by Kirk Woodward
[My friend, and frequent ROT guest-blogger, Kirk Woodward sets out in “Henry Fielding’s Theater” to examine the playwriting of the 18th-century English writer, best known as a novelist now, to demonstrate, if not that he’s “the greatest dramatist with the single exception of Shakespeare, produced in England between the Middle Ages and the nineteenth century”—as George Bernard Shaw avers—then that “his plays have [some]thing significant to offer.” Kirk’s not only covering an interesting—and under-addressed—subject in the unfamiliar plays of Fielding, but his approach is fascinating. I can guarantee that even readers who do know Fielding’s theater work (and I do not) will learn something new from Kirk’s treatment.]
Henry Fielding (1707-1754) is celebrated today for his raucous novel Tom Jones (1749), but he is distinguished for much more than that. He was also a respected magistrate in London; he and his brother founded the Bow Street Runners, which are known as London’s first professional police force. And he was also a playwright, at a crucial point in both British history and the history of the British stage. George Bernard Shaw tells the story this way in the Preface to Plays Pleasant and Unpleasant, volume 1 (1898):
In 1737, the greatest dramatist, with the single exception of Shakespeare, produced by England between the Middle Ages and the nineteenth century – Henry Fielding – devoted his genius to the task of exposing and destroying parliamentary corruption, then at its height. Walpole, unable to govern without corruption, promptly gagged the stage by a censorship which is in full force at the present moment . Fielding, driven out of the trade of Moliere and Aristophanes, took to that of Cervantes; and since then the English novel has been one of the glories of literature, whilst the English drama has been its disgrace.
Sir Robert Walpole (1676-1745) was the “prime” or leading minister – a title that first came into use in the early 1700s – from around 1721 (when he became First Lord of the Treasury, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Leader of the House of Commons) to 1742, the longest term any Prime Minister has served. Walpole dominated Parliament in most of this period through oratory, thorough organization, and clever manipulation, and was frequently accused of corrupt practices, particularly by writers who opposed him, like Fielding, John Gay (author of The Beggar’s Opera), Alexander Pope, and Samuel Johnson.
Fielding’s writing tended toward comedy and satire, so it was natural that he would use the stage as an instrument for attacking Walpole. Shaw’s account may be oversimplified; scholarship today is uncertain whether Fielding’s plays were actually the cause of Walpole’s drive to censor the theater, since it appears that Walpole had already begun his campaign to establish the censorship before the two plays of Fielding most often cited as causes, The Historical Register for the Year 1736 and Eurydice Hiss’d (both 1737) were produced. But there is no question that Fielding was a thorn in Walpole’s side; that after 1737 he continued to attack Walpole, for example in his novel The Life and Death of Jonathan Wild, The Great (1743), which implied that Walpole resembled one of the most notorious criminals of the day; and that Fielding continued to write plays after the censorship was established, although they could only be printed, not performed.
But Shaw’s comment is interesting because it also suggests that Fielding was more than simply a satirist – that he was a major playwright, in fact the greatest between Shakespeare and the start of the Twentieth Century. The competition for the title is truthfully not particularly robust. (Some possibilities include Oliver Goldsmith, actually Irish; Robert Browning; W. S. Gilbert of Gilbert and Sullivan fame; Oscar Wilde, also Irish; James M. Barrie; Harley Granville-Barker; and the novelists Arnold Bennett and James Galsworthy. Much of Shaw’s best dramatic work was ahead of him in 1898.) The paucity of outstanding names perhaps proves Shaw’s point; who knows how many potentially great writers didn’t bother to write for the stage because they knew the censorship would keep their plays from ever being performed? (It was finally abolished in 1968.)
If we look at the list of playwrights above and ask whose plays are still performed, the answer does not include Fielding. But there is another way to look at the question of Fielding’s importance as a playwright, and that is to ask whether, apart from his political involvement, his plays have anything significant to offer. I want to try to demonstrate that they do – that they have a coherent outlook on human nature which Fielding embodies in theatrical terms. What we will not find in his plays is depth of characterization, or anything that “touches the heart.” That was not his territory. We classify his outlook as “satirical,” and it is; but it has the merit of being based on a consistent point of view. The evidence is found in the eight plays and fifteen farces that he wrote between 1727 and 1736.
