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Gentility and the Comic Theatre of Late Stuart London
Mark S. Dawson

Cambridge University Press, 2005
$85.00, 300 pages, ISBN 13 978-0-521-84809-1


Reviewed by Andrea Trocha Van Nort



This book provides a socio-cultural approach to understanding the persistent social stratification and to unlocking the polymorphous notion of gentility in the late Stuart period via comic theater, using a broad variety of texts–dramatic as well as non–while keeping in mind the importance of repertoire in the study. Mark Dawson [currently a lecturer at the Australian National University, Canberra], in this exploration of later Stuart drama, defies much of the literature to date covering the larger 1660 to 1725 period. Assertions made from the outset contest many commonly held precepts of Restoration scholars, hence the critical interest brought forward by his selecting this narrow span of later comedies that reveal much as regards the earlier and more carefully dealt with age of Dryden as well as the early Stuart period.

That Dawson limits his study to the later Stuart plays thus seems unsurprising not only given their lack of scholarly attention heretofore but also due to the social structures of the period which were undergoing a cultural shift in the rhetoric of gentility, the result of the erosion of the notion of ancestry from the Restoration onwards. Dawson’s aim is to prove that this process of [re]defining gentility may be observed in the comedies of the period and in the plays from prior periods that remained in repertoires. More precisely, he advances the idea that comedy actually effected social change [44]. His views of plot lines and of stock characters as codified images of gentlemen and citizens challenge many widely held theories, as do his interpretations of the actors’ and actresses’ ties to their roles. For Dawson these elements "address discrepancies in the social structure" [38] and call for a change in the way gentility had come to be defined in the late Stuart period.

The theater, for Dawson, explores the social repercussions of the upwardly mobile and affluent citizen, an individual able to vie economically with landowners. The well rehearsed citizen-cuckold plot is interpreted as a representation of a representation, that is to say, skimmington brought from the town streets to the stage. From this point of view, Dawson is able to differentiate between real and dubious, effective and ineffective power: the virtuous individual–ostensibly genteel–who may take part in governmental affairs, and the one who is incapable of keeping his own household in order. Complicating this is society’s residual question of bloodlines and their purity as well as their capacity to communicate this virtue. That some genteel characters appear ineffectual constitutes the central dilemma which comedy approaches through the various paradigms of marriage comedies, a finding he pursues in the third part of the book. Nevertheless, money, which puts the citizen on an equal footing with the landed gentleman, cannot allow the citizen access to the ranks of the gentry–as many of the latter were impecunious themselves–but rather a sort of virtuosity in the Latin sense, that is, the capacity to govern in a position of power. Furthermore, the speculating citizen’s gains are perceived largely as insubstantial, as redacted on paper, unlike the landowner’s sound assets. The citizen-cuckold plot, therefore, conveniently disposed of the citizen who, too concentrated on his business and fortune, is presented as incapable of understanding his often genteel-born wife and producing "proper" scions–he commonly only has girls, not boys–whom he could not control. The higher-pedigreed wife’s adulterous lust works as a balancing power giving "heat" to the bloodline by bringing into the world the offspring of genteel beau characters.

The citizen, perceived as physiologically deficient, wields a type of power that is inconsistent with that needed to govern the populace. Clearly, contemporary politics are never far from the issue, though Dawson questions rather the principles delineating low from high and high from low. Later Stuart representations of the citizen (Dawson cites Steele’s Conscious Lovers) seem less at odds with the citizen’s capacity to rule, and have for other scholars marked the turn from satirical to sentimental comedy, yet Dawson warns that a clear shift towards expressing disapproval of aristocratic standards (or, in some cases, double standards) does not make a case for an equally strong movement towards the replacement of this group by an alternate social strata, that of the upstanding citizen. Rejecting the heretofore largely accepted aristocracy-bourgeoisie animosity or feudalism-capitalism conflict, Dawson pleads for the comic theater’s "testing of the social order" [44], for a questioning of the social hierarchy in place. It is at this point that he distinguishes between the class-war clash that modern criticism promotes and a tension concerning status and class power. Authority was considered the elite’s prerogative, which went in tandem with the gentleman’s duty to place public interests over his own [80]. Comedy’s citizen whose fortune has been amassed by speculation cannot, from this point of view, be apt to set aside self-interest for a common good.
The political overtones of anti-Whig propaganda are thus examined under a different angle, especially since Dawson stresses that the citizen-cuckold plot was an early Stuart product. For this part of the investigation, the literature to date is tested regarding approach as well as interpretation; this first section raises a plethora of questions concerning the role of the theater in the assessment and the continued development of gentility.

