During the 18th century, drama steadily declined. Only remarkable dramatists shone out during this age. Goldsmith and Sheridan were the two prominent figures who continued to enrich dramatic literature by their productions, otherwise, there was hardly any dramatist of the status of the Restoration or the Elizabethan dramatists during the age.
Decline of Neoclassical Drama
The main characteristics and conditions which were responsible for the decline of drama during the Neoclassical Age are as follows:
Rise of Novel
The main cause for the decline of drama, during the 18th century, was the popularity gained by the novel. The rise of novel displaced the drama.
The novel had become truly representative and free from most of the conventions that burdened the theatre. It, in a better way, depicted life, manners and ideas.
Age of Actors & Actresses
During this age, actors and actresses became more important than playwrights. People were more attracted to the performance of actors and actresses but never bothered about the qualities of the plays that were being produced.
People went to theatres mainly by the fame of actors and actresses. Such fame of actors and actresses lowered the prestige of drama. This discouraged the playwrights to produce good plays. This was another cause for the decline of drama.
Revival of Old Plays
The revival of old plays hindered the creation of new plays. The plays of Shakespeare, Beaumont and Fletcher were revived. A number of tragedies of Shakespeare like Romeo and Juliet, King Lear was given happy endings.
Playwrights perhaps thought that writings of new plays would be useless since people of the age were more interested in the revival of old plays rather than the creation of new ones.
Lack of Court’s Support
The drama of the age failed to receive the support of the king. William-III was no patron of the theatre nor was Queen Anne; nor was the first two Georges.
Without the support of the king, it was difficult for the dramatists to put their influence over the public of the day. This also led to the decline of drama.
During this age, the dramatists were restricted from presenting rude and offensive scenes. Thus they had not that freedom which the writers of Comedy of Manners enjoyed. Naturally, the scope of drama became restricted.
Instead of broad humour of comedy, writers of the preceding age, sentiments emerged in the world of comedy. The comedies of the age bordered on sentimentality and everything that seemed to have the tone of fun. Humour was regarded as a matter of distaste by the public.
Moral restraint was followed by political restraint. As a result of freedom, Fielding and others attacked the Walpole’s government, a Licensing Act was passed (1737 A.D.) and censorship was applied on dramas.
According to the Act, the dramatists could not produce plays that have even a slight reflection of political figures of the age.
Heroic Tragedy was also called “Heroic Drama”, but Dryden, the main supporter of Tragedy, called it “Heroic Drama”. These plays were written in the Classical model of the rhymed heroic couplet and later in blank verse tragedy. This tragedy was only near tragedy.
The theme of the heroic plays was based on the struggle between love and honour, the hero and heroine were cast on the grand scale and their dialogues consisted of elaborate speeches, in rhymed 10-syllabled couplets, full of emotional and bombastic of such kind that its parallel would not be found.
Comedy of Manners was severely attacked by Jeremy Collier of whom Colley Cibber was a close disciple. The comedies of Cibber have all the characteristics of Sentimental Comedy. His comedies end on a note of morality. His two sentimental comedies are Love’s Last Shift and Provoked Husband.
Sir Richard Steele
Richard Steele, who popularised the Periodical Essay, was perhaps the great playwright of the sentimental comedy. He wrote three sentimental comedies viz. The Lying Lover, The Tender Husband and The Conscious Lovers.
He carried Sentimental Comedy after the middle of the century. His important comedy is False Delicacy.
Mrs Centlivre, the wife of French cook to Queen Anne, kept alive the spirit of Restoration Comedy in her plays. Most notable of which is A Bold Stroke for a Wife.
Cumberland wrote about 30 plays, some of which were tragedies. His best sentimental comedies are The Brothers, The West Indian and The Fashionable Lover.