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Fielding's Theatricalist Drama
Ahern, Susan Kiernan
Department of Study
Degree Granting Institution
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Throughout his career as a playwright, Henry Fielding was preoccupied with the nature and proper function of theatrical artifice. Despite shifts in mode and emphasis, Fielding uses self-conscious theatricalism in his plays in three ways.
First, he burlesques or criticizes the theatrical fare that his contemporaries were producing and that London's audiences were applauding. In nearly half of his plays, he explicitly attacks the contemporary theater; in his more traditional plays, he offers an alternative. Although he believes that drama should engage audiences in the pleasures of artifice, he also believes it should offer them some critical insight into real life. For this reason, like many other critics, he objects to what he sees as the escapist nonsense of the pantomime, Italian opera, puppet shows, and rope-dancing that were invading the stage. He also attacks such hybrid modes as neoclassical tragedy and sentimental comedy. If his aristocratic education and class snobbery prompt him to decry the work of hack writers, he is perhaps more disturbed when the apparently serious theater appears to confront social or ethical issues while actually evading them. Such plays, Fielding believes, either deceive audiences with simplistic solutions to complex problems or pander to audiences that desire to be deceived.
Second, he repeatedly draws an analogy between social role-playing and theatrical role-playing. His burlesque of the theater's style and matter invariably has implications for the world. As he shows, for example, that the heroes celebrated on stage are actually town bullies, he exposes how the heroes celebrated on the stage of the world are also bullies. His comedies frequently rely on a theatrical analogy as well. In his earliest plays, this comparison of life's actions to the theater's is not judgmental. With increasing frequency, however, he uses the analogy to expose hypocritical and affected figures who depend on the public's perception of their social roles as a tool to manipulate others and as a refuge from censure. Like playwrights who abuse a public trust, these figures rely on "audiences" who are genuinely deceived by their aritifice or who want to be deceived.
Third, Fielding explores the ambiguities of the playwright's role. Particularly in his later plays when he uses the theatrical analogy, he shifts attention from the actor-role on the stage of life to the playwright/manager-role. He examines the figure who not only assumes a false role in his dealings with others but who also wields power and influence, devising scenes, controlling others' performances and imposing on audiences. Fielding is aware of the implications of the analogy for his own role as playwright. Throughout his theatrical career, he himself experimented with ways to control his audience's response to his plays. The most successful of these methods was the rehearsal structure, which he used five times in his last two seasons. Gradually, his own dramaturgical strategies assume thematic importance. By bringing fictional authors and audiences on stage, Fielding not only invites his audience to examine the artifice of both the theater and the world; he also alerts them to the proper uses of this artifice. While insisting that the illusion he creates is in fact illusion, he orders and shapes experience, thereby allowing a clearer perception of reality.
Analyzing how the theater--as a subject in itself and as an analogy for the world--operates in Fielding's plays clarifies both the form and meaning of individual plays and the evolving sophistication of his dramatic technique.