“[A] play, which I presume to call original”: Appropriation, creative genius, and eighteenth-century playwriting

Kewes, Paulina

That invention is the first great leading talent of a poet has been a point long since determined, because it is principally owing to that faculty of the mind that he is able to create, and be as it were a MAKER…. But surely there are many other powers of the mind as fully essential to constitute a fine poet, and therefore, in order to give the true character of any author’s abilities, it should seem necessary to come to a right understanding of what is meant by GENIUS, and to analyze and arrange its several qualities. This once adjusted, it might prove no unpleasing task to examine what are the specific qualities of any poet in particular, to point out the talents of which he seems to have the freest command, or in the use of which he seems, as it were, to be left-handed. In this plain fair-dealing way the true and real value of an author will be easily ascertained; whereas in the more confined method of investigation, which establishes, at the outset, one giant-quality, and finding the object of the enquiry deficient in that, immediately proceeds to undervalue him in the whole, there seems to be danger of not trying his cause upon a full and equitable hearing.

-Arthur Murphy, An Essay on the Life and Genius of Henry Fielding, Esq; (1762)1

Arthur Murphy’s sensible exposition of the grounds for assessing literary merit, among which invention is an important but by no means the determining factor, found few candid adherents in late eighteenth-century England. Though most practicing playwrights, like Murphy himself, would have no doubt agreed with the proposition that invention is merely one of several qualities that make a good playwright, they felt compelled outwardly to endorse the doctrine of original genius that was rapidly gaining the status of critical orthodoxy and to reproduce the rhetoric that came with it. “By the 1750’s,” as Walter Jackson Bate has noted, “some of the least original minds of the time were beginning to prate constantly of `originality'” (105). What were the consequences of the near-universal acceptance of originality as a criterion of literary value for the status of plays and playwriting? How did the imperative to produce new and original literary artifacts that could aspire to match the compositions of that quintessential British genius, Shakespeare, tally with the commercial demands of the theatrical marketplace?

Modern scholars look upon the mid- to late eighteenth century as a period of an almost unrelieved dramatic decline.2 They attribute the erosion of dramatic standards to the long-term effects of the Licensing Act of 1737, which confirmed the monopoly of the two London patent companies and for decades stifled the production of new plays. The repertories at Drury Lane and Covent Garden consisted largely of old favorites, both companies catering to the steady increase in audiences by periodically expanding the capacity of their playhouses? Scholars further blame the mediocrity of theatrical offerings upon the widespread adoption of French-derived ideas of correctness and dramatic decorum that led to the appearance of numerous stodgy tragedies,4 and they castigate the playwrights’ determination to supply performance vehicles for star actors to the detriment of the plays’ structural unity.’ The manifestations and causes of the decay of drama as a literary form have been amply documented; what has received far less attention is how authors of all those “bad” plays conceived of themselves and of their work. Did their authorial self-fashionings mimic those of Restoration and early eighteenth-century playwrights, or did they depart from their predecessors’ views and rhetoric of playwriting?


The half-century following the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy in 1660 witnessed a significant shift in conceptions of dramatic authorship. The key manifestation of that shift was the emergence of the notion of literary property.6 Playwrights were increasingly seen as “owners” of their scripts, while indebtedness to earlier texts, particularly plays, was condemned as theft. Charges of plagiarism multiplied as the demand for creative independence and solo composition grew stronger. By the beginning of the eighteenth century, the drama was established as a literary form with serious artistic claims; its cultural stature had solidified. That process led to, and was assisted by, first, the development of dramatic criticism; second, the publication of collected editions of both Renaissance and post– Restoration plays; and, third, the improvement in the economic situation of playwrights, whose literary ambitions found expression in substantial prefatory epistles and accounts of whose lives and works were being written and disseminated with increasing frequency.7 Although Shakespeare was beginning to be accorded an esteem higher than that of Jonson or Beaumont and Fletcher, he was by no means seen as superior to later playwrights such as Dryden, Wycherley, or Congreve. The dramatic canon in the first two decades of the eighteenth century was principally a modern one, with works by post-Restoration playwrights enjoying greater popularity on the stage and on the page than those by their Elizabethan and Jacobean predecessors.

One might have expected these trends-which so powerfully enhanced the position of drama and playwriting by the end of the seventeenth century-to develop and continue. Yet, when we look at the situation a century later, in the 1780s and 90s, we find a very different picture. Many, if not most, of the new and successful plays were now adaptations and translations, not independent compositions. Playwriting no longer possessed the cultural centrality it had attained in the first decade or so of the eighteenth century; its literary pretensions had been virtually abandoned. This regression is surprising. Why did the stature of drama decline so drastically? More specifically, how was that process affected by the changing practice and rhetoric of appropriation?

To understand eighteenth-century conceptions of playwriting, we need to reconstruct the conventions governing the use of sources. We have to investigate the modes of acknowledgement of plays’ textual foundations and to assess the corresponding justifications of literary borrowing, adaptation, and translation. In the Restoration, although occasionally the original author’s name was mentioned in the prologue or epilogue spoken in the theater, the most common form of source acknowledgement was an extended preface outlining the reasons for the revision of the borrowed materials. In the mid-eighteenth century, that convention is altered. The lengthy preface is replaced by a brief, non-descriptive “advertisement,” which offers a bare list of sources without elaborating on their transformation. Such advertisements are prefixed both to singly printed plays as well as to plays included in collections. For example, the text of George Colman the Elder’s comedy The Jealous Wife (1761) in his Dramatick Works of 1777 is preceded by the following Advertisement:

The use that has been made in this comedy of Fielding’s admirable novel of Tom Jones, must be obvious to the most ordinary reader. Some hints have also been taken from the account of Mr. and Mrs. Freeman, in No. 212, and No. 216, of the Spectator; and the short scene of Charles’s intoxication, at the end of the third act, is partly an imitation of the behaviour of Syrus, much in the same circumstances, in the Adelphi of Terence. There are also some traces of the character of The Jealous Wife, in one of the latter papers of the Connoisseur….8

Colman scrupulously documents the hints and sources behind textual minutiae. Similar advertisements are prefixed to plays by David Garrick, Isaac Bickerstaffe, Hannah More, Elizabeth Griffith, Elizabeth Inchbald, Frederick Reynolds, and many others. To illustrate: Garrick confesses that “the hint of Miss in her Teens is taken from … La Parisienne of D’Ancourt”;9 Bickerstaffe admits that his farce The Sultan, or A Peep into the Seraglio “is taken from Marmontel” (3); More acknowledges that her tragedy Percy derives from “The French Drama, founded on the famous old Story of Raoul de Coucy” (sig. A4v); Griffith specifies that “[t]he hint of [The School for Rakes] was taken from a much admired performance of Monsieur Beaumarchais, soled Eugen” (iii); Inchbald declares that in The Widow’s Vow she “is indebted for the Plot of her Piece, and for the Plot only, to L’Heureuse Erreur, a French Comedy of one Act, by M. PATRAT” (sig. A4r); Reynolds states that his operatic drama The Virgin of the Sun “is founded on Marmontel’s Incas, and Kotzebue’s Rolla, or Virgin of the Sun, and forms the first part of the Tragedy called Pizarro” (4).

The only cases where the acknowledgement is more discursive are a few adaptations of native plays by Shakespeare, Jonson, Beaumont and Fletcher, and Wycherley, such as Colman’s version of Philaster (Dramatic Works 3: 3-11); a few renditions of French and German plays into English, such as Inchbald’s immensely popular Lovers’ Vows taken from Kotzebue;10 and the infrequent attempts to transplant Greek drama to England, such as William Mason’s turgid Elfrida, A Dramatic Poem. Written on the Model of The Antient Greek Tragedy.11 By and large, however, the extensive prefatory justification disappears. Playwrights usually admit borrowing directly but make little or no effort to justify it. One reason for-and manifestation of-this state of affairs is the reduction of claims to authorship and literary stature made by contemporary dramatists.