Fielding’s plays may be classified as meta-theater – theater about theater itself. The template he follows is the play The Rehearsal (1671), probably written by several authors and credited to George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham (1628-87). The Rehearsal was itself a piece of meta-theater, a satire of the plays of John Dryden (1631-1700). In the play, a group of actors, authors, friends, and hangers-on, depicted as present at a rehearsal for a play, make comments that are supposedly impromptu, not in the printed text. The device encourages the audience to identify with the actors (who think the play-within-the-play is silly, as in fact it is), and the author, who loves his own work. It is clear in The Rehearsal whom we should admire and whom we should laugh at.
Building on The Rehearsal for the purpose of further intensifying his satire, Fielding complicates this device. In his plays there’s no easy identification with some characters as admirable, some as not. He treats everyone as “suspect” – all the characters in the plays, and the audience, too. This approach in theory presents a difficulty, because theaters depend on audiences for their success; a play has to please the audience or it won’t run. What if the theatrical artist believes – or claims to believe, for purposes of the play – that the audience is evil? As a human being, the artist ought to fight evil, but whether or not the artist eats is determined by the audience itself. To make things more complicated, if society is diseased, then the artist, as a member of society, is diseased as well.
So in Fielding’s plays, such as Historical Register, the satirist-author doesn’t come forward as the enemy of the audience; on the contrary, he is the most civil, most polite, even fawning, even obsequious person imaginable:
MEDLEY. (the playwright) My lord, your most obedient servant; this is a very great and unexpected favour indeed, my lord.
Everyone’s chief concern is to make money:
SOURWIT. I hope, sir, [all the play’s elements] conduce to the main design.
MEDLEY. Yes, Sir, they do.
SOURWIT. Pray, Sir, what is that?
MEDLEY. To divert the town, and bring full houses.
The fact is that the artist has no justifiable position behind his attack on the audience, because by his nature he’s as guilty as anybody else. Likewise for his plays: they have to deny that they have anything to say about us, because we won’t accept their pretentions or their attacks on our own pretentions – unless the attack is disguised. Therefore the plays deny from the start that they have any claims against us; we aren’t being attacked at all, as in this prelude to a satire of women:
MEDLEY. As for the nobler part of the sex, for whom I have the greatest honor, their character can be no better set off than by ridiculing that light, trifling, giddy-headed crew, who are a scandal to their sex, and a curse on ours.
Satire can also be disarmed by being identified in advance, and made fun of:
I would have a humming deal of satire, and I would repeat in every page that courtiers are cheats and don’t pay their debts; physicians, block-heads; soldiers, cowards . . . .
So the situation is that a blunt attack will not succeed, because the audience won’t want to hear it, and the satirist is in no position to lead the attack anyway; a weak or general attack may not be heard and certainly will not change anything. So the question becomes, what is possible for a play to accomplish that can bring about a change in conditions?
Fielding answers this question in a fairly drastic way. He uses the ready-at-hand metaphor of theater, and makes the claim that our actual lives are theatrical – not in the sense that they’re exciting, but in the sense that our being, ourselves, our actual essence, is rhetorical. We are in a real sense, Fielding says, the way we appear to be, whatever that is. We are the way we present ourselves at the moment. If we can be led to understand that fact, Fielding implies, then perhaps it is possible for us to modify our behavior – since we are in fact the way we (the word is appropriate) act.
A look at a few of Fielding’s plays may demonstrate how he works this idea out.
The Historical Register for the Year 1736. We already noted that this play includes an attack on Sir Robert Walpole. It consists of a series of scenes, essentially, showing different groups of people speaking. The play, that is, is “about” speaking. The first scene-within-the-play shows politicians working on foreign policy. Their understanding of the world situation extends exactly as far as their words do:
These mighty preparations of the Turks are certainly designed against some place or other; now, the question is, what place are they designed against? And that is a question which I cannot answer.
The playwright character in the play assures us that one politician does understand; however, since that politician is the wisest, he doesn’t say anything at all.
The second scene shows the country’s women in conversation. Their talk doesn’t fasten on anything of substance; neither do their minds:
FOUR. He’s everything in the world one could wish.
ONE. Almost everything one could wish.
TWO. They say there’s a lady in the city has a child by him.
ALL. Ha, ha, ha!
THREE. Madam, I met a lady in a visit the other day with three.
ALL. All Parinello’s?
THREE. All Parinello’s; all in wax.
ONE. O Gemini! Who makes them? I’ll send and bespeak half a dozen tomorrow morning.
TWO. I’ll have as many as I can cram into a coach with me.
The third scene presents an auction of concepts – Patriotism, Courage, Modesty, and so on – all turned into devices of deception, or in other words to false rhetoric, except for some Interest at Court, which needs no disguise in order to succeed.
