Rarely performed for modern audiences, Richard Steele’s 1722 comedy The Conscious Lovers nevertheless is an essential component in a major turning in the history of the British stage. The play’s debut took place on the night of November 7, 1722 on Drury Lane at Theatre Royal where it enjoyed tremendous audience appeal over the next 18 days. Those audiences bore witness to a transformative moment in Restoration Comedy.
Restoration Comedy presented sophisticated characters who moved in the circles of the most elegant spheres of society and expressed rebellion through the castigation of virtue (primarily filtered through Puritan beliefs) as a manifestation of hypocrisy. The humor was clever, sharp, ironic and though easily produced laughter, it could also leave and audience member feeling a bit empty emotionally. Into this vacuum stepped Steele and others who wanted to advance the contemporary state of British drama by re-introducing at least an element of the Aristotelian catharsis into comedy by injecting just a touch of tragedy.
The Conscious Lovers is hardly Hamlet, of course, but the emotional punch delivered when the rather pathetically poor heroine Indiana ultimately learns that she is, in fact, an heiress takes the audience on an emotional ride from lows to highs that most Restoration Comedies could never even attempt since such a reversal of fortunate would be as much as having the upper class affirm those very middle class virtues they had just spent two hours wittily trashing as hypocrisy.
The Conscious Lovers is beyond all argument an important milestone in the history of stage comedy, but it is also very definitely a work of its age and both its humor and its revolutionary appeal belong to a time long past.