Where Restoration playwrights asserted authorship in their plays based on novels, romances, and history, as well as their adaptations of foreign and native drama, their eighteenth-century successors are a lot more cautious and modest. In their advertisements, they repeatedly style themselves editors and alterers rather than authors. Possibly the earliest instance of the reviser describing himself as editor occurs in Lewis Theobald’s preface to The Double Falsehood (1728), his redaction of a supposed Shakespearean original.12 Theobald previously had publicized his ambition (and qualifications) to supply a new edition of Shakespeare’s works by mounting a fierce attack on Pope’s edition of 1723-5 in Shakespeare restored: or, A Specimen of the Many Errors, As well Committed, as Unamended, by Mr. Pope In his Late Edition of this Poet. Designed Not only to correct the said Edition, but to restore the True Reading of Shakespeare in all the Editions ever yet publish’d (1726). The preliminaries to The Double Falsehood entail a notion of editorial procedure strikingly different from that implicit in Theobald’s arraignment of Pope. In Shakespeare restored, Theobald’s chief aim is to reconstruct Shakespeare’s “True Reading.”13 By contrast, though he claims to have approached the managers of Drury Lane with a copy of The Double Falsehood “as an Editor, not an Author,” Theobald professes to have “with great Labour and Pains, Revised, and Adapted the [Manuscript Copy of an Original Play of WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE] to the Stage.14

That double sense of editing-as judicious restoration and as more or less radical adaptation-was to persist throughout the eighteenth century. Successive editions of Shakespeare attest to the former strain;15 Colman the Elder’s playwriting illustrates the latter. Colman reworked plays by Jonson, Fletcher, and Shakespeare, and his versions found their way into the collected edition of his plays of 1777. They were included in “Volume the Third; containing Alterations of Philaster King Lear, Epicoene; Or The Silent Woman.” Although printed in Colman’s Dramatick Works, individual title pages ascribe the plays to the original authors, while in the advertisements such as the one prefixed to Philaster, Colman refers to himself as the editor: “To remove the objections to the performance of this excellent play on the modern stage, has been the chief labour, and sole ambition, of the present editor” (3: 5). “It is impossible,” he continues, “for the severest reader to have a meaner opinion of the editor’s share in the work than he entertains of it himself ‘ (11). Garrick, who in any event frequently omitted to bill his revisions as such or to put his name to them if the work were published, employs virtually identical rhetoric in the advertisement to The Country Girl (1766), an adaptation of Wycherley’s salacious comedy The Country Wife:

… Tho’ near half of the following Play is new written, the Alterer claims no Merit, but his Endeavour to clear one of our most celebrated Comedies from Immorality and Obscenity … and if this Wanton of Charles’s Days is now reclaimed, as to become innocent without being insipid, the present Editor will not think his Time ill employed …. (sig. A2r-v)

In the same year, Bickerstaffe calls himself the editor of Doctor Last in his Chariot, a comedy derived from Moliere:

The following piece is a translation of Le Malade Imaginaire, one of Moliere’s most celebrated productions in the farcical kind. Some scenes which could not possibly succeed upon the English stage, have been removed, and those substituted, in which the character of Doctor Last is introduced; and, for that character only, the editor has to answer; nothing else in the subsequent scenes, being intirely his. (sig. A3r)

By the latter half of the eighteenth century, then, the appropriative nature of playwriting had come to be widely accepted; but the urgency and passion with which Restoration and early eighteenth-century playwrights had asserted their authorial credentials and repudiated charges of plagiarism were mostly gone. The dramatists’ self-esteem and confidence in the artistic value of their productions seem to have been eroded and replaced by self-consciousness, even self-depreciation.

Those negative sentiments are particularly in evidence in the work of professional men of the theater-actors, managers, prompters-who supplied a high proportion of contemporary theatrical offerings, chiefly lightweight pieces including farces, musical comedies, and ballad operas (Lynch 169ff.). Such play– doctors freely admit that their extensive remodeling of earlier texts is due not only to haste and desire for profit but to plain lack of invention and talent. “That I am indebted to Mr. Ramsay’s GENTLE SHEPARD, (a Scotch Pastoral Comedy, wrote Originally in Five Acts) for the greatest Part of the following Piece,” says the actor Theophilus Cibber in the preface to Patie and Peggy: or, The Fair Foundling. A Scotch Ballad Opera, “was not owing to my Idleness, but a Doubt of my Abilities to produce any Thing entirely New of this kind, that might plead so much pretence to Favour” (sig. A2r). Charles Dibdin (house-composer at Drury Lane in the 1770s) is equally frank about the origin of his ballad opera The Waterman. He put it together so as to recycle “the different pieces I have composed for Ranelagh and the Theatre … which have been but little heard.” Having cited the source of “the dialogue necessary to work up these materials into a Ballad Farce,” Dibdin states:

I am resolved to acknowledge at all times from whence I collect any matter for the trifles I may have an opportunity of presenting to the public. I must be an egregious egotist indeed, and little entitled to the indulgence they have hitherto favoured me with, if I could be so unconscious of my own inability as to suppose I ever can present them with any thing worthy their notice without assistance of this sort ….16

The Waterman proved a taking afterpiece, and its concocter went on to cobble together many more shows like it and to compose music for them, being content to reap profits from the theater without staking claims to literary stature.

The decline in assertions of authorship further manifests itself in the wording of contemporary title pages and in the content and typography of theatrical playbills. Where Dryden, Shadwell, D’Urfey, and others had proudly placed their names on the title pages of their appropriative plays (thus Troilus and Cressida; or, Truth Found too Late was printed as “Written by Mr. Dryden,” and The History of Timon of Athens, the Man-Hater was touted as having been “Made into a Play. By Tho. Shadwell”), Garrick, Colman, Bickerstaffe, and other eighteenthcentury playwrights either refrained from doing so or conspicuously cited the name of the original author alongside their own, thereby reinforcing the impression that theirs was merely a cut-and-paste job.” A good illustration is the adaptation of an unacted play by James Thomson, Edward and Eleonora. It was acknowledged as such not only on the title page of the printed edition: Edward and Eleonora, A Tragedy … Altered from James Thomson. And new adapted to the Stage by Thomas Hull (1775) and in the prologue spoken in the theater (“T’onight your Favour and your Praise we claim, / For lo! the Page, bears Thomson’s honour’d Name”),” but also in a playbill for a touring production:



On MONDAY the 11th of AUGUST, 1777,

Will be performed a new Piece, (written originally by Thompson, Author of the Seasons, altered and properly adapted to the Stage by Mr. Hull)


Edward and Eleonora.

(As performed at the Theatre-Royal in Covent-Garden last Winter with universal Applause.)19

The success of this adaptation on the London stage explains not only why it was taken on tour but also why the names of both the original author and the reviser were touted on the playbill. Over the course of the eighteenth century, playbills grew in size, yet, as David Gowen has pointed out, “[e]ven with the extra room, bills announcing new plays customarily omitted the playwright’s name.” Gowen speculates that the omission may have been “a precaution against undesirable recognition in the event of a poor reception” (150). Whatever the reason, the absence of the author’s name from an elaborately decorated playbill that advertised a premiere performance of his or her work (and that supplied plentiful information about the venue, the company, the actors, the prices, etc.) is itself a sign of a deepening depreciation of authorial stature.

The pedantic nature of the acknowledgements of sources, especially those included in the paraphernalia of printed playtexts, created the sense that modern playwrights’ productions were slight and inconsequential. For what is one to make of the authorial credentials of Isaac Bickerstaffe on the basis of the following title page: “The Hypocrite: A Comedy … Taken from Moliere and Cibber, By the Author Of the Alterations of the Plain-Dealer”?20 Bickerstaffe’s claim to fame is to have adapted Wycherley’s The Plain Dealer, which qualifies him for the task of altering Cibber and Moliere!21 Among other examples are new versions of old plays by Garrick and Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Garrick was responsible for Isabella: or, The Fatal Marriage. A Play. Alter’d from Southern, The Gamesters: A Comedy. Altered from Shirley, and Every Man in his Humour A Comedy. Altered from Ben. Johnson;” Sheridan for A Trip to Scarborough … Altered from Vanbrugh’s Relapse; or, Virtue in Danger (1781). On the evidence of such title pages, eighteenth-century readers could not have felt but that theirs was entertainment based essentially on recycled wares.

One could ask, of course, why such revampings were produced and printed. The answer is simple. Most of the originals behind them had been for decades successful repertory pieces, and theaters wanted to keep them there. The acting company’s chief concern was profit, not literary value. If a popular play was beginning to show age-whether on account of its outmoded or indecorous language, irregular construction, or lax sexual mores-a modest amount of retouching was all that was needed to ensure its continued stage viability. Having a vast stock of proven scripts at their disposal, the theaters repeatedly issued commissions for revision rather than risking their capital by mounting new shows.


Concomitant with the decline in the proprietary claims made by eighteenthcentury playwrights was the reduction of their artistic claims. While amateur appropriators such as Sir William Killigrew and Sir Robert Howard in the 1660s, and professional ones such as John Dryden, Elkanah Settle, Aphra Behn, and Thomas D’Urfey in the 1670s and beyond, invariably prided themselves on having improved whatever they took from the scripts they set out to adapt, eighteenth-century revisers such as Garrick, Colman, Bickerstaffe, Inchbald, and many others largely refrained from doing so. The reason for this disparity was the fundamental difference between the motives for appropriation that prevailed in the later seventeenth century and those dominant throughout most of the eighteenth century. Aesthetic justifications of adaptation put forward by Restoration writers were gradually replaced by ethical justifications proposed by Garrick and his contemporaries. However we may judge of their productions, a Dryden or a Vanbrugh believed that both language and manners had become refined since the pre-Civil War era and, that in order to make Shakespeare or Fletcher stageable, the linguistic and stylistic obsolescence of their plays ought to be eliminated. To give Miranda a sister and to add a man who has never seen a woman to the cast of the Shakespearean Tempest, as Davenant and Dryden did in their version performed in 1667, was to create a better play. A new version of a pre-Civil War piece was superior to the original by virtue of the removal of obsolete diction or indecorous and/or improbable action; a new rendition of Corneille or Moliere surpassed the too-scanty original owing to the addition of a subplot, new characters, and new incidents.

