Reference > Cambridge History > The Age of Johnson > The Drama and the Stage > His influence upon French and German Dramatic Literature; Diderot and Lessing
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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.

IV. The Drama and the Stage.

§ 12. His influence upon French and German Dramatic Literature; Diderot and Lessing.


The influence of Lillo is not to be measured simply in the records of English drama. On the continent, especially in France and Germany, the effect of his domestic tragedy was striking. In French drama, this influence may best be observed in Diderot. From the previous discussion of the rise of sentimental drama and its development on the continent as well as in England, it is evident that French drama had already responded to the influences of sentimental drama before the success of George Barnwell moralised bourgeois tragedy. Destouches had admitted a serious undertone in his Philosophe marié (1727), and Marivaux, in his Jeu de l’Armour et du Hasard (1730), had delicately touched sentiment with pathos. In the score of years between the English production of George Barnwell and the French translation which probably directly influenced Diderot, drame sérieux was developing toward comédie larmoyante. Nivelle de la Chaussée bathed virtue in tears, and, in dramatising Pamela, had brought the influence of Richardson’s novel of sentiment to swell the tide of sentimental drama. Even Voltaire borrowed from Pamela and found praise for George Barnwell.   23
  Though the general tendencies of the time should thus be remembered, there is no need to belittle Lillo’s direct and powerful influence on Diderot. Like Voltaire, Diderot’s influence on drama was twofold—in actual dramatic production and in dramatic theory. But Diderot set himself in direct opposition to the classical standards which, despite some inconsistencies, Voltaire maintained. In Le Fils Naturel (printed 1757), and in Le Père de Famille (printed 1758), with the critical discourses that accompany them, Diderot set forth the type of drama which he sought to introduce into France. His very term, tragédie domestique et bourgeoise, suggests the nature of Lillo’s influence upon him. Diderot carried his enthusiasm for George Barnwell to the point of comparing the prison scene between Barnwell and Maria with the Philoctetes of Sophocles. He followed his English master in the choice of characters drawn from ordinary life, in the moralisation of tragedy and in the use of prose. Diderot, in fact, carried his belief in prose into more consistent practice than did Lillo. In his treatise De la Poésie Dramatique, he expresses the conviction that domestic tragedy should not be written in verse, though, doubtless, it is French verse that he has in mind rather than the English blank verse to which Lillo himself reverted in Fatal Curiosity. The length of time before Diderot’s plays were put on the stage, and their rather indifferent reception by the public,  27  suggest that his own dramatic accomplishment was less significant than his influence upon dramatists like Sedaine and Lessing.   24
  Largely through Diderot, Lillo’s influence was extended to German drama. Lessing’s translations of Diderot’s plays and his critical interpretations of his dramatic theories fell on favourable soil in Germany. Lessing’s own domestic tragedy, Miss Sara Sampson (1755), which dissolved its audience in tears, has the general tone of Lillo’s drama. To the influence of George Barnwell upon German domestic tragedy (bürgerliches Trauerspiel) should be added that of Fatal Curiosity upon the German tragedy of destiny (Schicksalstragödie). During the last two decades of the eighteenth century, versions of Fatal Curiosity appeared in German, its actual theme was taken for a brief play by Werner (1812), and other examples of the “tragedy of destiny” were borne along on the passing wave of popularity.  28    25
  Though the effect of Lillo’s dramas was far-reaching and persistent, it must not be supposed that his bourgeois tragedy thereafter dominated the English stage. Occasional plays, like Charles Johnson’s Caelia, or The Perjured Lover (1732), reflect Lillo’s influence. But, year after year, the English stage continued to produce a remarkable variety of theatrical productions, from classical tragedy to nondescript farce. Not until the days of Edward Moore did Lillo find a conspicuous follower. Moore, like Lillo and Gay, was an apprentice turned playwright. The mob of gentlemen who wrote with ease, in days when playwriting was more in fashion, had noticeably, like the old drama itself, given way to a less high-born school. Moore’s early comedy, The Foundling (1748), has some suggestion of Steele’s last sentimental comedy, while Gil Blas (1751) darkens the comic action with a tragic underplot. But Moore’s tragic and moral bent unite most clearly and forcibly in The Gamester (1753).   26

Note 27Le Fils Naturel, publicly produced in 1771, failed. Le Père de Famille had found moderate favour on the Parisian stage in 1761. [ back ]
Note 28. For further details, see the study of Lillo’s work and its influence in Ward’s, A.W., edition of The London Merchant and Fatal Curiosity (Belles Lettres Series). [ back ]

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