As during the Restoration, economic reality drove the stage during the Augustan period. Under Charles II court patronage meant economic success, and therefore the Restoration stage featured plays that would suit the monarch and/or court. The drama that celebrated kings and told the history of Britain's monarchs was fit fare for the crown and courtiers. Charles II was a philanderer, and so Restoration comedy featured a highly sexualized set of plays. However, after the reign of William III and Mary II, the court and crown stopped taking a great interest in the playhouse. Theaters had to get their money from the audience of city dwellers, therefore, and consequently plays that reflected city anxieties and celebrated the lives of citizens were the ones to draw crowds. The aristocratic material from the Restoration continued to be mounted, and adaptations of Tudor plays were made and ran, but the new plays that were authored and staged were the domestic- and middle-class dramas. The other dramatic innovation was "spectacle": plays that had little or no text, but which emphasized novel special effects.
Pantomime and tableau spectacle
The public attended when they saw their lives represented on the stage, but also attended when there was a sight that would impress them. If costumes were lavish, the sets impressive or the actresses alluring, audiences would attend. The Restoration spectacular had seen the development of English opera and oratorio and a war between competing theaters to produce the most expensive and eye-popping plays. However, these blockbuster productions could mean financial ruin as much as security, and neither of the two main playhouses could continue the brinksmanship for long. After these battles between the playhouses, and these were multiple, the theaters calculatingly sought the highest appeal with the lowest cost. If the cost of rehearsal time, in particular, could be shortened, the theater's investment would be reduced. Rehearsal time cost a playhouse its cast, its property masters, and its stages, and a long rehearsal meant fewer plays put on. Additionally, dramatists received the money from each third night of box office, and this could be dangerous to a house that needed every farthing to defray costs. Star dramatists could negotiate for more than one benefit night and might have terms for benefits on revival, while new, unknown, or dependent authors could be managed. The solution for the theatrical producers was to cut the costs of plays and actors while increasing the outright spectacle, and there were quite a few plays that were not literary at all that were staged more often than the literary plays.
John Rich and Colley Cibber dueled over special theatrical effects. They put on plays that were actually just spectacles, where the text of the play was almost an afterthought. Dragons, whirlwinds, thunder, ocean waves, and even actual elephants were on stage. Battles, explosions, and horses were put on the boards (Cibber). Rich specialized in pantomime and was famous as the character "Lun" in harlequin presentations. The playwrights of these works were hired men, not dramatists, and so they did not receive the traditional third-night author's profits. A pantomime, after all, required very little in the way of a playwright and much more in the way of a director, and with John Rich and Colley Cibber both acting as star players and directors, such on-demand spectacles did not necessitate a poet. Further, spectacles could be written quickly to answer to the public's whims or the rival theater's triumphs, rarely risked offensive political statements, and did not require paying benefits to a playwright. In other words, they gave the managers more profit. The plays put on in this manner are not generally preserved or studied, but their near monopoly on the theaters, particularly in the 1720s, infuriated established literary authors. Alexander Pope was only one of the poets to attack "spectacle" (in the 1727 Dunciad A and, with more vigor, the Dunciad B). The criticism was so widespread that Colley Cibber himself made excuses for his part in the special-effects war, claiming that he had no choice but to comply with market pressures.