Eighteenth-century adapters were not so confident. As the century went on, the belief that earlier drama could be improved was losing its hold. True, both Renaissance and Restoration plays were being substantially revised and altered for stage representation, but the new versions were no longer touted as artistically superior to the originals on which they were based. Rather, they were advertised as morally superior, having been purged of sexually explicit language and action. The decisive change occurred around mid-century, by which time many of the salacious favorites had been subjected to a thorough-going reformation (Lynch 271). Indeed, there were those who believed that not only pieces intended for the stage but also published play texts should be reformed. Thomas Seward, one of the editors of Beaumont and Fletcher’s Works of 1750, actually undertook to expunge from their scripts what he called “gross and indecent Expressions” and:

a great many Indecencies … which, when I began my Part of the Work for the Press, I had actually struck off, as far as I could do without injuring the Connection of the Context; but the Booksellers press’d, and indeed insisted upon their Restoration: They very sensibly urged the last-mentioned Plea, and thought that the bare Notion of a curtail’d Edition would greatly prejudice the Sale of it. (1: liii, lvi)

In such a case, the publishers’ commercial interests stood in the way of the editor’s righteous zeal. The theater managers’ commercial interests, by contrast, positively required censorship of sexual impropriety at the level of both plot and language. As Garrick phrased it in the Prologue to Sheridan’s redaction of Vanbrugh’s The Relapse,

Those writers well and wisely use their pens,

Who turn our Wantons into Magdalens;

And howsoever wicked wits revile ’em,

We hope to find in you, their Stage Asylum.23

Yet turning “Wantons into Magdalens” was hardly an inspired or inspiriting task. Where late seventeenth-century adapters occasionally held up their versions as less vulgar than the originals or insisted-as did Tate when he restored Lear to the throne and had Cordelia wed Edgar (1-2)-that they fulfilled the ideal of poetic justice by rewarding the good and punishing the bad, for the most part the arguments in favor of adaptation were aesthetic rather than moral. Indeed, many Restoration adaptations were far more licentious than their sources, the cause celebre being the Dryden-Davenant Tempest. By contrast, mid- and late-eighteenth-century adapters proclaim themselves guardians of the nation’s morals, implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) conceding the inferiority of their versions, as did Colman in his revision of Philaster and Garrick in his bowdlerization of The Country Wife. They hold up their works as more decorous and proper than their sources: “There seems indeed an absolute Necessity for reforming many Plays of our most eminent Writers,” wrote Garrick, “For no kind of Wit ought to be received as an Excuse for Immorality, nay it becomes still more dangerous in proportion as it is more witty.”24 The upshot of such repeated bowdlerization was to beget the impression that modern plays, even if exhibiting greater propriety, were simply less good than older ones.


As we have seen, eighteenth-century appropriators made claims less ambitious and less grand than those of their late seventeenth-century predecessors. Now, I wish to turn to two other indicators of the diminution in the literary standing of plays: the pattern of dramatic publication and the subject matter of dramatic criticism. By the latter part of the eighteenth century, the contrast between old and new drama was not easy to perceive on the stage since most of the indecent favorites had slipped from the repertory or been supplanted by expurgated versions, but the printed page afforded ample opportunities for comparison-above all, with Shakespeare. Here again, in the realm of printed drama, we can notice the reversal of trends that had characterized the earlier period. The proliferation of handsome collected editions of plays in the first two decades of the eighteenth century had contributed to the elevation of plays’ literary status and enhanced their authors’ reputations.” It is thus surprising to note that, in the mid- to late eighteenth century, there were so few collected editions of plays by modern playwrights. Only Garrick, Lillo, Fielding, More, Colman the Elder, and Murphy could boast a collection. Theirs were as a rule less typographically ambitious or lavish collections than the impressive folio of Dryden’s brought out in 1701 or the elegant octavo volumes Congreve saw through the press in 1710. Moreover, the prefatory statements, whether authorial or editorial, to be found in those collected editions were often less than complimentary about the contents.26 Thus, the prefaces to Garrick’s collections of 1768 and 1798, respectively, displayed a condescending attitude to his dramatic exertions-the former describing them as “little productions,”27 the latter as “little things.”28 Arthur Murphy’s introductory essay to the four-volume edition of Fielding’s Works (1762), which contained plays, novels, and other pieces, judged Fielding’s playwriting considerably inferior to his comic fiction: “he confessedly did not attain to pre-eminence in this branch of writing.”29 Thomas Davies’s enthusiastic assessment of George Lillo’s dramatic output in the preliminaries to the two-volume Works of 1775 was therefore quite exceptional in being accorded to a near-contemporary (Lillo died in 1739). Davies goes so far as to rate Lillo’s Fatal Curiosity-“this master piece of fine writing”-alongside Shakespearean tragedy:

… in all Dramatic Poetry, there are few scenes where the passions are so highly wrought up, as in the third Act of the FATAL CURIOSITY … LILLO need not be ashamed to yield to Shakespeare, who is superior to all other writers; but excepting the celebrated scenes of murder in Macbeth, these in the FATAL CURIOSITY, for just representation of anguish, remorse, despair, and horror, bear away the palm.30

But there was more to Lillo’s playwriting than his magisterial portrayal of passions in The Fatal Curiosity and The London Merchant. Davies was impressed by the generic novelty of Lillo’s tragedies, which, in contrast to most serious drama of his day, focused on the private sphere and dramatized the predicament of lower-class figures, moving beyond the earlier attempts at domestic tragedy by Otway and Rowe. “The World is indebted to this writer,” Davies observes, “for the invention of a new species of dramatic poetry, which may properly be termed the inferior or lesser tragedy.”31

The most imposing collected edition by a living playwright was The Works of Arthur Murphy, Esq. (1786), in seven volumes, which the author himself saw through the press. It featured not only plays, each one of them subjected to “a careful revisal,”32 but also Murphy’s contributions to The Gray’s Inn Journal. Neither Murphy’s nor Lillo’s nor Colman’s collection was reprinted before the end of the century. Fielding’s Works reappeared in an expanded twelve-volume set in 1783 (with the addition of The Fathers; or, The Good-natured Man) and continued to be reprinted in the nineteenth century, no doubt on account of his novels rather than plays. By far the greatest commercial hit was Hannah More’s collection of closet pieces, Sacred Dramas; Chiefly Intended for Young Persons: The Subjects Taken from the Bible (1782), which had gone through eighteen editions by 1815 and which was also reprinted in America.33 Eighteenth-century theater and literary drama went their separate ways.

The energies of editors and textual scholars-from Rowe and Pope through Theobald, Hanmer, Warburton, Johnson, Capell, and Steevens to Edmond Malone-were devoted to Shakespeare and, to a lesser extent, to Jonson, Massinger, and Beaumont and Fletcher.34 Instead of author-centered collections of modern plays, the eighteenth century saw a proliferation of anthologies setting forth the plays as “regulated from theatrical promptbooks,” thus emphasizing their connection with the stage.35 The format, layout, and typography of such anthologies evince their lower status with respect to author-based editions of older drama. Their print is very small, dozens of plays being crowded into each volume, and they frequently lack their own individual title pages and engraved illustrations.36

The lowering of plays’ literary status as evidenced by altered patterns of publication is paralleled by changes in dramatic criticism. It is evinced, too, by the directions of theater reviewing that developed in the late 1740s and gathered momentum in the 1780s and 90s.37 Eighteenth-century criticism assumed a variety of forms, including book-length treatises, pamphlets, prefatory essays by authors and editors, and newspaper and journal articles. Early in the period, shorter forms prevailed; in the second half of the eighteenth century, serious studies began to proliferate. Yet whereas previously both Renaissance and post– Restoration plays furnished subject-matter for discussion, now earnest critics focused on old rather than new drama. Newspapers and journals, it is true, published reviews of newly premiered shows as well as revivals; however, those commentaries largely focused on performance, not literary quality. They customarily provided a plan or plot summary of the new offering, a convention that made the repetitive and derivative nature of modern playwriting all the more obvious. Most substantial critical projects concentrated on Shakespeare and other old playwrights. Those that did take the story further dwelt on the “progress” of the English stage from the age of Elizabeth to that of Charles, and on its “decline and fall” in the age of the Georges.38 Why should that have been the case? What curtailed authorial ambitions? Most interestingly, why did the artistic collapse occur at a time when the remuneration for new scripts was actually rising?39


The reasons, let me suggest, were partly economic. The disappearance of genuine theatrical competition following the Licensing Act of 1737 and the ensuing collusion between the two patent houses, Drury Lane and Covent Garden, led to the rapid fall in the number of new plays as both companies relied heavily on revivals. To keep their repertories up-to-date, they regularly had old plays retouched. For the playwright, such a commission would have been more than welcome: the market for the product was guaranteed, and the financial risk involved in writing an original play was eliminated.40 Admittedly, script revision was not as profitable as a successful new show, but it required less work and provided insurance against failure.

