She Stoops to Conquer

She Stoops to Conquer About "An Essay on the Theatre"

In 1772, Oliver Goldsmith published an essay entitled "An Essay on the Theatre; Or, a Comparison Between Laughing and Sentimental Comedy." The essay came after the poor reception of his play A Good-Natured Man and in anticipation of the much-loved hit She Stoops to Conquer. It is easy to understand this essay as an explicit statement of purpose for the latter comedy, which was in the process of being completed for production at the time of essay's publication, and as such should be studied in conjunction with it.

The essay notes that people tend to "mistake change for improvement," and that this trend is manifest in attitudes on the contemporary theatre. Goldsmith writes how at one time, tragedy was the best-loved entertainment, though comedy has outranked it in terms of popularity over the centuries. He describes comedy as a "natural portrait of human folly and frailty, of what all are judges, because all have sat for the picture." In other words, we turn to comedy because it reminds us that we are all imperfect, and allows us to find humor in that fact.

However, Goldsmith believes that his contemporaries have turned back to the subject of tragedy in their own comedies. The contemporary comedies, he argues, refuse to engage in mockery of human frailty and the production of "low and life and middle life," instead choosing to show “high” characters who are traditionally associated with tragedy. Goldsmith turns to the critical authorities as validation that tragedy is meant to evoke pity by watching a high man fall from a great height. It is important that the man falls from a high place so that we feel the pity, since we would feel only "contempt" for the fall of a low character.

Goldsmith notes that "tragedy and comedy have run in distinct channels" since they were introduced as separate forms, but that the contemporary "sentimental comedy" seeks to mix these channels in disastrous ways. He defines "sentimental comedy" as comedy "in which the virtues of private life are exhibited, rather than vices exposed," and "the distresses rather than the faults of mankind make our interest in the piece." When characters in these "sentimental comedies" are shown to have faults, their audiences are expected to pardon and "applaud" those faults in the shadow of the character's well-displayed virtue. Goldsmith notes that despite the great popularity of this new genre, it exists at the risk of losing one of the great dramatic traditions.

He proposes a counter-argument to his philosophy: if these "sentimental comedies" are popular, is that not proof of their virtue? However, Goldsmith notes this argument as "specious," since audiences would likely be even more amused by the true comedy, rather than this "bastard tragedy [of sentimental comedy], which only is applauded because it is new."

He proposes a second counter-argument, which is that we ought not even call it "sentimental comedy," but rather acknowledge it as a new hybrid. However, Goldsmith notes that such complications allow us then to "make tragedy laugh," and commit the fault of putting jokes into a "funeral procession."

Finally, Goldsmith notes that the best argument for "sentimental comedy" is that is it the "most easily written." He lists the qualities necessary to write one of these comedies competently, all with a snide and judgmental tone, the point being that it is easy to touch an audience's sensibilities, but much harder to challenge them. Goldsmith worries that the great comic actors will soon not have any great material to use, and that audiences will soon lack true entertainments at which to truly laugh.

Much of this essay provides insight into Goldsmith's purpose in She Stoops to Conquer, and standards by which to judge its success. No matter how sentimental one might argue the end of his play becomes, it is hard to argue he was not successful in writing a complicated (difficult-to-write) work that forces us to confront the failings of humankind and find amusement in recognizing ourselves in them.

Finally, it's worth noting that in Goldsmith's day, “laughing comedy” was not actually quite as out-of-sorts as Goldsmith contends here. There are many examples of “low” or “laughing” comedies that were great successes at the same time as the popular “sentimental comedies,” which could suggest that much of Goldsmith's diatribe is due to his own anger over the failure of A Good-Natured Man and not due to a critic's concern with the death of an art form. Regardless of why he had the attitude, this essay and the play that reflects it are undeniable examples of an artist who was able to create simultaneously a comic play and a critical tract on the efficiency and purpose of comedy through the ages.

The full essay can be found online, through the link provided in the Additional Sources link of the ClassicNote.