In the fourth scene we get to Walpole, presented as Pistol, the empty-headed blank verse-speaking Prime Minister Theatrical:
But, wherefore do I try in vain to number
These glorious hisses, which from age to age
Our family has born triumphant from the stage?
Remarkably, even someone powerful like Walpole appears in the play, not as dangerous, but as absurd. Of course the thought might occur to someone in the audience: what will happen in Walpole’s fifth act?
An Old Man Taught Wisdom (1735). In case we might be tempted to think that the idea that people are their rhetoric is only a clever concept, Fielding in this play gives a concrete example of its reality: the way a person’s occupation can influence that person’s speech, and vice versa. The story of the play is that a father wants to marry his sheltered daughter off to one of his relations. He calls in three suitors: a druggist, a fencing master, and a singing teacher. Each thinks only in terms of his profession and acts according to its ways:
QUAVER. If you had given your daughter a good education, and let her learnt [sic] music, it would have put softer things into her head.
BLISTER. This comes of your contempt of physic. If she had been kept in a diet, with a little gentle bleeding and purging, and vomiting, and blistening, this would never have happened.
WORMWOOD. You should have sent her to town a term or two, and taken lodgings for her near the Temple, that she might have conversed with the young gentlemen of the law, and seen the world.
In case we are tempted to feel that “I can avoid this,” Fielding demonstrates that there are only two choices in the matter: we can adopt a rhetorical style, or we can try not to, and be ignorant and even dangerous, as is the daughter, who gets everything wrong:
LUCY. O, but I would not have you think I love you. I assure you I don’t love you; I have been told I must not tell any man I love him. I don’t love you; indeed I don’t . . . . Hope, indeed! What do you take me for? I’ll assure you! No, I would not give you the least bit of hope, though I was to see you die before my face. – (aside) It is a pure thing to give one’s self airs.
She marries a footman, who turns out to be a good man, but this is only Fielding’s irony: she is saved by a theatrical convention, since she hasn’t developed enough brains to take care of herself. Both the footman and the father accept the radically limited view of humanity that this play suggests. As the footman says:
. . . as I have lived in a great family, I have seen that no one is respected for what he is, but for what he has; the world pays no regard at present to anything but money . . . .
The father, whose plan essentially was to marry the girl to someone with money, also learns that there are risks in knowing about corruption and risks in remaining ignorant of it; his wisdom is that there is no dependable wisdom.
Tumble-Down Dick, or, Phaeton in the Suds (1736). Fielding, then, conceives of human experience as role-playing. Not only do we live lives of rhetoric ourselves; we experience it in art, and art’s rhetoric and our own interact, providing, for example on stage, the living image of what our minds are like. Much of Fielding’s work concerns itself with types of theatrical art, and with what theatrical rhetoric tells us about ourselves. Tumble-Down Dick is Fielding’s equivalent to the major commercial entertainment of today (film, television, Broadway plays). It uses the story of Apollo’s son who tries to drive his father’s chariot and fails. The play’s commentary works in two directions: first, the basic story becomes fancied up beyond belief for the audience’s pleasure; we see Harlequin scenes, a trained dog, dances, the King and Queen of Tragedy, and so on. Secondly, the “extra” fun in the play is of atrocious quality; a lantern represents the sun, the comedy is demeaning and clichéd, the play’s author is named Mr. Machine. The “serious” plot flies by so fast it is hardly noticed:
APOLLO. Thou art so like me, sure you would be mine;
I would be glad if you would stay and dine;
I’ll give my bond, whate’er you ask to grant;
I will by Styx! An oath which break I can’t.
The reason for this, of course, is that the audience requires less care in drama than in “entertainment:”
In tragedies and comedies and such sort of things, the audiences will make great allowances; but they expect more from an entertainment; here, if the least thing is out of order, they never pass it by.
But because the aim of both the producers and the audience is mindlessness, the play has no mind:
2 COUNTRY. S’bud, I sweat as if I had been at a hard day’s work.
1 COUNTRY. O, I’m scorched!
2 COUNTRY. O, I’m burnt!
3 COUNTRY. I’m on fire. (Exeunt crying fire)
NEPTUNE. I am the mighty emperor of the sea.
FUSTAIN. I am glad you tell us so, or else we should have taken you for the emperor of the air.