With the expansion of the star system, theatrical scripts came increasingly to be seen as vehicles for leading performers. It was no longer the play that mattered but the player. The theater’s commercialization likewise manifested itself early in the eighteenth century in the popularity of entr’acte entertainments and later in the introduction of afterpieces-short playlets usually of comic or farcical character, pantomimes, and musical shows-which followed the play proper. The increasing number of actor-benefit afterpieces concocted especially for the occasion and later abandoned suggests that managers were prepared to countenance such shows for variety even as they remained conservative in their preference for tried mainpieces. The resulting fragmentation of the theatrical experience could not but have affected the audience’s perception of the play. Seeing Othello or Hamlet on its own is a very different proposition from seeing it followed by a farce or a burlesque.41 Besides exploding the unity of the night’s entertainment, the popularity of and demand for afterpieces led to playwrights cobbling such pieces fast by reusing all manner of materials, including earlier mainpieces. The very existence of the afterpiece contributed to the erosion of the status of the drama.

But another reason, one that accounts for the intense self-consciousness and often self-denigration of playwrights, was the growing valorization of creative originality. Subjectivity, uniqueness, and inspiration were certainly easier to achieve-and their lack more difficult to detect-in poetry, perhaps even in prose fiction, than in the drama. It was one thing for a Dryden or a Behn to profess to have improved the source text and assert ownership of the resulting playscript by detailing their alterations; it was quite another for a Colman or a Cumberland to claim originality in a play that he felt bound to acknowledge was based on another. Colman playfully canvassed the current theories of literary creativity in the prologue and epilogue to his comedy The Man of Business (1774). The Prologue is spoken by a disappointed “Author, with a manuscript” railing against the manager-Colman-who has rejected his play in order to stage his own derivative piece:

See here, good folks, how genius is abus’d!

A play of mine, the manager refus’d!

And why?-I knew the reason well enough–

Only to introduce his own damn’d stuff.


His play to-night, like all he ever wrote,

Is pie-ball’d, piec’d, and patch’d, like Joseph’s coat;

Made up of shreds from Plautus and Corneille,

Terence, Moliere, Voltaire, and Marmontel;

With rags of fifty others I might mention,

Which proves him dull and barren of invention:

But shall his nonsense hold the place of sense?

No, damn him! damn him, in your own defence!”

The Epilogue has two speakers: a critic and a lady. The critic high-handedly condemns appropriative playwriting and clamors for originality:

What are the riff-raff of our modern plays?

Their native dullness all in books intrench:

Mere scavengers of Latin, Greek, and French,

Sweep up the learned rubbish, dirt, and dust,

Or from old iron try to file the rust.

Give me the bard whose fiery disposition

Quickens at once, and learns by intuition;

Lifts up his head to think, and, in a minute,

Ideas make a hurly-burly in it;

Struggling for passage, there ferment and bubble,

And thence run over without further trouble;

‘Till out comes play or poem, as they feign

Minerva issued from her father’s brain!

Be all original! struck out at once;

Who borrows, toils, or labours, is a dunce:

Genius, alas! is at the lowest ebb;

And none, like spiders, spin their own fine web.

Old books, old plays, old thoughts, will never do:

Originals for me, and something new! (220-21)

He is immediately answered by the female spectator who is obviously up-to-date with recent critical developments and the Lockean notion of tabula rasa:

`New? (cries the lady) Prithee, man, have done!

We know there’s nothing new beneath the sun.

Weave, like the spider, from your proper brains,

And take at last a cobweb for your pains!

What is invention? ‘Tis not thoughts innate;

Each head at first is but an empty pate.

‘Tis but retailing from a wealthy hoard

The thoughts which observation long has stor’d,

Combining images with lucky hit,

Which sense and education first admit;

Who, borrowing little from the common store,

Mends what he takes, and from his own adds more,

He is original; or inspiration

Never fill’d bard of this, or other nation,

And Shakespeare’s art is merely imitation.

For ’tis a truth long prov’d beyond all doubt,

Where nothing’s in, there’s nothing can come out. (221)

However facetious, Colman’s prologue and epilogue illustrate the incompatibility of concepts such as solitary genius, inspiration, and originality with the commercial demands of the contemporary theater.

The clash between critical ideas and commercial realities underlies the contradictory rhetoric of Richard Cumberland’s preface to Joanna of Montfaucon (1800). The printed title page advertises it as “A Dramatic Romance of the Fourteenth Century … Formed upon the Plan of the German Drama of Kotzebue: and Adapted to the English Stage by Richard Cumberland.” Despite the acknowledged reliance on the foreign source, Cumberland fervently insists on his own offering’s originality in the preface:

It has so rarely been my habit to write upon any plot but of my own fabrication and invention, that what I assert in the Prologue is most strictly true; viz.

“All, who cou’d judge my labour, wou’d confess

“Originality had made it less.” (iv)

Yet his assertion of originality is undermined by the very wording of his title page acknowledgement. Cumberland, of course, had been ridiculed as Sir Fretful Plagiary in Sheridan’s The Critick (1779); but, given Sheridan’s own wideranging use of textual materials-both native and foreign-we may feel that the pot was calling the kettle black. Indeed, during the first run of Cumberland’s Joanna in January, 1800, daily receipts at Covent Garden were lower by half than those at Drury Lane where Sheridan’s Pizarro (a version of Kotzebue’s Die Spanier in Peru) was enjoying a hugely successful revival.43 The rage for adaptations of the German’s work drew fire from a number of commentators. Sheridan, whose position as author-manager made him a particularly convenient target, was singled out for attack in a satirical skit More Kotzebue!44 To be upbraided for plagiaristic proclivities must have been acutely galling to a dramatist who had asserted in the preface to his debut-piece, The Rivals, that his “first wish in attempting a Play, was to avoid every appearance of plagiary.”45 How the mighty had fallen.

As we have seen, the theatrical milieu characterized by a strong demand for script revision and adaptation, foreign novelties, and effective afterpieces was hardly congenial to original playwriting. We have noted, too, that those writers who were connected with the playhouse mainly in their capacity as actors, managers, or prompters as a rule refrained from making serious claims about the artistic merit of their self-confessedly derivative scripts, preferring, instead, to emphasize their theatrical potential. By contrast, those few writers-some professionals, some amateurs-who strove to assert the literary value of their plays felt constrained to adopt the critical vocabulary of originality, invention, imagination, and genius made current by treatises such as Hurd’s, Young’s, Duff’s, and Gerard’s.46 We may scoff at Cumberland’s confused justification of Joanna or Murphy’s meandering apologies for Alzuma and The Rival Sisters,47 but what about those plays for which no immediate textual source can be identified? After all, not every late eighteenth-century play was a translation or an adaptation. Which dramatic form-comedy or tragedy-provided greater scope for originality, and what were the strategies adopted by writers to achieve it?


The eighteenth century did not invent “originality.” Yet it was in that period that originality, hitherto conceived as an attribute of the literary work, came to be defined in terms of the creative process that produced it. This shift of emphasis from work to author, from the literary artifact to the mind behind it, stimulated interest in the psychology of artistic creation. There appeared a series of treatises exploring the nature of original genius and illustrating its workings (or lack thereof) with reference to ancient and modern writings. Among the best known are: Joseph Warton’s Essay on the Writings and Genius of Pope (1756), Young’s Conjectures on Original Composition (1759), Duff’s Essay on Original Genius; and its Various Modes of Exertion in Philosophy and the Fine Arts, Particularly Poetry (1767) and his Critical Observations on the Writings of the Most Celebrated Geniuses in Poetry. Being a Sequel to the Essay on Original Genius (1770), and Alexander Gerard’s Essay on Genius (1774). Despite differences of method and focus, these studies share a number of theoretical premises and often use the same examples, notably Homer, Milton, and Shakespeare. For my purposes, the evaluation of Shakespeare’s genius is of particular interest not only because he was a modern, a Briton, and a professional dramatist, but also because his appropriative playwriting-as documented, for example, by Charlotte Lennox in Shakespear Illustrated& or The Novels and Histories, On which the Plays of Shakespear are Founded, Collected and Translated from the Original Authors (1753)-presented the champions of originality with a formidable difficulty. They strove to overcome it by avoiding direct engagement with the evidence of Shakespeare’s textual debts amassed by Lennox and others,48 or, alternatively, by maintaining that he refined even “the basest materials.”49 They also adopted two distinct if complementary ways of reconceptualizing originality so as to accommodate and excuse those debts. One common ploy was to make a firm distinction between sentiments and expression. “The most original writer,” Richard Hurd argues, “is allowed to furnish himself with poetical ideas from all quarters.”50 According to this line of argument, Shakespeare’s use of ready-made plots is irrelevant, for his originality consists wholly in the singularity and uniqueness of style. Again, Hurd’s formulation is the most succinct:

