Sentimental Comedy

Do you like your plays to simply entertain you or to carry a lesson for the audience? If it's the latter, then you may enjoy sentimental comedies. A dramatic genre popular in the period of the eighteenth century, some of sentimental comedy's defining characteristics were its conservative and moralistic elements.  

Sentimental Comedy Sentimental Comedy

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Contents
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    Sentimental Comedy: definition

    Sentimental comedy is a genre of comedy that emerged in the 18th century. It aims to evoke an emotional response from the audience, focusing on the virtues and goodness of its characters rather than ridiculing their follies and vices. The narrative often revolves around themes of love, virtue, and morality, and the story typically ends on a positive note, reaffirming the inherent goodness of humanity. Sentimental comedy was a reaction against the cynicism and moral ambiguity of the Restoration period, offering a more optimistic view of human nature and society.

    The Restoration period lasted approximately from 1660 to 1710. It is marked by the reign of King Charles II (1630-1685). The Restoration era can be defined by its frivolity and relaxing of social rules and norms. It was a more permissive time for many. This came as a backlash to the repressive Puritan era that had come before under Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658).

    Despite the genre's name, sentimental comedies contained very little humour. They were typically moralistic tales that followed a fundamentally good protagonist who underwent challenges. These plays set out to showcase that good people could be led astray by those with bad intentions, but their virtue could always be restored. Sentimental comedies aimed to teach their audience moral lessons and invoke deep emotion in them too. They also pushed the idea that humans could be either fundamentally good or bad with little nuance. Most plays in the genre focused on middle-class protagonists.

    Sentimental comedy, a yellow sign with the word right and an arrow pointing one way and the word wrong with another arrow pointing the other way, StudySmarter

    Fig. 1 - Sentimental comedies made an effort to teach their audience a lesson.

    Sentimental Comedy: period

    The genre of sentimental comedy was most popular in the eighteenth century. This came as English society was significantly changing. The previous period, known as the Restoration, lasted from the mid-1600s until the early 1700s. Under King Charles II, England altered greatly. Social norms became much more relaxed, and there was an emphasis on enjoying life's pleasures. This change was shown on stage, with the genre of Restoration comedy becoming widely loved.

    Restoration comedies were a dramatic genre popular under the reign of King Charles II in England. Restoration comedies can be defined by their witty dialogue, sexual content, and social commentary. A key goal of plays in the genre was to make an audience laugh. Popular Restoration comedies include William Wycherley's (1641-1716) The Country Wife (1675) and The Way of the World (1700) by William Congreve (1670-1729).

    Check out StudySmarter's explanation on Restoration comedy for more information about the genre!

    After King Charles II's death, Restoration comedies fell in popularity, as did the lifestyle that the monarch had promoted. Sentimental comedies developed as a genre as a direct response to Restoration comedies. They were moralistic tales that focused on overcoming challenges and showcasing human virtues. This change reflected the more conservative society that was forming after the frivolity of the Restoration.

    Sentimental Comedy: characteristics

    Sentimental comedies tended to follow a similar pattern and were, in ways, quite formulaic. Below are some defining features of the genre.

    Sentimental Comedy: Characteristics
    Characteristic Explanation
    Moralistic tone.Sentimental comedies typically tried to get across some kind of moral lesson to their audiences. These plays had a message behind them and were trying to teach people something.
    Middle-class protagonist.Sentimental comedies focused on the middle class, a social group that was expanding during the 1700s. At the beginning of the century, the majority of theatregoers were from the aristocracy, but by the end of the century, this had significantly changed.
    A character-led astray.The central character in sentimental comedies was usually led astray by some kind of negative influence. This is the challenge that must be overcome in the narrative, which will, therefore, teach the audience a key lesson.
    Themes of virtue versus sin.The majority of sentimental comedies held a philosophical motivation. The natural goodness of the protagonist is opposed by the sinful path they take during the play. A chance for redemption is offered before the conclusion of a sentimental comedy. Doing this promotes the philosophical idea that humans have inherent virtue and can reform themselves.
    Emotional dimension.Sentimental comedies set out to invoke emotions in their audiences. Playwrights of the genre wanted to foster a sense of empathy and understanding amongst their audiences in order for them to better understand the moral lesson being presented.
    Unrealistic plot.In many ways, sentimental comedies did not have plausible plots. They focused more on creating moral lessons than on constructing believable stories. However, contemporary audiences were not put off by this, still flocking to see these plays.
    Happy conclusion.Sentimental comedies overwhelmingly had happy endings. Any loose ends in the plot were tied up, and the protagonist overcame any moral challenges presented to them, completing the lesson they had to learn.

    Sentimental Comedy: examples

    As a popular genre in its time, there were a large number of sentimental comedies produced throughout the 1700s. The genre has produced many notable works that are celebrated for their heartfelt storytelling and uplifting messages. Some examples include:

    • The Conscious Lovers (1722) by Richard Steele
    • Love's Last Shift (1696) by Colley Cibber
    • She Stoops to Conquer (1773) by Oliver Goldsmith
    • The Rivals (1775) by Richard Brinsley Sheridan

    These plays, while incorporating elements of humour and wit, primarily focus on evoking empathy and emotional resonance from the audience.

    Sentimental comedies: Love's Last Shift (1696)

    Love's Last Shift, sometimes known as The Fool in Fashion, is a sentimental comedy by English poet and playwright Colley Cibber (1671-1757). Love's Last Shift was one of the first sentimental comedies, written and performed during a time in which Restoration comedies were still circulating and relatively common.

    The play revolves around Amanda and her unfaithful husband, named Loveless. Six months into their marriage, he left her for a life of debauchery and infidelity. Still faithful to him, Amanda concocts a plan to get Loveless back. She disguises herself as a prostitute and successfully seduces Loveless. Upon revealing her identity, Loveless is overwhelmed by Amanda's dedication to him. He swears to reform his life and be a virtuous husband.

    Love's Last Shift came at a transitory period between Restoration comedies and sentimental comedies. It takes from both genres; for example, Loveless's life showcases the explicit nature of Restoration comedies. However, Love's Last Shift is a decidedly sentimental comedy in its outcome. Loveless, as a central character, is led astray by negative influences, but Amanda teaches him the error of his ways.

    Cibber shows Loveless as capable of reform despite all the sins he may have committed. The play also promotes the morals of faithfulness and perseverance in marriage, regardless of circumstances.

    Task! If you can get your hands on a copy of Love's Last Shift, read through the play and try to identify the elements of both Restoration comedy and sentimental comedy that are present.

    Sentimental comedy: The Conscious Lovers (1722)

    The Conscious Lovers is one of the best-known sentimental comedies, written by Irish playwright and politician Sir Richard Steele (1672-1729). The Conscious Lovers revolves around several young characters who are in love but cannot marry for a variety of external reasons.

    Bevil Junior, a wealthy young man, wishes to marry his lover, Indiana, but cannot because of her low social class. He is instead engaged to marry Lucinda, the daughter of a rich and respectable family. Bevil's closest friend, Myrtle, is truly in love with Lucinda, but he is unable to marry her because of his poor finances. Complicated but successful schemes ensue in order for all the lovers to be able to marry who they wish, regardless of their parents' wishes.

    Steele's play, like all sentimental comedies, is a story with a moral. Though the young characters are deeply in love, they do not marry until they have gained their parents' approval, an important element of any marriage at the time. Steele is presenting patience as a key virtue.

    Additionally, marriage is not simply treated as an economic exchange in The Conscious Lovers. It is also something shared between two people who are deeply in love. The plot of Steele's play is designed to evoke strong emotions in his audience, as all sentimental comedies are. One such moment in the play comes when poor Indiana is reunited with her long-lost father, who happens to also be Lucinda's father. He never knew he had a daughter from his first marriage. This was an emotive scene that resonated with contemporary audiences.

    Sentimental comedy, a young girl sitting on her father's shoulders as they walk through a field, StudySmarter

    Fig. 2 - Steele's play sees Indiana reunited with her father.

    Sentimental Comedy in English Literature

    Sentimental comedies were popular in England from the early to mid-eighteenth century. They reflected a change in society, in which people had grown tired of the permissiveness of the Restoration. Traditional and conservative values were becoming more commonplace again. People were also much more concerned with morals than they had been during the Restoration era. Sentimental comedies developed out of this context.

    By the mid-1700s, sentimental comedies had begun to morph into another genre and would have a considerable impact on how it developed. This genre was that of the domestic tragedy. Domestic tragedies became popular for centuries to come because of their relatability for ordinary audiences.

    Domestic tragedy is a dramatic genre in which the real lives and issues of lower-class people are explored. They typically use realistic plots, accessible language, and have a domestic setting. Examples of domestic tragedies include A Doll's House (1879) by Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) and The London Merchant (1731) by George Lillo (1693-1739).

    Sentimental Comedy - Key takeaways

    • Sentimental comedy was a dramatic genre popular in eighteenth-century England that told moralistic tales with emotional elements and a story of redemption for the protagonist.
    • The genre began as a reaction to the frivolity of Restoration comedies.
    • Two examples of sentimental comedies include The Conscious Lovers (1722) and Love's Last Shift (1696).
    • The genre began to morph In the mid-eighteenth century into domestic tragedy.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Sentimental Comedy

    What is a sentimental comedy?

    A sentimental comedy is a dramatic genre that teaches its audience a lesson by showing a good protagonist who is led astray and eventually reformed.

    What is the difference between sentimental and anti-sentimental comedy?

    Sentimental comedy is serious and teaches the audience a moral lesson whereas anti-sentimental comedy is humorous and focuses on satire and social commentary.

    What are some examples of sentimental comedy?

    Love's Last Shift (1696) and The Conscious Lovers (1722) are two examples of sentimental comedy.

    What are the characteristics of sentimental comedy?

    A moralistic tone, the theme of virtue versus sin, and a good protagonist led astray are key characteristics of sentimental comedy.

    What is the purpose of sentimental comedy?

    The purpose of sentimental comedy is to teach its audience a moral lesson.

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