Thursday, October 30, 2014

Rethinking the Restoration and 18th Century

So I literally found this book, Four English Comedies, edited by J.M. Morrell, on the ground while stumbling home from the pub. It was in a box of other discarded books that my drinking companion and I came upon in my neighbourhood , which isn’t really known for its literary tastes. My companion, arguably less tipsy than me, managed to nab an arguably more interesting book out of the pile, but the one that caught my eye did hold an Old World sort of attraction. Too Old perhaps, since this faded Penguin paperback practically disintegrated in my hands as I read it last week, and by the end I had to use Scotch tape to keep its 414 pages together.

But I confess to having a soft spot when it comes to English plays written in or around the 18th century. I took an undergraduate course 20 years ago in this very subject and got to read one of the plays included in this anthology: Ben Jonson’s raunchy satire Volpone. The other three plays included here – The Way of the World, by William Congreve, She Stoops to Conquer, by Oliver Goldsmith, and The School for Scandal, by Richard Brinsley Sheridan – all fit into the mold of what one expects when thinking of drama from this period: garlicky puns, lots of drinking and spouse chasing, and more than one case of mistaken identity.

When I first read the works of the Restoration and 18th century as a 19-year-old undergraduate, I thought that this was a time in English history where man coming to grips with the looming de-individualization of the industrial revolution. I was somewhat obsessed with spotting the self in conflict with the collective, with the gains earned during the Age of Reason being lost to an ever-increasing reliance on emotion and groupfear.

Reading these plays now, 20 years on, I can see something completely different, as one would expect. In each of these four pieces, one can help but sense the era battling with the definition of “transaction,” and how this translates to the very human emotion of love. There are numerous instances in these four plays of one’s heart being something that can be bought, sold, or exchanged, and the anxiety around an unfair transaction (think theft; think marrying someone from outside your class; think, God help us, rape) permeates each of these plays. I suppose it’s to be expected, what with capitalism slowly rising to the fore during this period.

Still, these undercurrents are not as grim as all that. Volpone has always struck me as a play that shares a great kinship with King Lear, and it was more evident this time around how the machinations of dividing up one’s estate can impact the matters of the heart. She Stoops to Conquer and The Way of the World are deeply comic and touching in their emotional transliterations of love. And the gossip detailed in The School For a Scandal seems as relevant to the rumour, ruined reputations and innuendo of the 21st century as it was back then.

So, yes, I enjoyed these plays a great deal, and am glad I plucked this book from the oblivion of that box. Its crumbling pages won’t stand up to another reading, sadly, but they will stand up to some occasional contemplation.

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