Theater and Anti-Theater in the 18th Century

Monday, January 15, 2001 to Saturday, April 14, 2001

Today’s Yale, home to a renowned drama school, the Dramat, the Rep, and the Yale Cabaret, celebrates theater and the stage. But it was not always so. For more than half of its existence, Yale was as anti-theater as any institution of higher learning at the time. A century after Yale’s founding, its fourth president, Timothy Dwight, could exclaim: “When you go to theatres, recollect that you are to give an account of your conduct at the last day.”

Theater & Anti-Theater in the 18th Century, on view at the Beinecke Library from January 15 until April 14, documents the controversies that surrounded the theater in the 1700s, at Yale, in England, and abroad.

Anti-theater sentiment at Yale is traced through documents such as faculty judgments, college rules, and the writings of early presidents. Yet despite official restrictions, theater existed in those early days, cultivated in the 1770s and 80s by undergraduate literary societies; and despite the considerable punishments that could be incurred for acting or even attending a play, these activities were apparently relished. Contemporary reports on a 1773 performance of Richard Cumberland’s The West Indian at Atwater’s public house at Long Wharf, for instance, suggest that the characters in military uniform and the men in ladies’ dress elicited considerable enthusiasm.

In England, controversy about the theater culminated in the tract A short view of the immorality and profaneness of the English stage, written by the Anglican clergyman Jeremy Collier and published in 1698. By no means the first attack on what has come to be known as Restoration drama, Collier’s book was the basis for a passionate debate between partisans and adversaries of the stage. A flood of con-temporary books, pamphlets, prefaces, and plays-many of them in the Beinecke exhibition-were published in response to A short view before Collier’s death in 1726. Somewhat more liberal than 18th-century Yale authorities, Collier did not attack the theater as such, but rather the use of indecent themes and profane language on the stage, the amusing portrayal of vice, and the ridiculing of virtue. The anti-theater camp targeted such playwrights as Wycherley, Dryden, Otway, D’Urfey, Congreve, and Vanbrugh, some of whose rebuttals are included in the exhibition.

The section of the exhibition devoted to 18th-century France focuses on the philosophes and their attempt to reform the French stage. A centerpiece of the whole exhibition is the tenth plate volume (1772) of Diderot’s Encyclopédie, containing more than 80 illustrations devoted to theatrical architecture and stage machinery. The Encyclopédie, whose contributors included Voltaire, Diderot and his collaborator D’Alembert, the Chevalier de Jaucourt, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, met with considerable hostility from the Church and its political allies. The onslaught took theatrical form in 1760 with the production of Charles Palissot’s satirical comedy Les philosophes. The exhibition documents the bitter controversy that ensued, as well as the break between Rousseau and the Encyclopédie, precisely over the question of the theater.

Controversy surrounded the morals of actors, just as it did the theater itself in the 18th century. The exhibition contrasts, for instance, the splendid funeral given to Anne Oldfield in London and the ignominious common-grave burial of Adrienne Lecouvreur shortly afterwards in Paris. While the English actress was honored, the star actress of the Comédie française was scorned because she refused to seek repentance for her stage career, as actors were supposed then to do. The unprecedented fame achieved by David Garrick probably did more than anything else to alter the public perception of the acting profession. Actor, playwright, and manager of Drury Lane, Garrick achieved international standing among the literary and intellectual milieus of his day. His success, however, generated jealous controversy, and the exhibition includes a rich array of the resulting texts by and about Garrick, as well as such memorabilia as an invitation to his funeral in 1779. Garrick stood in the midst of yet another 18th-century controversy about the theater: whether personal empathy with the character or calculated study of nature made for better acting. Garrick espoused an intellectual view of acting, and his own pamphlet on the subject is part of the exhibition.

Twenty-five 18th-century playwrights are represented in the Beinecke exhibition by gatherings of their major works, related in one way or another to the theme of theater and anti-theater. Among these figures are Englishmen Thomas Otway, William Wycherley, John Dryden, William Congreve, Oliver Goldsmith, and Richard Brinsley Sheridan; French writers Lesage, Marivaux, Voltaire, Diderot, Rousseau, and Beaumarchais; Germans G. E. Lessing and Friedrich Schiller; and four English women who wrote for the stage-Mary de La Rivière Manley, Catharine Trotter, Mary Pix, and Susanna Centlivre.

An illustrated catalog of the exhibition will be available in February.