The Conscious Lovers

The middle-class tragedy

As for prose and poetry, there is no clear beginning to the "Augustan era" in drama, but the end is clearly marked. Augustan-era drama ended definitively in 1737 with the Licensing Act. Prior to 1737, the English stage was changing rapidly from Restoration comedy and Restoration drama and their noble subjects to the quickly developing melodrama.

George Lillo and Richard Steele wrote the trend-setting plays of the early Augustan period. Lillo's plays consciously turned from heroes and kings toward shopkeepers and apprentices. They emphasized drama on a household scale rather than a national scale, and the hamartia and agon in his tragedies are the common flaws of yielding to temptation and the commission of Christian sin. The plots are resolved with Christian forgiveness and repentance. Steele's The Conscious Lovers (1722) hinges upon his young hero avoiding fighting a duel. These plays set up a new set of values for the stage. Instead of amusing or inspiring the audience, they sought to instruct the audience and ennoble it. Further, the plays were popular precisely because they seemed to reflect the audience's own lives and concerns.

Joseph Addison also wrote a play entitled Cato in 1713, but it did not inspire followers. Cato concerned the Roman statesman who opposed Julius Caesar. The year of its première is important for understanding why the play is unique, for Queen Anne was seriously ill at the time, and both the Tory ministry of the day and the Whig opposition (already led by Robert Walpole) were concerned about the succession. Both groups were in contact with Anne's exiled brother James Francis Edward Stuart. Londoners sensed this anxiety, for Anne had no surviving children; all of the closest successors in the Stuart family were Roman Catholic. Therefore, the figure of Cato was a transparent symbol of Roman integrity. The Whigs saw in him a Whig refusal to accept an absolute monarch from the House of Stuart, while the Tories saw in him a resistance to rule by a triumphant general (John Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough, whose wife Sarah was rumored to control Anne). Further, Cato's claim that Caesar profited by illegal war echoed the Tory accusations against Marlborough. Both sides cheered the play, even though Addison was himself clearly Whig and had meant the play as something near propaganda. John Home's play Douglas (1756) would have a similar fate to Cato in the next generation after the Licensing Act.

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