Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage
In March 1698, Jeremy Collier published his anti-theatre pamphlet, A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage; in the pamphlet, Collier attacks a number of playwrights: William Wycherley, John Dryden, William Congreve, John Vanbrugh, and Thomas D’Urfey. Collier attacks rather recent, rather popular comedies from the London stage; he accuses the playwrights of profanity, blasphemy, indecency, and undermining public morality through the sympathetic depiction of vice.
Collier begins his pamphlet with this conclusion: “[N]othing has gone farther in Debauching the Age than the Stage Poets, and Play-House” (Collier A2). He goes on, in great detail—despite the title—to give his evidence. For Collier, the immorality of the title stems from Restoration comedy’s lack of poetic justice. With his exhaustively thorough readings—in a sense, pre-close reading close readings—he condemns the characters of Restoration comedies as impious and wicked and he condemned their creators (the playwrights) for failing to punish the playwrights’ wicked “favorites.” As the title suggests, Collier also charges the playwrights with profaneness, supporting his allegations with a number quotations from the plays (i.e. The Provoked Wife, The Relapse, et cetera). However, most of these charges are rather mild (at least according to the standards of most modern readers). Collier is, of course, unable to give examples of blatant blasphemy, for at the time, they were neither allowed on stage nor in print (Cordner 213). However, Collier’s strategy was innovative for his time (not to mention effective). Before A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage, most anti-theatre pamphlets were merely nondescript diatribes (e.g. William Prynne’s Histriomastix (1633)), but with his innovative techniques, Collier comprehensively indicted the entire Restoration stage (Cordner 215).
Therefore, due to its publication, a pamphlet war ensued (for and against Collier’s case), lasting sporadically until about 1726. In 1698, John Dennis, an English critic, wrote a pamphlet entitled: The Usefulness of the Stage. Yet, John Vanbrugh hardly took the attacks on his plays seriously. Therefore, he wrote a jestful retort, A Short Vindication of The Relapse and The Provok'd Wife From Immorality and Prophaneness (1698); in his pamphlet, Vanbrugh accuses Collier of being more upset by the unflattering depictions of clergymen than actual blasphemy (Cordner 217). On the other hand, William Congreve took the attacks on his plays quite seriously and refuted Collier’s allegations in his riposte, Amendments of Mr. Collier's False and Imperfect Citations (1698). Other playwrights preferred to give their reply on the stage (as Thomas D’Urfey did). In his play, Campaigners (1698), D’Urfey incidentally commented on Collier’s strictures imposed on the stage. Collier would later fire back with his Defence of the Short View in 1699 and Edward Filmer would go on to defend Restoration theatre in 1707 with A Defence of Plays.
Yet, by the end of the 17th century, the Restoration comic style had collapsed: the satiric presentation of English life gave way to the sentimental portrait (beginning in 1696 with Colley Cibber’s Love's Last Shift) (Bernbaum 72). A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage only signaled the swelling of public opposition to the real or imposed indecency of the plays staged over the last three decades (Cordner 210). Collier writes in the introduction: “The business of plays is to recommend Vertue, and discountenance Vice” (Collier 1). However, the Restoration playwright rarely saw his/her function within Collier’s strictures; in Congreve’s dedication to The Double-Dealer (1693), he writes, “It is the business of a comic poet to paint the vices and follies of humankind” (Congreve 174). Congreve implies that the purpose of the comic playwright was to portray the vices and follies of society in order to correct them. Collier, instead, preferred his restrictions imposed on comedy (e.g. his rigid Neoclassical notions of dramatic decorum), and in doing so he followed the same twisted moral logic found in the work of other critics who had imposed the law of poetic justice on tragedy (e.g. Thomas Rymer and his A Short View of Tragedy (1693)).
A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage is often credited with turning the tide against the sexually explicit nature of Restoration comedy, but the tide had already begun turning; Collier’s pamphlet was only “swimming” with the “tide” of public opinion (Cordner 210). The truth was that Restoration comedy was over; it had been worn down by external factors, such as: the Glorious Revolution and William and Mary’s bête-noire for theatre. Maybe the most obvious sign of Restoration theatre’s death came with the nolle prosequi (immunity from prosecution for earlier offenses) granted to Collier by William III (for A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage) (Cordner 210).
- Collier, Jeremy (ed. Kaneko, Yuji ) (1996; first published 1698). A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English stage. London: Routledge.
- Cordner, Michael.(2000) "Playwright versus priest: profanity and the wit of Restoration comedy." In Deborah Payne Fisk (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to English Restoration Theatre, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Vanbrugh, John (1698). A Short Vindication of The Relapse and The Provok'd Wife From Immorality and Prophaneness, in Bonamy Dobrée and Geoffrey Webb (eds.) (1927), The Complete Works of Sir John Vanbrugh, vol. 1, Bloomsbury: The Nonesuch Press.