Mindless “innocent” entertainment is the worst of all; it offers escape, but false rhetoric destroys both the audience’s and the artist’s imagination, as Fielding illustrates in his “pantomime:”
Enter Harlequin in custody; Columbine, poet, etc. The poet makes his complaint to the justice; the justice orders a mittimus [arrest warrant] for Harlequin; Columbine courts the justice to let Harlequin escape; he grows fond of her, but will not comply until she offers him money; he then acquits Harlequin, and commits the poet.
Eurydice (1737) (“as it was damn-d at the Theater-Royal, Drury Lane”). On the surface Eurydice is primarily a take-off on Italian operas and imported opera singers. Orpheo, one of those singers, goes to Hell to bring back his wife:
EURYDICE. How is it possible you could come hither to fetch me back when I was dead, who had so often wished me here while alive?
ORPHEO. Those were only the sudden blasts of passion.
Orpheo is always getting those “blasts,” and whenever he does, he bursts into song. Below the funny digs at Italian opera, though, lies the idea that art comes from something we cannot control. “Sudden blasts” sounds suspiciously like farting or belching. Art comes from irrational springs in ourselves; by extension we ourselves are irrational. The only truly controlled person in the play is Eurydice, and in the play she has no intention of going back with her husband. She tricks Orpheo into turning around to look at her – which ruins his chance of getting her out of Hell – and then becomes all innocence when he accuses her of it. He is once more moved to song, and she uses rhetoric precisely to reverse her real feelings:
ORPHEO. And must we, must we part?
EURYDICE. We must away,
For if you stay,
Indeed ‘twill break my heart.
Your servant, dear,
I downward steer,
You upward to the light;
Take no more leave,
For I must grieve,
’Till you are out of sight.
Hell, in the play, is exactly like Earth, where man and wife cannot stand each other. Shaw says that when we want “the pure emotions of the heart,” we look in the divorce and murder columns. Fielding posits that drama portrays violence and conflict because the human “normal” is a frightening thing.
Incidentally, I indicated above that the play was howled off the stage. Fielding wrote another farce to celebrate the condemnation of Eurydice, called Eurydice Hissed (1737). This play also celebrates the irrational springs of art, by putting the playwright, Pillage, rather than the audience, in a dubious light. The writer attempts to bribe Honestus (the name, representing a straightforward member of the audience, indicates his difficulty) but fails; and he goes out and gets drunk in fine rhetorical style:
PILLAGE. . . . my head begins to swim,
And see Eurydice all pale before me;
Why dost thou haunt me thus? I did not damn thee.
By Jove there never was a better farce.
She beckons me – say – whether – blame the town,
And not thy Pillage – Now my brain’s on fire!
My staggering senses dance – and I am –
Pasquin: A Dramatick Satire on the Times (1736). This highly successful play contains within it the “rehearsal” of two plays, “The Election,” a “comedy,” and “The Life and Death of Common Sense,” a “tragedy.” The first deals with politics, the second with the reason for political and cultural ruin. The two plays confirm each other; politics has a personal source, private life is lived in a public world.
The politicians in “The Election” confront the problem of bribery. They solve it through language:
SIR HARRY. And will you be bribed to sell your country? Where do you think these courtiers get the money they bribe you with but from you yourselves? Do you think a man who will give a bribe won’t take one? . . . . For my part, I would as soon suborn an evidence at an assize as vote at an election.
MAYOR. I do believe you, Sir Harry.
SIR HARRY. Mr. Mayor, I hope you received those three bucks I sent you, and that they were good.
It does not matter what a man says as long as he says it. It does not even matter what a man feels as long as he believes it:
O momma, I have grieved myself to death at the court party’s losing a majority in the house, what would become of us; alas, we should not go to London? Shall we go to London? then I am easy; but if we had staid here, I should have broke my heart for the love of my country.
Politics, in summary, competes with other forms of theater. It consists of making announcements:
. . . you have it now in your power to oblige my lord more than ever; go and return my lord and the colonel as duly elected, and I warrant you I do your business with him yet.
The play’s link to reality is the character of the Mayor, the basically good man without the strength to fight rampant evil, trapped by external corruption and his own ambiguity. He is easy prey for his horror of a wife (she forthrightly encourages her daughter to become a mistress when they reach London), and he takes refuge, again, in slogans:
MRS. MAYOR. Yes, I am too reasonable a woman, and have used gentle methods too long; but I’ll try others.
(Goes to a corner of the stage and takes a stick.)
MAYOR. Nay, then, liberty and property and no excise! (Runs off.)
MRS. MAYOR. I’ll excise you, you villain! (Runs after him.)
