Monday, August 10, 2009

George Lillo--The London Merchant (1731)

I'm guessing this is not one that most people will have read. Therefore it is unfortunate that I read it so long ago that I don't remember anything about it. The more telling of the comments I wrote at the time are 'amusing, but one of the more ridiculous things I have had to read' and 'unusual to read something so unabashedly bourgeois'. Lillo was a jeweler by trade who took up playwriting, and one of the things his play is famous for is bringing characters from that class of society to the contemporary stage, from which they had been long absent. The everyday setting is also considered of importance in the gradual development of what is called realism in the theater, though apart from the social setting I don't seem to have been much struck by any sense of realistic life being depicted in the play's action.

Photo 1: I have read 6 of the 8 plays in this anthology, missing only Addison's Cato (which is coming, though it I have read it described somewhere as a "frigid museum piece") and Nicholas Rowe's Tragedy of Jane Shore. The others, in the order in which I liked them, are The Rivals, by Sheridan, Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer, Fielding's Tom Thumb, Steele's Conscious Lovers, with this probably last, though I omit Gay's Beggar's Opera, which I suspect is a better play than it reads. I have always had a hard time getting into it (or Brecht's modern version either). There is an introduction, in which Lillo defines the end of tragedy as "the exciting of the passions in order to the correcting such of them as are criminal, either in their nature, or through their excess." I have never found that I learned much from negative examples. Life, I think, has been softened, or the passions so much tempered by some measure of reason so that the only actions which carry any unbearable consequences are those with which it is difficult to have sympathy, deadening the capacity for classically tragic suffering, or even the comprehension of it, in the modern soul.

We also get some good Restoration-style sucking up to his patron, Sir John Eyles, whom it is explained holds flattery in such contempt that the author will not descend to employ it, but will humbly submit indisputable facts regarding this man's greatness to the reader.

The last two lines of the Prologue:
"Tho' art be wanting, and our numbers fail,
Indulge the attempt, in justice to the tale!"
What weak stuff is this to get the show rolling?

The idea of the business class of society being naive which is so frequently put forth in these aristocratic-era plays is odd for us, who consider business interests to be controlling everything and the only entity to be aware of what is really going on of importance in the world.

I am trying to cut down on the quotations I make from these books so as to be able to keep my diaries more current. The pro-capitalism dialogue which opens Act III however I thought was not to be neglected, such sentiments, though I do not really share them, being rare in literature. Surely the erudite and market-loving writers down at the New Criterion must be familiar with it:

THOROWGOOD: Methinks I would not have you only learn the method of merchandise and practice it hereafter, merely as a means of getting wealth; 'twill be well worth your pains to study it as a science, to see how it is founded in reason and the nature of things; how it promotes humanity, as it has opened and yet keeps up an intercourse between nations far remote from one another in situation, customs and religion; promoting arts, industry, peace and plenty; by mutual benefits diffusing love from pole to pole.
TRUEMAN: Something of this I have considered, and hope, by your assistance, to extend my thoughts much farther. I have observed those countries where trade is promoted and encouraged do not make discoveries to destroy, but to improve, mankind; by love and friendship to tame the fierce and polish the most savage; to teach them the advantages of honest traffic by taking from them, with their own consent, their useless superfluities, and giving them in return what, from their ignorance in manual arts, their situation or some other accident, they stand in need of.

This is not wholly without a kind of reason, though it presumes a great deal on the one hand, and ignores many large aspects of the question on the other.

Thorowgood's daughter Maria--virtuous, pure, etc--agrees with her father's associate to cover the funds that have been embezzled from him by the rake George Barnwell, which is a further illustration, if any were necessary, that women will do anything for a legitimate alpha male.

Being an alpha male of course, Barnwell continues to maintain a reputation for virtue even after a number of crimes that would seem to call these qualities into question have been revealed. "O conscience!" he himself exclaims just before murdering his rich uncle--I presume he is the legal heir, though I forget exactly, "feeble guide to virtue, thou only show'st us when we go astray, but wantest power to stop us in our course."

I think it was at the point where the uncle, bleeding to death with a stab wound, forgives his handsome nephew who has just effectively murdered him that I felt matters were beginning to get out of hand (this was in Act III Scene iv).

The beautiful daughter as the only child of a rich man is a common character in plays of this type. The idea of a man seeking to marry a fortune, openly anyway, is something of a taboo with us, certainly among the middle class at least. Numerous politicians and other people like Thomas Friedman, whose wife is worth a billion dollars, have clearly pulled something of the sort off, though I think even in these relationships we are supposed to believe that the man was marrying for love, intellectual companionship, and so on, and that the bride's nine figure yet worth was a kind of lucky coincidence.

Act IV, ii--THOROWGOOD: What pity it is, a mind so comprehensive, daring, and inquistive, should be a stranger to religion's sweet and powerful charms!

And then at V, ii, visiting Barnwell in a dungeon: "There see the fruits of passion's detested reign and sensual appetite indulged--severe reflection, penitence, and tears."

The quality of the thinking, as you can see, is not very first rate in this play.

Everything else is more of the same along those lines. I'm calling it a night on this book.

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