Antiquity through the Eighteenth Century:Eighteenth-Century Theater



  • The middle class emerged to demand literary and cultural forms that appealed to them, particularly through the novel.
  • Neoclassical ideals retained authority but were challenged by the middle class as elitist.

The Enlightenment

  • A philosophical movement that emphasized Reason was centered in France.
  • Enlightenment ideals supported limited state power.
  • Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) was regarded as the Father of Democracy; he argued that a social contract between individuals leads to political order.
  • The American (1775–83) and French (1789–99) Revolutions took place to support these ideals.

Theaters and Actors

  • Major theaters were expanded and renovated to accommodate growing audiences.
  • London: Established theaters and troupes dominated Europe’s capitals as a result of government licensing, though unlicensed theaters in 1720s London produced ballad operas (e.g., John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera) and satires that criticized Britain’s unofficial prime minister, Sir Robert Walpole (1676–1745).
  • London: The Theatrical Licensing Act (1737) made Drury Lane and Covent Garden London’s only licensed theaters and required the Lord Chamberlain to approve plays for performance.
  • Paris: The Comédie Française and the Opéra were challenged by unlicensed troupes who performed in the city’s seasonal fairs and found permanent residence in the Boulevard du Temple.
  • Theater and Scenery: Angled perspective allowed scenes to be viewed from varying points, replacing the symmetry of classical theater; landscapes, exotic and historical locales, and advanced lighting and sound created illusory effects.
  • Spectators were removed from the stages in London and Paris.
  • As represented by famous English actor David Garrick (1717–1779), actors delivered more realistic, less mannered, performances.

Eighteenth-Century Drama

  • The middle class’s conservative moral values led to tragedies that included depictions of ordinary life in addition to tradition historical and mythological locales.
  • George Lillo’s London Merchant (1731) focuses on the downfall and reclamation of a London apprentice.
  • Comedy became more elevated and was called a “joy too exquisite for laughter” by Sir Richard Steele (1672–1729).
  • Sentimental comedy (comédie larmoyante, tearful comedy) was also popular.
  • Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751–1816) supported “laughing comedy” over sentimental comedy.
  • Carlo Goldoni (1707–1793) reformed Italian comedy by turning commedia dell’arte into a literary genre, making it more realistic and less bawdy.
  • French philosopher Denis Diderot (1713–1784) proposeed the drame bourgeois—a genre of between comedy and tragedy—that uses middle-class life as its subject.

German Theater and Drama

  • Theater expanded beyond Italy, Spain, England, and France.
  • Individual states within Germany—separated by the Thirty Years’ War (1618–48)—funded public theaters.
  • The Hamburg National Theater (1767) was short-lived but led to state-subsidized theaters.
  • Berlin’s Royal National Theater (1786) and the Weimar Court Theater (1791) become the most significant in Germany and produced works by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) and Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller (1759–1805).
  • Gotthold Lessing (1729–1781) advocates sentimental drama and writes plays about national, social and philosophical themes independent of French neoclassicism
  • Lessing’s Hamburg Dramaturgy (1767–69), a series of critical essays, set standards for dramatic theory.
  • The Sturm und Drang (“Storm and Stress”) movement was a revolt against the Enlightenment focus on Reason and instead explored intense emotion, rebellion, and erratic violence.
  • Goethe and Schiller initially embraced Sturm und Drang but rejected it for “Weimar Classicism,” showing an increased interest in classical ruins of Roman life (e.g., Pompeii).
  • Drama focused on beauty, harmony, and form, but treated the changing political and social settings of modern Europe, setting the stage for the Romantic era.