In early eighteenth-century English coffeehouse culture, no patron was as distinguished a conversationalist or as delightful an essayist as the Oxford-educated Joseph Addison. Born on May 1, 1672, in Milston, Wiltshire, where his father was rector, Addison had a long career in English politics as a committed Whig and in which he held many offices, including Secretary of Ireland and Secretary of State. He died in London at the age of forty-seven.
The aim of Addison’s political thought, which was based on a natural law radiating from the divine will and the political equality of man, was the preservation of limited, consensual, and constitutional government and a free, commercial society. Addison’s religion was high-church Anglican, which gives his theological language a formality and orthodoxy many modern readers have found alien.
But Addison is remembered chiefly for his prose mastery. As Samuel Johnson wrote, “Whoever wishes to attain an English style, familiar but not coarse, and elegant but not ostentatious, must give his days and nights to the study of Addison.” Most of Addison’s essays were published in The Spectator, a popular periodical he founded with his friend Richard Steele. Addison used these light and often gently satirical essays to educate the merchants and tradesmen of the emerging English middle class–what he termed the “middle condition”–in the manners and morals needful for their stability and legitimacy in English social structure. In C. S. Lewis’s words, Addison’s essays stand firmly “on the common ground of life“ and deal ”with middle things.”
In doing so, he described the virtues required of people in a commercial society. As Addison counseled, such people must possess courage to take the economic risks required for a prosperous business economy. Further, they must be diligent in the practice of their vocations, frugal in the conduct of their lives, and philanthropic in the management of their estates, and in these ways be good stewards of God’s blessings to them. And such people must be absolutely honest; in Addison’s words, “There is no man so improper to be employed in business as he who is in any degree capable of corruption.”
Sources: The Life of Joseph Addison by Peter Smithers (Oxford,1954), and Joseph Addison’s Sociable Animal by Edward A. Bloom and Lillian D. Bloom (Brown University Press, 1971).
Hero of Liberty image attribution: Godfrey Kneller [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons PD-1923
Joseph Addison’s three plays indicate important trends in eighteenth century British theater. Rosamond attempts to combine music and drama as a domestic alternative to Italian opera, an ambition not realized until two decades later, with the success of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (pr., pb. 1728). Cato represents a strain of classical tragedy that produced much declamation and little worth, “immortal in the closet” (as the saying went) but stale on the stage. The Drummer is an early sentimental comedy whose primary virtue was in being less maudlin than its successors.
None of Addison’s plays is a landmark of drama—except Cato, by political accident—but none is bad. In fact, each play has its interesting aspects. All of them suffer from a common flaw, the lack of a central character whose plight engages the audience’s sympathy, and each play suffers individual minor difficulties. Yet each play has distinctive virtues. Rosamond and The Drummer have enough comic characters and dialogue to justify, in conjunction with Addison’s humorous papers in The Spectator, Samuel Johnson’s observation: “If Addison had cultivated the lighter parts of poetry, he would probably have excelled.” Cato’s blank verse, while no rival to Christopher Marlowe’s or William Shakespeare’s, is a solid achievement and is the best poetry that Addison ever wrote.
Rosamond’s three acts tell of the love affair between Henry II and Rosamond Clifford. The main plot concerns Henry’s conflict, his love for Rosamond against his duty to Queen Elinor, and the subplot concerns the man whom Henry has set to watch over Rosamond, Sir Trusty, himself in love with his charge and plagued with a shrewish wife, Grideline. Act 1 displays the characters in their frustrations: the queen jealous, the mistress guilty and lonely, and the guardian melancholy. Only Henry, returning from France and eager to see Rosamond, seems pleased with the situation. In act 2, Grideline sends a page to spy on Sir Trusty, but the young man discovers instead Queen Elinor plotting to kill her husband’s mistress. Hesitating for a moment because Rosamond’s death may lead to Henry’s, Elinor finally issues an ultimatum to her rival: be stabbed or drink poison. Rosamond chooses poison, and when Sir Trusty finds the corpse, he likewise drinks the fatal concoction. Act 3 begins with Henry asleep and dreaming of martial conquest. Spirits grant him a vision of England’s future glory if he gives up his illicit love. Henry awakens and resolves to put Rosamond aside, but hearing of her death, he vows to die in battle. Elinor counters his rashness by revealing that the poison was only a sleeping potion and that Rosamond lives. She retires to a convent to expiate her sin, and Henry returns to Elinor and reestablishes domestic accord. Sir Trusty, awakening to find king and queen happily reunited, now devotes himself wholeheartedly to Grideline.
Addison’s opera had several elements that ought to have made it congenial to audiences of the day. The plot came from English history, a strong appeal to the patriotic instincts of a generation locked in a long war with France. The characters were familiar dramatic types: The royal leads experienced the conflicts of love and honor so common to the protagonists of Restoration heroic tragedy, while Sir Trusty and Grideline knew the jealousies and philanderings fundamental to the Restoration comedy of manners. Finally, the play’s third act offered a spectacular effect: In Henry’s vision, there was a backdrop featuring Blenheim Castle, which was at that moment under construction. The play’s theme—that married love conquers all—likewise accorded well with the sentiments for reform that had been growing increasingly fashionable since the accession of William III.
Contemporaries agreed that an atrocious musical score doomed the play, but it must also be admitted that Addison’s arrangement of the parts must have seemed odd to his audience no matter how mellifluous the music. A plot recitation indicates those elements that were supposed to predominate: several romantic conflicts, a patriotic theme, and an uplifting moral. A close reading of Rosamond, however, reveals that the author’s best effects are in the comic elements. If the London stage of 1707 had been familiar with the musical comedy, as Bonamy Dobrée points out, Addison’s opera would have been comprehensible. It is a play in which the major ingredients are wholesome and bland while the subplot and supporting characters are what the audience enjoys and remembers. The witty but foolish Sir Trusty steals the show. His superficial passion and foolish suicide, meant to contrast with Henry’s love and Elinor’s jealousy, instead made the royal lovers look like caricatures. Surely the effect was unintentional; not until W. S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan’s operettas would ridiculing the aristocracy become public dramatic entertainment.
The Drummer does not suffer from the same tension between main plot and subplot; in fact, the two are nicely harmonized, although the best character in the play is still the male protagonist of the subplot. What The Drummer lacks, in fact, is any strong tension at all. Although its situations and language produce numerous smiles, the play lacks the sharpness that memorable comedy demands.
Addison, drawing on his classical learning, borrowed the plot of The Drummer from the last several books of Homer’s Odyssey (c. 725 b.c.e.; English translation, 1614). Like Homer’s epic, Addison’s play is about a soldier, supposedly dead in a war, who comes home in disguise to find his wife besieged by suitors and his only ally in a faithful servant.
Act 1 depicts the estate of Lady Trueman, supposedly haunted by the drumbeating ghost of her husband, Sir George, killed fourteen months before in battle. The ghost is actually a disguised suitor for the widow’s hand in marriage, the London beau Fantome, who has secured the help of a servant, Abigail, in his plot to drive away another suitor, the foppish Tinsel. Though Lady Trueman acts kindly toward Tinsel, she in fact despises both men. When the real Sir George turns up alive in act 2, he enters the household disguised as a conjurer in order to observe his wife’s behavior. Throughout act 3, Vellum, Sir George’s faithful steward, attempts to help his master expose Tinsel and subvert Fantome by wooing Abigail. In act 4, Fantome disposes of his rival but unknowingly loses Abigail’s assistance. In act 5, Sir George tests his wife to determine if she still loves her husband; convinced by her reaction, the real Sir George routs the pseudo-Sir George by appearing as the drumbeating ghost...
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