The "chromatic tortures" and divas of opera
If vacant, subliterary spectacles were not enough of a threat to dramatists, opera, which had crossed over to England in the Restoration, experienced an enormous surge in popularity with Italian grand opera in England in the 1710s and 1720s. In The Spectator, both in number 18 and the 3 April 1711 number, and many places elsewhere, Joseph Addison fretted that foreign opera would drive English drama from the stage altogether. These early fears followed the sudden rage for the Italian singers and operas that took over London in 1711 with the arrival of Handel. Inasmuch as opera combined singing with acting, it was a mixed genre, and its violation of neoclassical strictures had made it a controversial form from the start. Addison, damning opera's heterogeny, wrote, "Our Countrymen could not forbear laughing when they heard a Lover chanting out a Billet-doux, and even the Superscription of a Letter set to a Tune." This type of opera not only took up theatrical rehearsal time and space, it also took away dramatic subject matter. Straight playwrights were at a loss. As John Gay lamented (see below), no one could use music in a play unless it was as an opera, and Englishmen were nearly forbidden from that. To add insult to injury, the casts and celebrated stars were foreigners and, as with Farinelli and Senesino (the latter of whom was paid two thousand pounds for a single season in 1721), castrati. Castrati were symbols, to the English, of the Roman Catholic Church. The satirists saw in opera the non plus ultra of invidiousness. High melodies would cover the singers' expressions of grief or joy, conflating all emotion and sense under a tune that might be entirely unrelated. Alexander Pope blasted this shattering of "decorum" and "sense" in Dunciad B and suggested that its real purpose was to awaken the Roman Catholic Church's power ("Wake the dull Church") while it put a stop to the political and satirical stage and made all Londoners fall into the sleep of un-Enlightenment:
- Joy to Chaos! let Division reign:
- Chromatic tortures soon shall drive them [the muses] hence,
- Break all their nerves, and fritter all their sense:
- One Trill shall harmonize joy, grief, and rage,
- Wake the dull Church, and lull the ranting Stage;
- To the same notes thy sons shall hum, or snore,
- And all thy yawning daughters cry, encore. (IV 55–60)
Furthermore, grand opera had a high degree of spectacle in it. In the 17th century, when opera first came to England, it prompted enormously complex theatrical stagings to present illusions of ghosts, mythological figures, and epic battles. When Handel's arrival in England spurred a new vogue for English opera, it also caused a new vogue for imported opera, no matter the content, so long as it would create an enormous visual impact. Although some of the "Tory Wits" like Pope and John Gay wrote opera librettos (the two combining for Acis and Galatea with Handel), opera was a spectacular form of theater that left too little room for dramatic acting for most of the playwrights. Pope argued in The Dunciad that Handel's operas were "masculine" in comparison to Italian and French opera. While this is a musical commentary, it is also a commentary on the amount of decoration and frippery put on the stage, on the way that Handel's operas concentrated on their stories and music rather than their theatrical effects.
It was not merely the fact that such operas drove out original drama, but also that the antics and vogue for the singers took away all else, seemingly, that infuriated English authors. The singers (particularly the sopranos) introduced London to the concept of the prima donna, in both senses of the term. In 1727, two Italian sopranos, Francesca Cuzzoni and Faustina Bordoni, had such a rivalry and hatred of each other (the latter had been paid more than the former) that the audiences were encouraged to support their favorite singer by hissing her rival, and during a performance of Astyanax in 1727, the two women actually began to fight on stage (Loughrey 13). John Gay wrote to Jonathan Swift on 3 February 1723:
- There's nobody allow'd to say I sing but an Eunuch or an Italian Woman. Every body is grown now as great a judge of Musick as they were in your time of Poetry & folks that could not distinguish one tune from another now daily dispute over different Styles of Handel, Bononcini, and Aitillio. People have now forgot Homer, and Virgil & Caesar.
These operas were spectaculars in every sense. The personalities of the stars were before the stage, the stars were before the music, and the music before the words. Additionally, opera brought with it new stage machines and effects. Even Handel, whom Pope values as restrained and sober, had his heroine brought on stage by "two huge Dragons out of whose mouths issue Fire and Smoke" in Rinaldo in 1711.
The "problem" of spectacle continued in the 1720s and 1730s. In 1734, Henry Fielding has his tragedian, Fustian, describe the horror of a pantomime show:
- intimating that after the audience had been tired with the dull works of Shakespeare, Jonson, Vanbrugh, and others, they are to be entertained with one of these pantomimes, of which the master of the playhouse, two or three painters, and half a score dancing-masters are the compilers. ...I have often wondered how it was possible for any creature of human understanding, after having been diverted for three hours with the production of a great genius, to sit for three more and see a set of people running about the stage after one another, without speaking one syllable, and playing several juggling tricks, which are done at Fawks's after a much better manner; and for this, sir, the town does not only pay additional prices, but loses several fine parts of its best authors, which are cut out to make room for the said farces. (Pasquin, V i.)
Fustian complains as well that authors are denied stagings because of these entertainments, and, as well, that playhouse managers would steal plays from their authors. As Fustian says earlier, a playwright could spend four months trying to get a manager's attention and then "he tells you it won't do, and returns it to you again, reserving the subject, and perhaps the name, which he brings out in his next pantomime" (Pasquin IV i.).