… You will best understand of what importance this affair of expression is to the discovery of imitations, by considering how seldom we are able to fix an imitation on Shakespear. The reason is, not, that there are not numberless passages in him very like to others in approved authors, or that he had not read enough to give us a fair hold of him; but that his expression is so totally his own, that he almost alway [sic], sets us at defiance. (74)

Another tactic was to reverse the Aristotelian hierarchy, with its primacy of fable over any other element of the dramatic structure, and to accord priority to the invention of characters over the invention of plots. Arthur Murphy asserts that “Fable is but a secondary Beauty; the Exhibition of Character, and the Excitement of the Passions, justly claiming the Precedence in dramatic Poetry.”51 William Duff concurs: “The invention of characters … is unquestionably the greatest effort of original Genius.”52 Since Shakespeare was the acknowledged master of characterization, his recourse to preexisting stories could be conveniently downplayed and his originality upheld: “If Shakespear therefore excelled in the last more difficult effort of Genius, he might doubtless have excelled in the first, if he had thought it proper to have attempted it.”53 There was a fair amount of rhetorical ingenuity, even outright contradiction, involved in such arguments. For one thing, Shakespeare’s near-verbatim transcription of some of his sources was common knowledge. For another, the hankering after absolute originality could neither be allayed nor fully satisfied by the claim that he invented “original” characters but inserted them into “unoriginal” plots. As Duff himself admits, “A Poet endued with a truly original Genius, will … be under no necessity of drawing any of the materials of his composition from the Works of preceding Bards” (248, my emphasis).

Granted that by mid-eighteenth century “truly original” composition was held up as an ideal, contemporary playwrights need not have suffered debilitating anxiety of influence on account of Shakespeare.54 On the contrary, they could draw comfort from the example of a universally acclaimed modern genius who was also a wide-ranging appropriator. Moreover, within the framework of the contemporary dramatic poetics, some materials were less objectionable than others. That is to say, though one’s credentials as an original writer could be in jeopardy if specific textual debts had been incurred, historical sources were routinely accepted as legitimate foundations for plays. “The most celebrated characters of all ages and nations,” wrote Thomas Wilkes, “the most remarkable events lie open to the creative genius of the dramatic poet, under whose hands they rise to light, with additional lustre of strong fancy, and harmonious numbers to embellish them” (5). William Duff, too, conceded that:

A Poet possessed of the most sublime and extensive original Genius, finding either in the records of history, the traditions of his country, or the events of his own times incidents great and surprizing enough to captivate the imagination, will sometimes rest satisfied with these (without giving himself the trouble to invent others), and think only of displaying them to the utmost advantage in poetry. (128-29)

This tolerance of the use of historical sources led to a paradoxical situation, for tragedy-a form at once more dignified and more challenging than comedy– was also one in which originality was easier to come by. There were many reasons why eighteenth-century playwrights selected historical subject matter for representation in their tragedies-to address the political concerns of the day, to glorify the native past, or to cater to the audience’s interest in far-off lands and climes stimulated by the British empire’s expansion55-yet the dramatists were also keen to capitalize on the wealth of characters and storylines that could be gleaned from native or foreign history in the knowledge that the genre of historical tragedy held out the prospect of gaining credit for invention and originality.

Foreign pasts were more promising in this respect than native lore. One could score points simply by choosing unfamiliar historical setting and story. The novelty then could be underscored through a contrast with the overworked Greek and Roman themes. The Prologue to Young’s Busiris reminds the audience of the stale wares with which they have been treated of late-“Long have you seen the Greek and Roman Name, / Assisted by the Muse, renew their Fame”-so as to alert them to the freshness of the Egyptian tale about to unfold: “Yet ne’er has Albion’s Scene, though long renown’d, / With the stem Tyrants of the Nile been crown’d.”56 Young’s pretensions were instantly mocked by an anonymous pamphleteer: “notwithstanding what the Prologue says, he had better contented himself with the Heroes of Greece and Rome, than to have travelled to Egypt to form a greater Monster than the Nile produc’d” (Critical Remarks 58). Even so, later dramatists were not deterred from experimenting with a variety of remote settings, the comparison between exotic and classical history itself soon becoming a cliche. John Home’s Prologue to Alexander Dow’s Zingis (1769) (“taken from the Tarich Mogulistan, or History of the Mogul Tartars”)57 and Arthur Murphy’s Prologue to his own Alzuma (1773) (based on “the history of the Spanish conquests in AMERICA”)58 are typical of this trend. Following the predictable jibe at classical tragedy-“Too much the Greek and Roman chiefs engage / The Muses care,-they languish on our Stage,” Home extolls Dow’s creative acumen evident in his dramatization of Tartar history (a task for which Dow is uniquely qualified, having recently translated from the Persian tongue “The History of Hindostan”):59

To fill the scene, to night our Author brings

Originals at least,-warriors and kings–

Heroes, who like their gems, unpolish’d shine,

The mighty fathers of the Tartar line;

Greater than those, whom Classic pages boast,

If those are greatest, who have conquer’d most. (sig. A3r)

Bensley’s Prologue to Murphy’s Alzuma is written in the same formula: “While GREECE and ROME swell’d our theatric state … only classic heroes could be great. / This night our author, an advent’er grown, / Dares trace the virtues of the Torrid Zone” (sig. A4r).

The exoticism of later eighteenth-century historical drama, a genre predicated on the assumption that “the intermixture of recorded facts tends to augment the interest of works of imagination,”60 provoked a reaction in favor of English themes. Joseph Warton’s wish “that our writers would more frequently search for subjects, in the annals of England, which afford many striking and pathetic events, proper for the stage,”61 did not go unheeded. Indeed, as James Lynch has pointed out, “more plays using themes and characters drawn from English history reached the stage during the eighteenth century than ever before or since” (2). In the last quarter of the century, this quasi-antiquarian preoccupation with the native past, especially with the medieval period, received a strong boost from the rising tide of gothic romance, resulting in a proliferation of fake histories permeated by an atmosphere of doom, gloom, and foreboding. The historical inauthenticity of gothic plays was in large measure a function of their obsessive concentration on the highly wrought personal relationships among a small cast of characters. In this respect, gothic drama looks back to domestic tragedies of Rowe and Lillo rather than to historical plays of Shakespeare.62

As a new form, gothic drama might have afforded late eighteenth-century playwrights greater scope for the exercise of invention and originality than the established genres, however formulaic its conventions may seem to us.63 Yet, as the production history of Hannah Cowley’s Albina, Countess Raimond demonstrates, the author’s “original” ideas could be, as it were, intercepted and put into circulation in others’ scripts even before the play from which they were taken reached the stage. Albina’s theatrical misfortunes are quickly told. Cowley showed her script-then called Edwina-to Garrick before his retirement and later attempted to secure production first at Covent Garden then at Drury Lane. After a protracted wait, Cowley had her play rejected in turn by the colluding managers of both winter houses, Harris and Sheridan. Albina was finally produced in July, 1779, by George Colman the Younger at the Haymarket Theater where it proved a moderate success. There is nothing extraordinary in an author’s failing to get a script accepted by either of the patent houses and having to settle for a showing at the Haymarket, many would-be playwrights despairing of performance even at that venue. The case of Cowley’s Albina is of special interest, for it throws into sharp relief the conflict between the playwright’s aspirations to individuality and originality and the material conditions of theater production– the process of script acceptance, revision, and rehearsal-which fostered conformity, collaboration, and ultimately the surrender of authority on the part of the playwright.