In the second play, “The Life and Death of Common Sense,” Queen Common Sense is finally killed by servants of the Queen of Ignorance (Law, Medicine, and the Clergy). Common Sense has virtually no supporters; but she rises again as a ghost, and Ignorance flees to where she will be completely safe, probably in a theater. “Ignorance” is roughly equivalent to undifferentiated erotic drives. Common Sense comes to stand for discrimination of values, hence of a saving humanness:
I have also heard . . .
That men unable to discharge their debts
At a short warning, being sued for them
Have, with both power and will their debts to pay,
Lain all their lives in prison for their costs.
LAW. That may perhaps be some poor person’s case,
Too mean to entertain your royal ear.
COMMON SENSE. My lord, while I am queen I shall not think
One man too mean, or poor to be redressed . . . .
But common sense is no panacea either:
COMMON SENSE. And can my subjects then complain of wrong?
Base and ungrateful? What is their complaint?
IGNORANCE. They say you do impose a tax of thought
Upon their minds, which they’re too weak to bear.
Ignorance is not simply blissful freedom from worries. It involves giving up responsibilities and accepting inhuman behavior to others. Common Sense represents the attempt to control and order instincts of dullness (not to eliminate them, which is impossible), but Ignorance tries to repress consciousness, even the quality of humanness. It cannot succeed without causing guilt, which is why the ghost of Common Sense returns when she is killed. The one who chooses Ignorance is allowed to become the thing he chooses:
Beat a retreat, the day is now our own.
The powers of Common Sense are all destroyed;
Those that remain are fled away with her.
The theater is a servant to this human experience, so Harlequin reappears to offer himself to Queen Ignorance. Tragedy and Comedy die with Common Sense; all art is corrupted by Ignorance’s conquest. The playwright is at least as much to blame as anyone else:
POET. I have been damn’d
Because I was your foe, and yet I still
Courted your friendship with my utmost art.
COMMON SENSE. Fool, thou were damned because thou didst pretend
Thyself my friend . . .
The result is that human beings become vile creatures, less than human. Harlequin presents to Ignorance:
Two dogs that walk on their hind legs only, and personate human creatures so well, they might be mistaken for them.
A human creature that personates a dog so well that he might also be taken for one.
Two human cats.
A most curious set of puppies.
A pair of pigeons.
A set of rope dancers and tumblers from Sadler’s-Wells.
* * * *
I am not certain that this look at Fielding’s plays confirms Shaw’s opinion of his rank as a playwright; but I hope it is clear that Fielding’s plays do not spring simply from indignation over issues, but from a conception of human nature as role playing, often without knowledge and control and therefore dangerous. Only a small amount of freedom comes from being aware of this situation; as the Beatles put it in their 1967 song “Penny Lane”:
. . . though she feels as if she’s in a play,
She is anyway.
But something worse happens to the one who tries to repress this awareness; he pays a terrible price for not knowing the terrible price. Fielding looks for modest results that make life more decent – for small gains, mostly, in the theater:
Our author then in jest throughout the play,
Now begs a serious word or two to say.
Banish all childish entertainment hence;
Let all that boast your favour have pretense,
If not to sparkling wit, at least to sense. (Pasquin)
[Kudos to Kirk for getting the Beatles into a piece on an 18th-century playwright. (I wonder if that's a first.) What's next—“The Beatles and Shakespeare”? How about “Molière and the Fab Four”?
[The contrast Kirk observes between using a “rhetorical style” and being “ignorant and even dangerous” sounds like a capsulization of the differences between the rest of the Republican presidential candidates (rhetorically “on topic” and prepped) and Trump (“ignorant and dangerous”)—MHO, of course. (“I had Trump in mind,” Kirk wrote me when I raised this with him.) And the designation of the playwright in Historical Register as wise but silent strikes me as the mirror image of Chance the Gardener, Peter Sellers’s character in Being There. He was thought wise because he didn't say much—but he was really a moron who didn't speak because he just didn’t understand what was going on!
[I asked Kirk if any of Fielding’s plays are stageable today, even as Kirk notes, the writer’s not on anyone’s list of playwrights whose work is still performed—but could he be? (I was thinking specifically of Pasquin, based on Kirk’s description. The points seem valid today, especially during an election year.) While most forgotten and neglected plays are that way for the simple reason that they’re just not very good, sometimes they’ve just been overlooked. Kirk replied, “I agree, Pasquin is the one I’m most interested in for possible production,” after which he decided to add that statement in the article. I’m curious enough now that if Kirk or someone else decides to produce a Fielding play when I’m nearby, I’ll try to go see it.]