The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.

VIII. Nineteenth-Century Drama

§ 12. Douglas Jerrold

The comedy of the period, for the most part, is as remote from dramatic art and from nature as is the drama. During the first half of the century, comedy, as distinct from farce, is represented only by Sheridan Knowles, Douglas Jerrold, Marston, Tom Taylor and Boucicault. Practically, the only attempt to carry on the tradition of English high comedy was a work of Boucicault’s youth, London Assurance (1841). On the modern stage, this play is classed among “old comedies”; and it has some affinity, as a whole, with the work of the elder Colman, while portions are obviously due to Goldsmith and Sheridan. But the coarsening of the types and forcing of the situations show how far from his models Boucicault’s work fell. The comedy of Sheridan Knowles is more original in type; but his plots are more confusing than even Congreve’s. Indeed, the plot of The Hunchback (1832), a pompous and heavy play, has never yet been satisfactorily explained. The Beggar’s Daughter of Bethnal Green (1828) looks back to Elizabethan domestic comedy, with which Knowles was probably not acquainted. Its story is simpler than those of his other comedies, and it is written with freshness and skill in dramatic expression. Douglas Jerrold relies much upon extravagance of “humour.” The characters in his comedies are less human beings than personifications of this or that peculiarity-family pride, valetudinarianism, or what not; and the misunderstandings and complications which go to make up his plots are nearly always flimsy. But he handles his materials with ease, and, now and then, makes his “humours” very amusing—Dr. Petgoose, for instance, the domineering doctor in The Catspaw (1850); Miss Tucker, the spitefully humble companion to the heroine in Time Works Wonders (1845); best of all, perhaps, the true-blue Briton, Mr. Pallmall, in a clever and amusing comedy, The Prisoner of War (1842). Pallmall

  • quarrelled with some French dragoons, because he would insist, that the best cocoa-nuts grew on Primrose-hill, and that birds of Paradise flew about St. James’s.
  • In defence, he pleads that his motive was patriotism:
  • They abused the British climate, and I championed my native air. As a sailor isn’t it your duty to die for your country?… As a civilian, it is mine to lie for her. Courage isn’t confined to fighting. No, no—whenever a Frenchman throws me down a lie—for the honour of England, I always trump it.
  • Marston was not at his best in comedy. His most successful attempt was The Favourite of Fortune (1866), which, doubtless, was amusing when acted, but is pale in the reading. The character of Mrs. Lorrington, the rich and vulgar widow, demands expression by a comic actress. It is little more than an outline, waiting to be filled in. A match-making mamma, a young man of fortune, who hides a Byronic heart and a noble nature under a disguise of phlegm, are more clearly imagined and expressed; but the play, as a whole, is lifeless. The comedy of the time was, in fact, dependent upon the stage and the actor. In order to compete with more popular forms of drama, it was obliged to coarsen its lines, and to avoid all subtlety of character and development. The political and social history of the period was not such as to produce the atmosphere in which fine comedy grows freely. The rich and leisured classes became the butts, rather than the models, of a swiftly developing democracy; in the drama of the time, serious and humorous alike, they are nearly always exhibited in opposition to honest poverty. And the predominance of the actor helped to make broad and simple characterisation and theatrical effect more valued than truth to life or fineness of understanding and expression.