In a lengthy preface to the printed edition of Albina, Cowley voices a strong concern about the public perception of her status as an original writer:

… I now present to the world a Play, which I presume to call original, though I know that the principal circumstances of the plot, and the leading traits of character, have appeared in other Plays, previous to the representation of this. (i)

She feels obliged to explain why, if her tragedy is indeed “original,” it should exhibit “these repeated resemblances” (vii) to as many as three plays that preceded it on the stage, notably Hannah More’s Percy and Fatal Falsehood and Robert Jephson’s The Law of Lombardy.64 Cowley implies that Harris, one of the managers who had read her script, advised More and, possibly, Jephson to incorporate some motifs and plot-turns from Albina into their scripts in the process of revision. This they promptly did so as to ensure the manager’s approval. That Cowley is exaggerating the extent of More’s and Jephson’s textual debts is not in question: injured authors almost always do. Yet she is surely accurate in her assessment of the theatrical environment in which bits of dialogue, dramatic characters, and situations circulate freely courtesy of managers keen to safeguard the success of the shows they choose to mount by recommending adjustments that often originate in pieces they have read and discarded:

I know that Managers are continually employed in giving advice, and in suggesting alterations to Authors; and I have frequently heard, before I had any experience in this anxious warfare, of the danger, when once an idea is afloat in the Theatrical Hemisphere, of its getting into other plays. Amidst the croud of Plots, and Stage Contrivances, in which a Manager is involv’d, recollection is too frequently mistaken for the suggestions of imagination. (vii)

Needless to say, those in charge of repertory decisions expected compliance and cooperation from authors, not laments about the loss of authority over their creations. From their point of view, scripts were not finished products; rather, they were malleable, flexible, and open-ended entities, requiring amendments not only prior to acceptance and during rehearsal but also after the premiere.65 In the context in which managers, actors, even prompters felt licensed to make changes to the author’s script, the claims to artistic independence were hard to reconcile with the basic need to earn a living. Hence, if faithfully reported, Sheridan’s response to Cowley’s reluctance to follow his suggestions for alteration was wholly disingenuous:

… on my attempting a timorous defence, he added, “Don’t alter this, or any other passage, unless it strikes you as it does me; you ought to be tenacious: every original Writer must give up passages with difficulty: it is only Translators, and Borrowers, who are so ready to comply with every hint that is proposed.” (iv)

For, as we have seen, it was such spineless translators and borrowers who had a much easier time getting their wares accepted and who were the likely recipients of commissions. In the preface to Albina, Cowley strives to counteract the loss of reputation attendant on the publication of a play that by now shows few marks of novelty; she also complains bitterly about the loss of profit, “hav[ing] been deprived of a reasonable prospect of several hundred pounds” by “the conduct of the Winter Managers” (ix). Cowley recognizes that to raise the issue of financial reward for works of the imagination “may appear a vulgar topic,” yet she insists that the “pursuit of applause … though so ostentatiously held out as the motive for productions in the Poetic line, has seldom, in any age or country, produced works of any considerable reputation” (viii-ix). William Duff’s exclusion of profit-seekers from amongst potential literary geniuses is a clear sign of the critical prejudice against the professionalization of imaginative writing: “the painful, patient pursuit of Gain … occasions an intire depression of the powers of Imagination…. Indeed it scarce ever happens, that a high degree of this quality [Genius] is allied to Avarice: it seldom stoops to the drudgery of laborious business for the sake of wealth” (An Essay 293).

Hannah Cowley’s search for both fame and profit, though frustrated in her lifetime, was symbolically gratified in a posthumous edition of her works published in 1813-Cowley died in 1809-which figures her as the quintessential literary genius. The preface to The Works of Mrs. Cowley. Dramas and Poems emphasizes her versatility (“In the elegant Liveliness of Comedy, the Humour of Farce, and the thwarted Passions and lofty grandeur of Tragedy, she … dared the whole range of the Drama”). It also encourages the reader to trace “the history of the progress of the writer’s Mind,” a process evidenced by the chronological arrangement of her compositions; and extols Cowley’s originality (“Her plots … had their origin only in her own mind”), drawing attention to “the utmost facility and celerity” of “her habits of composition” (Works 1: viii-ix, ix, xii). Unsurprisingly, the original preface to Albina (and any reference to writing for money) has been expunged, the text of the play being proffered to the reader as an unqualified testimony to the creative powers of an author figured as “one of those who may perhaps in future time cause it to be felt-that this too was an Age in which Genius had not deserted the realm” (xxi).

As the eighteenth century drew to a close, the earnings of professional writers in general, and of established playwrights such as Inchbald, Cumberland, and Reynolds in particular, were higher than ever before.bb Yet the effects of this economic prosperity upon the cultural status of drama and playwriting were equivocal. For the widespread practice of script revision, the popularity of musical comedies, burlettas, and farces, and the reductive format of the afterpiece enforced patterns of composition that called for scissors and paste rather than inspiration. With theaters devoting a large proportion of their energies to mounting such entertainments, the quality of plays and the literary pretensions of playwrights inevitably plummeted. Moreover, the dissemination and general acceptance of ideas of originality and creative genius proved incompatible with the commercial ethos of contemporary theater. Rather than stimulating a search for new dramatic forms and subject matter, they produced a sense of inferiority among those who wrote for the stage and led to the increased valorization of old plays-particularly Shakespeare’s-at the expense of new offerings. The aspirations to authorial stature of such professed “original” writers as Hannah Cowley were foiled by the material conditions of theater production that prevailed in the period.

These contradictions inherent in the situation of late eighteenth-century playwrights suggest that we need to revise our notion of the relative status of the period’s authors. The emergence of the modern concept of authorship predicated on the writer’s ownership of his or her literary property has of late attracted much scholarly attention. It is widely recognized that that process was assisted by the development of copyright law, the first piece of legislation to assert authorial entitlement being Queen Anne’s Act for the Encouragement of Learning of 1710. A number of scholars-notably David Saunders, Mark Rose, and Alvin Kernan-have argued that the stature of authorship grew in the eighteenth century largely in consequence of the successive reforms of copyright legislation.67 In particular, they have stressed the positive effects of the abolition of perpetual copyright by the Lords in 1774. In the period between the first Copyright Statute of 1710 and the 1774 ruling, so the argument goes, the Lockean discourse of property underlying legal formulations became intertwined with the idiom of originality as propounded by Young, Duff, Gerard, and others. The implications of these developments for literary professionals were uniformly beneficial, the improved financial conditions reinforcing the cultural cachet of authorship. Yet the accounts of authorship such as those by Rose, Saunders, and Kernan rarely focus on playwriting. Their preferred examples are poets (especially Alexander Pope), novelists, and literary omnibuses such as Samuel Johnson. Yet, contrary to the cross-generic generalizations put forward by modern scholars, we have seen that the claims of professional playwrights to cultural authority declined significantly in the eighteenth century even as their economic security increased. The main cause of that decline was the incompatibility between the theories of creative genius and original composition and the commercial realities of the theatrical marketplace.

University of Wales, Aberystwyth


The work for this essay was made possible by generous support from the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, and the Huntington Library, San Marino, California. Earlier versions have been delivered at the Annual Conference of the British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, St. John’s College, Oxford, in January 1999, and at the English Department Postgraduate Research Seminar, University of Wales, Aberystwyth, in March 1999. The essay was completed during my tenure of the Fletcher Jones Visiting Fellowship at the Huntington Library in winter 1999-2000. I am grateful to Paul Hammond, Rob Hume, and Blair Worden for comments, advice, and criticism.

1 The Works of Henry Fielding 1: 15-16. And further: “There is reason to believe, that of what we have called PRIMARY, or ORIGINAL INVENTION, there has not been so much in any one poet (not even excepting HOMER) as has been generally imagined” (19). Murphy is responding to Joseph Warton’s An Essay on the Writings and Genius of Pope, which condemned Pope on the ground that he derived both his distinctive images and his language from the writings of others.

2 For a typical assessment, see J. Paul Hunter’s “The World as Stage and Closet.”

3 Robert D. Hume distinguishes five phases in the development of eighteenth-century drama, calling the phase immediately following the imposition of the Licensing Act the “Lull” or the “Low Georgian” period. See his “The Multifarious Forms of Eighteenth-Century Comedy,” in Hume, The Rakish Stage 214-44, at 214-19. He further discusses the deleterious effects of the Licensing Act in “The London Theatre From The Beggar’s Opera to the Licensing Act,” in Hume, The Rakish Stage 270-311.

4 See Lynch, Box, Pit, and Gallery 181ff. Cf. Nicoll’s account of foreign influences on the drama in volumes two and three of his A History of English Drama 66-74, 139-46 and 56-73, 110-24, respectively.

5 For a discussion of the star system and its impact upon the repertory and theater production, see Judith Milhous, “Company Management,” in The London Theatre World 1-34; and chapters five and six of Tiffany Stern’s Rehearsal from Shakespeare to Sheridan.

6 See my Authorship and Appropriation and “Plays as Property, 1660-17 10,” in A Nation Transformed; see also Hammond, Professional Imaginative Writing.

7 Dryden, of course, is the prime example of a Restoration playwright-critic, but the prefatory statements by Thomas Shadwell, Aphra Behn, John Dennis, William Congreve, and many others too shed important light upon contemporary dramatic theory and practice. The vogue for author-centered catalogues of plays was initiated by Langbaine’s Momus Triumphans and continued in an expanded form by Langbaine’s An Account of the English Dramatick Poets, Gildon’s The Lives and Characters, Jacob’s The Poetical Register, and others. See chapters three and five of my Authorship and Appropriation; Stauffer, English Biography; and Stratman, Dramatic Play Lists.

8 Dramatick Works 1: 2. See also advertisements prefaced to The Clandestine Marriage. A Comedy (1766), The English Merchant. A Comedy (1767), The Man ofBusiness. A Comedy (1774), Man and Wife; or, The Shakespeare Jubilee. A Comedy (1769), The Deuce is in him. A Farce (1763), The Portrait. A Burletta (1770), The Fairy Prince. A Masque (1771), The Spleen; or, Islington Spa. A Comick Piece, of Two Acts (1776), and New Brooms! An Occasional Prelude (1776).