These early arguments concerning the status of the citizen and his power as seen in comic citizen-cuckold plots are followed by a deeper look at the dynamics of the theater-going experience and the playhouse as regards the architecture and the social codes the latter imposed on those present.
First of all, the notion of a play as a refracted image of the audience is evoked, and Dawson interprets each presentation as a sort of negotiation [93] with the audience which, depending on the composition at any given time, could applaud or cat call it to a close. The acceptance of plots or characters would in this way be considered as a continual reshaping of the collective mindset. Although an elite audience was the norm, straight lines cannot be drawn between the genteel and the upwardly mobile citizens.
Emphasis is laid on the language imposed on the architecture that relegates the middling citizens to the "middle gallery" which Dawson reads as an appositive, as well as on the groups allowed to sit in the pit and in the boxes (from which he mentions it is easier to watch the audience than the play), and the exchanges between these sections as put forward in various paratextual ripostes (e.g. Durfey’s epilogue to Love for Money). Texts of plays as well are read as queries of the relegating of genteel "looking" spectators (citizens) to the gallery (e.g. Mary Pix’s Innocent Mistress).
Social custom aside, Dawson reminds readers of the necessary mixing of the groups and brings to this discussion of the social stratification of the late Stuart theater reinforcement to established arguments via sources such as memoirs, diaries, and contemporary critical commentaries. Among others, examples of simply going to the theater or the use of elite-connoted seating (boxes, the pit) by wealthy citizens to appear as "gentlemen" are given to support his views that the theater was indeed responsible for effecting change in existing perceptions of the social hierarchy. Social ambiguity thus left room for revisions in what was collectively considered genteel, to the point that John Dennis’s use of the words "a new and numerous gentry" in approximately 1725 should come as no surprise to describe the middling Londoners who then frequented the theater on a regular basis [141]. It is around these new findings that he is able to articulate the third and surely most audacious part of his study, that of the fop character: proving the mutability of gentility, its accoutrements and its advantages, is necessary before his moving on to reinterpret the fop.

Dawson’s interpretive path to the fop character rejects many of the conclusions drawn by literature on the subject. His view of the fop is tightly linked to that of the citizen in that this higher status individual–not an upstart bourgeois–exhibits the need to brandish genteel symbols, the significance of which is undermined by his de facto impersonation of what his lineage already allows him to be. Nor does the author see this character as a representative of the third gender: by redefining effeminacy and other key words through the rhetoric of the period, one is led to visualize the fop as hubristic in his quest for displaying his status. Perceived sexual deviance is attributed to dissatisfaction with identity. Their rehearsal of their own status becomes even more problematic when the same representation is played out on stage by an actor donning gentility, creating an equivocal mirror effect. Quality as part and parcel of genteel bloodlines is thus questioned through the fop or beau–a theater regular and thus present twice in the social equation of the stage. Added to this, the succession crisis is questioned as a variable in the creation of the fop, with new research linking followers of James III to this much debated character. The meaning of the symbols of gentility, or their lack of meaning, on the stage, in the boxes, or even from seats on the stage, become keys to understanding the elites: "As gentility was a political weapon, so the struggle to define gentility was fundamentally a political one" [201].
Finally, Dawson advances the anti-theatrical tracts as rife with attacks on acting out and [often] ridiculing gentility on stage. That doubt could be raised concerning lineage was seen as immoral–not only did going to the theater corrupt, but the implications of its questioning of gentility weakened the social order in place: still, for Dawson, that playwrights should find it appropriate to censure effeminate and affected gentry points to comedy’s corrective role. Along these same lines, he pursues the distinction between genteel playwrights and those of meaner birth, as regards the manner in which their works were received. A gentleman playwright could purport to write corrective comedy, while the works of the lesser born could only aspire to entertaining the audience. A playwright’s own sense of socio-cultural superiority is shown as depending on status as well. Concluding this section is a comparison of Steele’s and Dennis’s views on the conventions and aims of comedy, with gentility at the center of the debate. While Steele insists that comedy should condemn all "vicious" behavior, Dennis found that laughter, not "patterns for imitation," was the business of comedy [257].

In sum, Dawson’s book throws a monkey wrench into many accepted modern interpretations, but at the same time, and more importantly, questions our view of the comic theater and its stock characters throughout the entire Stuart period. Although some of his interpretations may appear only slightly left of center of other recent literature, it is in fact his approach which unmistakably calls twentieth-century assumptions into question. The present reviewer finds that his efforts to maintain the broader view of the period in view–which he sets out to do–could be strengthened by more frequent comparisons with Restoration plays and stage conditions. This is especially true regarding his revision of the presence of women onstage playing genteel characters. He sets out to negate the commodification of actresses during this latter period, yet the results of the study seem to call for more substantial evidence to support his claims. Also, that attention is paid to the attempts to define gentility without examples of genteel characters that do not display the folderol of the status gives an impression of limited treatment. Regarding the analysis itself, demonstration by deduction is, as Dawson admits, relatively unsatisfying, yet the aims of his work must, from time to time, necessarily depend upon it.

Lastly, one is surprised that apologies must be made for a study of the ruling class, which Dawson does, although he asserts he will study those ruled in his apology, he never returns to the wider masses, concentrating on affluent citizens and only rarely on servants. And, explanations of the Actaeon myth [54] and of Ganymede [165] certainly seem in excess given the readership of this book. Nevertheless, these minor points detract in no way from the conclusions which will necessarily have far-reaching consequences on future interpretations.


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