Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Rachel M. Brownstein

Committee Members

David Richter

Judith Milhous

Richard McCoy

Subject Categories

Dramatic Literature, Criticism and Theory | Literature in English, British Isles


This dissertation reexamines the role of John Gay's and Henry Fielding's anti-government satirical farces during the politically contentious 1720s and 1730s in London. Although their plays were and still are considered, variously, burlesques, entertainments, farces, and satires, I call them satirical farce for two reasons. First, contemporaries used the term farce as much to signify political and social stances as dramatic type or function. Those political and social stances are the central focus of this dissertation. Second, I see in this collection of plays—Gay's Three Hours After Marriage (1717) and The Beggar's Opera (1728), Fielding's The Author's Farce (1730), The Grub-Street Opera (1731), and Pasquin (1736)—a shared structural or functional set of characteristics, suggesting that generically they are all closer akin to one another than any of them are to traditional five-act comedy or prose satire. These characteristics relate directly back to social attitude, as they give farce its ability to spread beyond its plot and the borders of the stage, and to absorb cultural dynamics into its narratives and structures-to both reflect and affect the public sphere. Rather than attempting a comprehensive survey of the political content of Gay's and Fielding's farces, this method elucidates their culturally embedded social context in order to discuss the productions as public events. I contend that farce as a genre is inherently social and interactive, and as such is always potentially political, with the ability to instigate and enhance the circulation of ideas and tropes throughout the public body.

This reevaluation has three goals: First, discussing farce as it was perceived in the culture illustrates underlying assumptions about the rising mercantile sensibility and attendant anxieties about class, concerns that infiltrate contemporary aesthetic disputes. Second, it establishes the participation of satirical farce in the transformation of English culture, countering the prevailing idea that theater failed its public mission during this turbulent period. Third, taking the popular culture seriously puts theater back into the larger social context from which current scholarly preoccupations often abstract it, and revalidates the question of what theater does in a culture, not only what it says to that culture.


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