9 Miss in her Teens 1: 54. See also the preliminaries to The Lying Valet. A comedy, The Guardian: A Comedy, and Lilliput. A Dramatic Entertainment in the same collection.

10 See the preface to Lovers’ Vows i-iv.

11 See Mason’s Letters concerning The following Drama prefaced to Elfrida, A Dramatic Poem. See also his Caractacus.

12 Modem scholarly consensus accepts that the original behind The Double Falsehood was at least in part authored by Shakespeare. See Freehafer, “Cardenio, by Shakespeare and Fletcher” 501-13.

13 For an account of Theobald’s editorial strategies, see Seary, Lewis Theobald. Scary does not discuss Theobald’s claim to have edited rather than adapted the Shakespearean source of The Double Falsehood.

14 See copyright notice, dedication, and preface of the Editor in Double Falsehood 26-30.

15 Of course, some of the procedures adopted by eighteenth-century editors of Shakespeare-such as Pope’s decision to demote what he considered to be inferior passages to the bottom of the page and to asterisk the ones he admired-would strike the modern reader as more akin to adaptation than editing.

16 The Waterman vi. Cf. Bickerstaffe’s preface to The Maid of the Mill, a “little piece” of which “not only the general subject is drawn from Pamela, but almost every circumstance in it” (v).

17 See, for example, Fielding’s versions of Moliere in the 1730s, The Mock Doctor and The Miser, and the competing translations of a farce by Bourlin in the 1780s. Having joined “the jostling race our dramatic translators run in importing successful pieces from Paris,” the anonymous supplier of The Midnight Hour was prevented from having it staged, for Covent Garden had earlier commissioned Elizabeth Inchbald to produce an English version. Chagrined at having missed out on theatrical representation, the translator admitted that his version “is not wholly calculated for the closet of criticism” (preface 3). Inchbald’s rendition appeared in print as The Midnight Hour. A Comedy in Three Acts. From the French of M. Damaniant, Called Guerre Ouverte; ou, Ruse Contreruse. Cf. other pieces by Inchbald, such as The Child of Nature, Lovers’ Vows, and The Married Man.

18 Edward and Eleonora, A Tragedy, iii. What is more, the adapter acknowledges that “The Lines marked with inverted Commas are taken from the original Prologue to the Play.”

19 Susan Ward, “The Greatest Play on Words: The Amazing History of Theatre Posters and Playbills,” Art and Antiques, 9 June 1973, 31-5, at p. 32, reproduced in Gowen, “Studies in the History and Function of the British Theatre Playbill and Programme, 1564-1914,” Fig. 59.

20 In the preface to the play, Bickerstaffe explains that:

Cibber’s Non-Juror (borrowed from the Tartuffe of Moliere) has ever been reckoned an excellent comedy; but being written to expose a party, it was no longer interesting, because the folly and roguery it design’d to ridicule, no longer existed: It was thought, that it might be render’d agreeable to the present times, by once more having recourse to Moliere; and, with that view, I have endeavour’d to substitute his celebrated character of Tartuffe, in the room of Doctor Wolf.

The “hints for the alteration,” he adds, came from David Garrick. See The Hypocrite sig. A2r.

21 Bickerstaffe was basically a concocter of “books” for musical pieces, and, as with modem scripts for musicals and television shows, literary authorship was hardly an issue. Yet even so free an appropriator as Bickerstaffe would, on occasion, congratulate himself on independent composition. As James Lynch notes, he “was particularly proud” of Lionel and Clarissa “because, he asserted, he had not borrowed for it `an expression, a sentiment, or a character, from any dramatic writer extant.’ (Box, Pit, and Gallery 192).

22 See the individual title pages in The Dramatick Works of David Garrick (1768). For discussion of Garrick’s alterations, see chapter four of Pedicord’s The Theatrical Public.

23 A Trip to Scarborough, in Plays, ed. Price, lines 39-46.

24 The Country Girl, Advertisement, sig. A2v. Benjamin Victor warmly commended the zeal with which [Garrick] has ever aimed to banish from the stage all those plays which carry with them an immoral tendency, and to prune from those, who do not absolutely on the whole promote the interests of vice, such scenes of licentiousness and liberty, as a redundancy of wit and too great liveliness of imagination, has induced some of our comic writers, to indulge themselves in, and which the sympathetic disposition of the age of gallantry and intrigue had given a sanction to. (Dramatick Works of 1768 1: xi)

Cf. Bickerstaffe’s preface to The Plain Dealer, which asserts that the original had been excluded from the repertory “because it was immoral and indecent.” Bickerstaffe justifies his own undertaking in terms that automatically devalue it: “I thought I Had the right of other quacks, to try experiments upon it…. There is but one thing I am afraid of, That in endeavouring to correct these, perhaps imag

inary faults of the poet, I may have substituted real blemishes of my own.” Accordingly, he distinguishes typographically between his contribution and Wycherley’s “more valuable materials” (v-vii).

25 For a list of authors whose plays appeared in collected editions between 1700 and 1720, see Appendix B of my Authorship and Appropriation.

26 Some collections-for example, Colman the Elder’s Dramatick Works of 1777-featured no general prefatory matter, which itself is a sign that what follows is of no great consequence.

27 See “A Short Sketch of the Character and Writings of Mr. Garrick: Being an Extract from Mr. Victor’s elegant Account of the Dramatic Writers of Great-Britain” prefixed to volume one of Garrick’s The Dramatick Works: “Nothwithstanding the numberless and laborious advocations attending on his profession as an actor, and his station as a manager, yet still his active genius has been perpetually bursting forth in various little productions both in the dramatic and poetical way, whose merit cannot but make us regret his want of time for the pursuance of more extensive and important works” (xii). Cf. a similar assessment put forward in The Playhouse Pocket-Companion: “As a dramatic author, his rank is but low” (36).

28 See The Dramatic Works (1798): “Notwithstanding his constant employ as both actor and manager, he was perpetually producing various little things in the dramatic way; some of which are originals; others translations or alterations from other authors, adopted to the state of the present times; besides which, he wrote innumerable prologues, epilogues, songs, &c” (ii).

29 “An Essay on the Life and Genius,” Works 1: 11. A nonce collection of The Dramatic Works of Henry Fielding, Esq. In Three Volumes (1755 [-1761?]) had been issued by Andrew Millar, the publisher of the Works of 1762. It has no prefatory matter, and the plays included in it bear different imprints, though each volume has a spurious general title page.

30 “Some Account of the Life of Mr. George Lillo,” The Works of George Lillo 1: xxvii. That collection was preceded by a nonce collection of The Works Of the Late Mr George Lillo (London, 1740) issued by John Gray.

31 Dedication addressed by Davies to David Garrick in Lillo’s Works 1: iii.

32 Preface to The Works of Arthur Murphy 1: vii. Murphy also included “A List of the Several Pieces

Contained in this Edition, In order of Time as they were written and acted.”

33 More’s “prophane” dramas-her pastoral play The Search after Happiness, and her tragedies Percy and The Inflexible Captive-were set forth in The Works of Miss Hannah More in Prose and Verse (Cork, 1778), which was prepared for the press by the author.

34 See Sherbo, The Birth of Shakespeare Studies and Shakespeare’s Midwives; Jarvis, Scholars and Gentlemen; and Grazia, Shakespeare Verbatim. There is no comprehensive study of eighteenth-century editions of Renaissance playwrights other than Shakespeare.

35 For a survey of eighteenth-century dramatic anthologies, see chapter four of Russell’s “Dramatists and the Printed Page.”

36 However, Russell points out that dramatic anthologies, which had been conceived as cheap alternatives to author-centered collected editions and to singly printed plays, became more lavish and elaborate by the end of the century, thus matching their rivals in price. See “Dramatists and the Printed Page.”

37 For an overview, see Gray, Theatrical Criticism.

38 See, for example, The Playhouse Pocket-Companion: “We have, in the foregoing chapters, seen the progress of the English stage, through the several epochas of its history; we shall now hazard a few reflections on these epochas, and conclude with some strictures on the cause of the present acknowledged declining state of dramatic poetry in England” (36). This sorry state of affairs was due primarily to the entrenchment of the theatrical monopoly following the passage of the Licensing Act, for:

it is not … for the interest of the managers to bring on any [new pieces]; and whilst the present act continues in force … they will continue to exercise their capricious power of rejecting all that are offered, to the utter extinction of the national dramatic taste … especially since they can vamp up, and revive stale pieces, whose authors, long since peaceful inhabitants of the shades of Elysium, shall put in no claim for third nights. (41-42)

Cf. Guthrie, An Essay upon English Tragedy: “We shall now proceed to the period, (a mighty blank it is,) to the accession of George the second from that of King William, from whence we may date the decay of tragic genius in poetry” (17).

