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Samuel Johnson and Leigh Hunt : two views of the theatre Oldfield, Edward Leonard

Abstract

Samuel Johnson and Leigh Hunt, as generally representative spokesmen of the Eighteenth Century and the Romantic Age, provide some interesting comments on the theatre of their times. Their individual idiosyncrasies colour their views to some extent. Such inconsistencies, as they pertain to the theatre, are the subject of Chapter I of this essay. Physical conditions in the theatre of Johnson's and Hunt's times, which could not but influence the reception of acted drama, are noted in Chapter II. Johnson, whose views towards the drama are generally those of the literary critic, evaluated the plays of Shakespeare and others mainly in terms of their literary worth. But he was not unaware of the peculiar demands of the theatrical métier, and his well-known prejudice against the players did not prevent him from making a just appraisal of the theatrical fare of his time, according to Johnsonian canons of taste. Hunt shared in the generally idolatrous regard of the Romantics towards Shakespeare. He wrote when the offerings of current playwrights reflected, to him, the age's dearth of dramatic character. He thought some of the earlier offerings, notably those of the Restoration playwrights, were unsuitable to the present mores of taste. But in his voluminous theatre criticism he is principally concerned with the stage presentation of plays, rather than their value as closet drama. As playwrights, Johnson and Hunt made manifest some of their critical principles; and a study of Irene and A Legend of Florence provides a concluding commentary on the worth of their criticism, translated into practice.

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