A Note on 18th century Anti-Sentimental Comedy writers

Ans. When sentimental comedies dominated much the field of dramaturgy, Goldsmith and Sheridan through their anti-sentimental comedies tried to bring back humour, wit and intellectuality to the stage in the 18th century. Their incidents or characters are so chosen as to satirise the ‘sentimental Muse’. They aim to revive and restore ‘the comic Muse, long sick, in sentimentals’.

Goldsmith in his much celebratéd treatise “The Present State of Polite Learning” hammers hard the ‘genteel ( or more properly ‘sentimental) comedy. Goldsmith wrote two prose comedies, both of which rank high among their class. The first, called “The Good-Natured Man” is not so good as the second “She Stoops to Conquer”.

Much palpably, “She Stoops to Conquer” wages a war against the over-use of sentimentality and tears. Goldsmith’s comedy is no “weeping comedy” like Cumberland’s “The West Indian”. It is rather a hilarious, ‘laughing comedy’, Horace Walpole criticising fun and humour in the play branded it as a farce rather than a comedy. But this criticism will prove to be unfair when we consider that Goldsmith just wanted to counter the hybrid genre of Sentimental Comedy. However, Walpole appreciates the fun which arises out of the situations.

R.B. Sheridan’s first play, “The Rivals” was a prose comedy, and it had enormous success in his time. It was followed by a farce “The Scheming Lieutenant”, and then by an operatic play. “The Duenna”. “The Duenna” had
a phenomenal success, but it was followed by the weaker play “A Trip to Scarborough”. The last but one play “The School for Scandal” was undoubtedly his best. Sheridan’s very brief dramatic career came to its early end with his last play “The Critic”: or, a Tragedy Rehearsed”, It is a very telling attack on the popular sentimental drama, and has been called the best burlesque of its age.

Sheridan’s comedies reveal his genius as the inventor of dramatic situations. It is well said that he has ‘an eye for the situation’. He pulls the wires of his situation dexterously, and his plot grows out of this. There is nothing deep or lofty in it. Sheridan’s plot is no world-shaker and lives only in his situations. The comedy of manners, which is the province of Sheridan’s dramatic art, requires no complicated theme or serious action. “The School for Scandal”, “The Rivals” and “The Critic” have no great plot, and are purely concerned with the dramatic invention of some exciting and comic situations.

Sheridan’s prose comedies as well forward the tradition of the Restoration comedies. They present the same world of vices and fashions as in the Restoration Tragedies, but with the Restoration immoralities purged off. In Sheridan, we see the polite world of fashion, but he makes its vices appear foolish by exaggerating them in humorous portraiture. The plots, often based on complex intrigues, are always ingenious and effective. The characters, among whom we have Mrs Malaprop, Bob Acres, Sir Fretful Plagiary, are stage types. But they have become quite irresistible by virtue of their inherent humorous potentialities. The dialogue is brilliant in its picturesque, epigrammatic repartee, full of wit, intellectuality and humour. The plays are remarkable for their vivacity and charm.

The anti-sentimental comedies owed, to some extent, to the Restoration ‘comedy of manners’ as well as the Jonsonian ‘comedy of humours’, but still marking a certain advancement on both. Unlike the school of Congreve and his colleagues, an anti-sentimental comedy is mostly free from both licence and vulgarity and thereby becomes a more refined piece of art.