Acting Up: Theatre and Theatricality in 18th-Century England


From melodrama to burlesque, farce to musical theatre, Restoration and 18th-century England helped to define the modern conventions of dramatic art and popular entertainment. Beginning with the reign of a king who loved the theatre and all-too-public extramarital sex (Charles II), the era also raised new and troubling questions about the nature and potential of performance—not only as an aspect of artistic practice but also as an element of all social and political life. What if all our identities (king and subject, husband and wife) were not God-given and prescriptive but, instead, factitious and changeable—mere roles that we can adopt or discard at will? This course considers how authors from the 1660s to the 1800s imagined the potential of performance to transform—or sometimes to reinforce—the status quo, with a look ahead to the Hollywood films that inherited and adapted their legacy. Our emphasis will be on drama, with a survey of major 18th-century comedies, parodies, afterpieces, heroic tragedies, sentimental dramas, and gothic spectacles by playwrights such as William Wycherley, George Etherege, John Dryden, Aphra Behn, Susanna Centlivre, John Gay, Henry Fielding, Hannah Cowley, and Horace Walpole. We will intersperse our dramatic reading with viewings of films that demonstrate its influence from directors like Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder, and Hal Ashby. Some attention will also be paid to nondramatic writing on performance and theatrical culture, including 18th-century acting manuals, theatrical memoirs, and a “masquerade novel” by Eliza Haywood.