39 For an account of the dramatists’ growing earnings, see Milhous and Hume, “Playwrights’ Remuneration in Eighteenth-Century London.”

40 Milhous and Hume survey the forms of payment for afterpieces, including not only cash fees but also sporadic benefits, in “Playwrights’ Remuneration.”

41 Toward the end of the century, theaters occasionally put on mini-shows before the mainpiece. As F. G. Waldron explains in the Advertisement to The Prodigal, “it has been thought necessary, of late years, at the Hay-Market Theatre, to perform a short piece previous to that which is meant as the principal attraction.” Accordingly, Colman the Younger commissioned him to supply one that he proposed to derive from Joseph Mitchell’s The Fatal Extravagance (see The Prodigal 3).

42 Dramatick Works, 2: 114-15. Colman’s self-mockery is predictably a defense mechanism, for the comedy is indeed patched up from a variety of sources. The dedication acknowledges that:

Three of the great writers, enumerated in the Prologue, Plautus, Terence, and Marmontel, have contributed to enrich it. A play lately exhibited on the French stage, the Deux Amis of M. Beaumarchais, also suggested some hints of the fable; but the traces of them in this Comedy are so little apparent, that if I did not thus acknowledge the sources from which I have drawn, I question if the ingenious author himself would be able to claim his own property. (111)

43 See The London Stage 1: 2242-8. Pizarro opened at Drury Lane on 24 May 1799. It was published as Pizarro; A Tragedy, in Five Acts … Taken from the German Drama of Kotzebue; and Adapted to the English Stage by Richard Brinsley Sheridan (London, 1799).

44 See More Kotzebue! The Origin of My Own Pizarro. Sheridan was also upbraided for mangling the original by Thomas Dutton, the supplier of a literal translation of Kotzebue’s Die Spanier in Peru. See Dutton’s “General Remarks” appended to Pizarro in Peru 117-20.

45 Preface to “The Rivals” in Sheridan: Plays 6. The preface was printed only in the first and second editions.

46 See Hurd, A Letter to Mr. Mason; On the Marks of Imitation; Young, Conjectures; Duff, An Essay on Original Genius and Critical Observations; and Gerard, An Essay on Genius.

47 See Advertisement to Alzuma, A Tragedy. As Performed at the Theatre Royal in Covent-Garden (London, 1773) sigs. A2r-A3v, and preface to The Rival Sisters in Murphy’s Works 7: 247.

48 Lennox’s compilation was supplemented by Farmer’s An Essay, which argues against Shakespeare’s knowledge of Latin and Greek. Farmer demonstrates that many cases of allusion and/or citation from the classics, which previous critics and editors had adduced as evidence of Shakespeare’s first-hand knowledge of the originals, derive from contemporary translations such as North’s Plutarch based on the French of Amyot. For the earliest lists of Shakespeare’s sources, see Langbaine’s Momus Triumphans and his An Account of the English Dramatick Poets; Gildon’s The Lives and Characters; Rowe’s “Some Account of the Life,” in volume one of The Works of Mr. William Shakespear; and Gildon’s “Essay on the Art, Rise and Progress of the Stage in Greece, Rome and England”; and “Remarks on the Plays of Shakespear” in The Works of Mr. William Shakespear. For discussion, see Anderson, “The Study of Shakespeare’s Sources from Langbaine to Malone.”

49 See Wanton, The History of English Poetry 3: 484.

50 A Letter to Mr Mason 3. Cf. Gerard, An Essay on Genius: “He who possesseth a fertile imagination … will at least preserve the full spirit of the original, not contented with merely transmitting its form … and frequently he will give farther proof of genius, by improving on the borrowed hint, by adding new beauties, or delivering a known truth with greater elegance and justness” (45-6). The distinction between appropriation of ideas and verbatim copying was not new. It had been at the root of Gerard Langbaine’s theory of plagiarism. See chapter three of my Authorship and Appropriation.

51 Arthur Murphy writing in the Gray’s Inn Journal.

52 An Essay on Original Genius 129. Cf. 130-3 In.: “Were we to admit the invention of surprising incidents, as the most distinguishing criterion of ORIGINALITY, we should be under a necessity of assigning the superiority in this respect to ARIOSTO, over HOMER and SHAKESPEAR … a preference

surely, which neither the dictates of impartial Reason, nor the laws of sound Criticism, could ever justify.”

53 Duff, Critical Observations 128. Duff’s valorization of “the invention, and just exhibition of supernatural characters in particular” echoes Joseph Warton’s stress on Shakespeare’s creation of imaginary beings such as Ariel and the fairies in The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, respectively (An Essay on the Writings and Genius of Pope 227-9).

54 In fact, Shakespeare’s canonical status proved far more of a bugbear for the English Romantics, such as Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Byron, and Shelley, whose quasi-historical dramas abound in phrases and lines gleaned from the Bard’s works. See Steiner, The Death of Tragedy 146ff, and Bate, Shakespeare and the English Romantic Imagination.

55 The best account of the variety of historical sources used by eighteenth-century playwrights remains Lynch’s Box, Pit, and Gallery.

56Prologue (By a Friend), in Busiris, King of Egypt. A Tragedy (London, 1719), sig. A7v.

57 Zingis. A Tragedy (London, 1769), Advertisement, sig. A2r. Cf. Dow’s Sethona, which is set in historic Memphis.

58 Advertisement to Alzuma, sig. A2r.

59 The edition of Dow’s play includes an elaborate advertisement of this translation: This Day is Published,

In Two Volumes Quarto, with a new and accurate Map, and Frontispiece to each Volume. Price 11. 10 s. in boards.

The History of Hindustan, from the earliest Account of Time, to the Death of Akbar. Translated from the Persian of Mahummud Casim Ferishta of Delhi. Together with a Dissertation concerning the Religion and Philosophy of the Brahims; with an Appendix containing the History of the Mogul Empire, from its decline in the Reign of Mahummud Shaw, to the present Times. By ALEXANDER Dow, Esq. (sig. A2v)

60 See the preface to Sotheby’s The Siege of Cuzco (v).

61 An Essay on the Writings and Genius of Pope 276. And further:

We have been too long attached to Grecian and Roman stories. In truth, the Domestica Facta, are more interesting as well as more useful: more interesting, because we all think ourselves concerned in the actions and fates of our countrymen; more useful, because the characters and manners, bid the fairest to be true and natural, when they are drawn from models with which we are exactly acquainted. The Turks, the Persians, and Americans, of our poets, are in reality distinguished from Englishmen, only by their turbans and feathers; and think, and act, as if they were born and educated within the bills of mortality. The historical plays of Shakespeare, are always particularly grateful to the spectator, who loves to see and hear our own Harrys and Edwards, better than all the Achilles’s or Brutus’s that ever existed. (276-7)

62 See, for example, More’s Prologue to The Fatal Falsehood:

Our modern Poets scarce know how to chuse / A subject worthy of the Tragic Muse; / For Bards so well have glean’d th’ Historic field, / That scarce one sheaf th’ exhausted ancients yield … Yet still the wilds of fiction open lie, / A flow’ry prospect, and a boundless sky … She dares not touch the Drama’s nobler strings, / The fate of nations, and the fall of Kings; / The humbler scenes of private life she shews, / A simple story of domestic woes. (sig. A3r)

63 For a survey of the conventions of gothic drama, see the opening chapters of Ranger’s “Terror and Pity reign in every Breast.”

64 The first to reach the stage was More’s Percy, which opened at Covent Garden on 10 December 1777. It was followed by Jephson’s Law of Lombardy on 8 February 1779 and More’s Fatal Falsehood on 6 May 1779. Cowley’s Albina was not premiered at the Haymarket Theater until 31 August 1779. See The London Stage, 1660-1800 part 5, 1: 133, 233, 254, and 268, respectively.

65 Tiffany Stem provides a stimulating account of the process of script revision in eighteenth-century theater in chapters five and six of her Rehearsal from Shakespeare to Sheridan.

66 This improvement in earnings was a direct outcome of the change, introduced in 1794-95 at both Drury Lane and Covent Garden, in the system of rewarding playwrights for mainpieces. The author’s benefit was abolished. Instead, “the playwright was paid 33 6s 8d per night (amounting to 100 for every three nights) for the first nine nights of the run. If the play survived twenty nights, another 100 would be paid, bringing maximum compensation to 400.” Though intended to prevent exorbitant benefits made possible, at least in theory, by the recent enlargement of seating capacity at both houses, the new system was in fact highly advantageous to writers since it set the profit from any play, even a fairly dismal flop, at a reasonable minimum. See Millions and Hume, “Playwrights’ Remuneration.”

67 See Rose, “The Author as Proprietor: Donaldson v. Becket and the Genealogy of Modern Authorship” and Authors and Owners; Kernan, Printing Technology, Letters and Samuel Johnson; and Saunders, Authorship and Copyright.


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Copyright Studies in the Literary Imagination Spring 2001

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