Mark S. Dawson. Gentility and the Comic Theatre of Late Stuart London. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. 316 pp. $85.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-521-84809-1.
Reviewed by Brian S. Weiser (Department of History, Metropolitan State College of Denver)
Published on H-Albion (May, 2007)
It's All an Act
Who were the gentry? This question plagued early modern English thinkers. William Harrison's Description of England (1577), for instance, defined the gentry as peers, knights, esquires, and, the maddeningly vague, "they that are simply called gentlemen." Modern-day historians and literary scholars also argue over who was a gentleman in early modern English society. Mark S. Dawson's Gentility and the Comic Theatre of Late Stuart London, however, asserts that scholars have missed the extent to which gentility was a socio-cultural process. Gentility, Dawson asserts, was not a constant inherent quality, but rather, like all social roles, gentility was the product of "cultural agency, because individuals give meaning to material experiences in a ceaseless and dialectical process" (p. 8). Similarly, he claims that gentility was "a set of cultural claims about power in early modern society that sought to order this world in terms of itself" (p. 9). To find instances of individuals asserting claims as to who were and were not gentry, Dawson turns to dramatic comedy produced between 1688 and 1725, for the theater "was a space where multiple claims of gentility ... were simultaneously produced and consumed, accepted and rejected" (p. 17). After an introduction that analyzes the historiography and literary criticism of gentility and comedy, the book then embarks on four related studies of how aspects of the theater questioned notions of gentility.
The first such study investigates the prevalence of cuckolded citizens on the London stage. Throughout the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the English had trouble finding a place for the powerful and wealthy urban elites in their hierarchical society. Were Aldermen and East India Company traders gentlemen? By describing such individuals as less than gentry, specifically by demonstrating they did not have the ability to satisfy/control their wives or daughters, comedy, in Dawson's assessment, tried to effect social groups, to delineate class. Such a lack of governing power implied a lack of gentility and therefore placed the mercantile elite on a lower social plane.
Just like in the text of plays, questions of gentility were tested and negotiated in the theater itself. In the second part, which should have preceded the discussion of cuckoldry, Dawson vividly portrays the experience of going to the theater. Unlike other scholars who claim that the theater had a leveling effect, Dawson argues that the two post-Revolutionary theaters were places of social contest; by how they dressed and where they positioned themselves, members of the audience asserted their claims of status. The bright lights of the theaters shone on the audience as well as the stage, and being seen was as important as seeing the action. Dawson assembles a great deal of evidence to support this claim, most interestingly occurrences of spectators faking their status. Lady Compton, who left her devotions to see a play, thought she could dress down and sit unnoticed in the middle gallery (so called because the people who sat there were of middling sort, not for its location which was the lower gallery, another argument for the importance of status in the theater) but she overdressed and was soon found out. Others, like the Virginia planter William Byrd, tried to mingle with his social superiors; such self-fashioning coincides well with Dawson's argument that gentility was a cultural production.
This notion of faking it also occurs in Dawson's analysis of the Fop, a figure who tried too hard to be genteel. Dawson ably argues that the Fop is almost always portrayed as a member of the gentry by dint of lineage and, therefore, need not be seen as a social pretender. Dawson also dismisses the notion that authors wrote of the Fop in order to describe a new effeminate and homosexual third gender. Rather the Fop tried for political, not social, advantage and dramatists portrayed Fops because it allowed them to play with the notion of gentility as a social construct: "Having to pronounce what he believes requires no comment, that he is a born gentleman." The Fop, by paying too much attention to symbols, "allows others to denounce his gentility as nothing more than a subjective cultural assertion" (pp. 162-163). Such denunciation became part and parcel of the Jacobean controversy where Whiggish writers used the Fop to discredit claims of legitimacy set forth by the Stuarts' proponents.
The final chapters show how elements of society responded to this assertion--inherent in the portrayal of the fop--that gentility was just a social construction. Jeremy Collier's Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage (1698) claimed the stage was immoral because it distorted reality, questioning the very nature of genteel superiority. Dawson attributes society's fascination with actors' sex lives to the need to delineate between true gentility and that which was feigned, and he sees the controversy between two early eighteenth-century playwrights, Richard Steele and John Dennis, as originating in the question of how to portray the gentry on stage. Dennis thought comedy's purpose was to ridicule the gentry into behaving better, but for Steele theater should be exemplary; the gentry could not act otherwise than what they were and needed to be portrayed as above reproach.
There is much of this argument which is plausible, but Dawson has taken on a huge task clearing away forests of previous historical thought and literary criticism. Furthermore, he builds his argument on primary evidence, sixty or so plays, which is very tricky. When analyzing plays, scholars need to be aware of the difference between performance and text, the opinions of characters as opposed to that of audience and writer, and the vexing question of what work the plays were supposed to do. Dawson pays some attention to these questions, but since he looks at so many different plays, he rarely gives sustained analysis of any one work. Such a lack of sustained analysis is particularly problematic, because he often seems (at least, to a reader who has only read a few post-1690 comedies) to be overreaching himself in his analysis. This is most troubling in his analysis of cuckoldry. While cuckoldry certainly seems a prevalent theme which needs explaining, Dawson unnecessarily and distractingly tries to argue that the imagery of skimmington was rife on the stage. Dawson elides various shaming rituals such as the wearing of horns, rough music, and carting as skimmington. But the skimmington, as Martin Ingram and David Underdown have demonstrated, was a specific shaming ritual to a specific perceived transgression of gender roles. It only came in response to reports of a wife beating her husband. And Dawson does not relay any instance of an actual skimmington or use of the word. Often his evidence in support of skimmington is quite tenuous. For instance, he posits that the audience might on occasion provide the rough music, since sometimes they were known to issue forth cat calls.
Different problems occur in his analysis of the Fop. The fact that the Fop is undeniably of the gentry does not mean that the character has no social aspirations. His over-the-top behavior need not be attributed to political ambition. It is more likely that the playwrights sought to depict an individual trying too hard to cross some other social divide besides that between commoner and gentry, divides which Dawson mostly ignores. In earlier plays, the Fop seems a refinement of the classic fish-out-of water character, a country squire trying too hard to act like he is of the town, or more simply to enter the "in-crowd." In fact, Dawson presents few examples of the Fop trying to gain political power.
Despite such faults and an affection for bad puns (citizen comedies referred to as "cit coms"), this book has much merit. Its analysis of the experience of theater going is very good indeed and, while Dawson perhaps over reaches himself, his basic contention--that gentility was "the subject of ceaseless negotiation and contest" (p. 262) and that such contestation occurred within the confines of the theater--has much validity.
. William Harrison, Description of England (1577), book 3, ch. 4, unpaginated.
. David Underdown, "The Taming of the Scold: The Enforcement of Patriarchal Authority in Early Modern England," in Order and Disorder in Early Modern England, ed. Anthony Fletcher and John Stevenson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 116-36; and Martin Ingram, "Ridings, Rough Music and the 'Reform of Popular Culture' in Early Modern England," Past & Present 105 (1984): 79-113.
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