Novel into play: the influence of Richardson, Fielding, Smollett and Sterne upon the later English drama
Wilson, J. Stuart
McKillop, Alan D.
Doctor of Philosophy
The transformation of novels into plays and films . has become so commonplace a practice during the twentieth century that the critical problem involved in the Change of one literary form into another tends to be minimized. More often than not, a play is judged by the standards of the novel from which it was drawn. The fallacy in this approach becomes obvious, however, when it is considered that the two types are ultimately antagonistic: the fundamental appeal of drama to the sense of perception and of the novel to the power of conception . has brought into existence literary forms which in their totality are incompatible. Thus an aesthetically satisfying, translation from one form into the other can only result if the writer carefully modifies his materials according to the requirements of the genre in which he has chosen to work. The critical issue posed by the generic distinctions between novel and play is essentially timeless; when considered in the historical context of the period in which . it first arose to prominence, it illuminates the impact of the major eighteenth century novels upon the later English drama. In fact, the outstanding plays performed after 1760 depend less on earlier dramatic traditions than on the more vital traditions originating with the new and immensely popular prose fiction of Richardson, Fielding, Smollett, and Sterne. Almost immediately after its first publication, Richardson's Pamela was adapted for the stage, and within twenty-five years, his novels had supplanted the earlier drama as the primary source . for the most popular plays. In addition to plots, characters, and themes, Richardson's development in Pamela) Clarissa, and Sir Charles Grandison of the bourgeois Court of Love, with its elaborate rituals of courtship and marriage, provided the dramatists with precisely the vehicle they needed for expression of the increasingly popular doctrines of benevolence. The plays of William Whitehead, Frances Sheridan, Elizabeth Griffith, and Hugh Kelly, often called "sentimental" drama are more properly defined as Richardsonian ritual comedy, and during the 1760's this comic mode predominated on the English stage. But very soon it was challenged for supremacy by another mode deriving from the comic novels of Fielding, Smollett, and Sterne. A comic novel tradition in drama emerged primarily from the plays of Arthur Murphy, George Colman, and Samuel Foote to receive its consummate expression in the comedies of Oliver Goldsmith and Richard Brinsley Sheridan. In defining the function of literature, Goldsmith turned to Fieldlng.for the ethical structure that informs his comedy . and satire, while Sheridan went first to.Smollett for the inspiration of The Rivals, and then for the greatest play of the peribd, The Sdhobl for Scandal (1777), he transformed Tom Jones into the most perfect dramatic version of any eighteenth century novel. Goldsmith and Sheridan together brought the comic novel tradition in drama to the fore, and the ensuing conflict between 'laughing' and 'weeping' comedy is rightly seen as a new statement of the antagonism existing between Pamela and Fielding's Shamela and Joseph Andrews, or between Clarissn and Tom Jones. After The School for Scandal, the comic hovel tradition retained its position of dominance on the stage in the plays of Richard Cumberland, Hannah Cowley, Thomas Holcroft, and Frederick Reynolds, among others, but in . the fourth quarter of the century it was considerably modified by infusions of pathos largely inspired by Sterne, and by the increasingly popular comic mode known as amiable humor. During' the last decade of the century, audience demand for spectacle, melodrama, and the thrills of Gothicism caused the dramatic traditions of Richardson and the comic novelists to dissipate. Nevertheless, the dependence of the drama upon other literary types continued, becoming even more widespread during the nineteenth century, and not until the artistic integrity of the form was asserted in the plays of Pinero and Shaw did, the drama emerge from its long period of obeisance to prose fiction. •