 1696 and 1706.

Pix received moderate success with most of her plays. Two of her works, Ibrahim, the Thirteenth Emperour of the Turks and The Spanish Wives, continued to be revived into the eighteenth century. Many of her works feature similar characters, often a weak woman abused by men. There does seem to be a strong focus on women in many of Pix's plays.

One specific incident with Mary Pix represents the complex relationship among playwrights, actors, and theater houses. Pix initially had her plays produced at Drury Lane. In 1697, however, she switched to Lincoln's Inn Fields Theatre and remained with Lincoln's Inn Fields for the rest of her life.

Probably the reason for her switch was a conflict with a leading actor at Drury Lane, George Powell. Powell plagiarized Pix's play The Deceiver Deceived and produced his own version as The Imposture Defeated, or, A Trick to Cheat the Devil. Pix was naturally outraged. William Congreve apparently supported Pix in this situation, leading a protest against the production of Powell's version. When Congreve's efforts failed to have any effect, Pix switched entirely to Lincoln's Inn Fields. A dispute with an actor thus led to a conflict with the theater house, suggesting the complexity of the situation, and the competition that existed allowed any player to switch sides without much trouble.

Portrait of John Vanbrugh

John Vanbrugh

John Vanbrugh

John Vanbrugh had many different pursuits throughout his life, including a career in the marines and in architecture. 

His two most popular plays were The Relapse (1696) and The Provok’d Wife, both comedies.  Both were typical comedies that involved the lives of upper-middle class characters and romance.  Critics like Jeremy Collier attacked Vanbrugh's plays for being decadent, especially with their references to adultery, yet both ended with the characters making the correct, moral choices.  Vanbrugh was also well known for his adaptations because he was a skilled translator.  Examples of his adaptations were Aesop and The Pilgrim, to which he added elements of singing and dancing and rewrote the comedy to make it more appropriate for the current time.

John Vanbrugh also made a name for himself after writing a response to the famous critic Jeremy Collier’s essay Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage