Mending manners: Reform comedy and culture, 1696--1747

Date of Completion

January 2006


Theater|Literature, English




The study examines early eighteenth-century reform comedies that center upon the reclamation of flawed individuals, such as philandering husbands, spendthrift wives, and inveterate gamblers, from their erring ways. Focusing on playwrights such as Colley Cibber, Richard Steele, Susanna Centlivre and Charles Johnson, I argue that the comic reform plot is not merely a generic turn towards morality and sentimentality but captures a seminal aspect of eighteenth century thought. In this period the rhetoric of reform was increasingly invoked as a means of containing and channeling socio-economic and political changes. The 1688 Revolution and the emergence of bitterly hostile political parties, the formation of the Bank of England and the attendant financial anxieties, unprecedented commercial expansion and the growing power of the trade-driven middling classes---all these transformations and tensions produced cultural anxieties. "Reform" provided a means of confronting and controlling these changes by imposing a moral schema on everyday conduct. The preoccupation with individual reform in the early eighteenth-century comedy is a manifestation of this cultural anxiety as well as a social technology for managing the escalating changes that define this age. The process of reform documents new ideologies coming into being. Thus, my literary analysis of this emergent comic motif is deeply embedded within the varied social texts and contexts that attest to the reforming zeal of this period. Texts as varied as Jeremy Collier's anti-theatrical tracts and Royal proclamations against vice provide a nuanced understanding of the cultural uses of the dramatic trope of reform. Similarly, a range of cultural phenomenon---from surveillance techniques used by Societies of Reformation of Manners in London to the changing performance styles in theatre---attest to the ideological significance of reform comedy. These comedies mediate the transmission and manipulation of contemporary attitudes towards emergent trends in finance capitalism, imperial nationalism, political factionalism, domestic ideology, and middling class-consciousness. ^