Disciplining Satire: The Censorship of Satiric Comedy on the Eighteenth Century London Stage

Caywood, Cynthia L

Kinservik, Matthew J. 2002. Disciplining Satire: The Censorship of Satiric Comedy on the Eighteenth Century London Stage. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press. $38.50 hc. 301 pp.

I recently saw a production of April De Angelis’s new play A Laughing Matter at the Royal National Theatre. It merrily dramatizes the choice between financial concerns and artistic instinct that David Garrick faced as he debated whether or not to produce Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer. De Angelis’s play chronicles the hazards of eighteenth-century theatrical life, as actors, writers, and managers navigated the treacherous shoals of fickle public taste, censorship, personal ambition and aesthetic sensibilities.

Matthew J. Kinservik’s recent study of the eighteenth-century stage is a painstakingly researched examination of some of the same issues. Professor Kinservik sets out to study without prejudice the effects of the 1737 Licensing Act upon the production of satiric comedy. Unlike some scholars, such as L.W. Conolly or Calhoun Winton, who argue that the act largely undermined dramatic satire, Kinservik contends that rather than punishing playwrights or prohibiting plays, the Lord Chamberlain’s office sought to help plays to the stage. In so doing, it encouraged a public and artistic taste for a particular kind of satiric comedy, characterized by an equal emphasis on ridicule and moral reform, which Kinservik labels as “sympathetic satire”.

His first chapter examines the production of satiric comedy in the years immediately following Jeremy Collier’s Short View of the Immorality, and Profaneness of the English Stage (1698). He offers a helpful analysis of what the term “satire” meant to an early eighteenth-century writer or theorist, posing a stern challenge to other theatre historians who need to “liberate ‘satire’ from [their] reductive opposition to ‘comedy’ and to ‘sentiment’ that continues to characterize satire theory.” (2002, 21-22). Doing so allows for a more accurate appraisal of the marriage between moralizing reform and satiric energy that characterized many successful plays of the early eighteenth-century stage.

The second chapter takes up the 1730’s, which witnessed a revival of topical, punitive satire (“Aristophanic” in Kinservik’s schema). When studied contextually, this kind of play seems an anomaly. In his careful chronicle of Henry Fielding’s development, Kinservik shows how he began as a sympathetic satirist but eventually responded to the new satiric possibilities modeled by John Gay’s The Beggar s Opera. His work grew increasingly topical, partisan, and representational, finally attracting the hostility of Sir Robert Walpole’s ministry. But the argument that the government instituted the Act to put a stop to Fielding’s work, as Martin Battestin has suggested, is too simple and reductive a perspective.

Chapter three establishes the immediate effects of the Licensing Act, focusing on both its prohibitive and productive effects. Most illuminating is Kinservik’s examination of the relationship between the act and the changes it promoted or created in the eighteenth-century stage. Included in his evaluation are the dominance of the actor, the resurgence of older texts, Shakespeare’s popularity, and a greater interest amongst playwrights in character analysis than in plot.

I was particularly engaged by chapters four and five, in which he contrasts the satires written and acted in by Samuel Foote and Charles Macklin, respectively. Weaving together period gossip and biography with careful research, Kinservik tells a compelling story of two talented and fascinating theatre artists who capitalized on the growing cult of the actor to advance their own careers. In so doing he carefully re-envisions their respective places in the history of stage satire. Despite Foote’s reputation as a dangerous satirist, unafraid of either the censors or those he ridiculed, Kinservik argues that Foote was not the English Aristophanes, as he and others have claimed, but rather a self-promoter who “effectively performed that identity.” (2002, 143) The brilliant mimicry he wrote into his plays was only faintly connected to his satiric targets. Rather, his satire, especially early on, is “characterized less by the daring use of mimicry than by the exposure and punishment of entirely fictional characters who in some way represent a threat to England.” (145). Foote’s work was largely apolitical, conventional, and safe. By contrast, the irascible Macklin managed to produce serious, topical, moral satire, yet, with the notable exception of The Man of the World, kept within the boundaries set by the Lord Chamberlain. Kinservik credits Macklin with incorporating “his subjective approach to dramatic character into his play-writing.” (172) and taking up as his topics important social problems, thus producing works that Kinservik compares to George Bernard Shaw’s. Perhaps the question left unanswered is, given this complexity, why then are his plays not performed today?

Kinservik includes in his appendix the unfinished manuscript of Macklin, which is a rather fascinating study of an actor and playwright at work. It is a collection of Macklin’s ideas for possible plots, bits of dialogue, comments on thematic concerns and character sketches. The latter prove to be the most interesting, as Macklin’s experience as actor shapes his probing explorations of his characters’ obstacles, motivation and goals. In his assessment of the manuscript, Kinservik details well his argument that Macklin’s originality rests in his shift of focus from “external political and social vices to internal character psychology.” (2002, 203). Including the manuscript proves to be a fitting conclusion to a text that makes a fine, well-written, and carefully balanced addition to eighteenth-century theatre studies.

Cynthia L. Caywood

University of San Diego

Copyright West Chester University Winter 2004

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved

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