The London Theatre and the Public | Language Variation | Works Cited

This introduction will examine the mid- to late-eighteenth-century's theatrical community in London, paying particular attention to the interactions between playwrights, the managerial and stage roles often undertaken by the dramatists, and the role of the audience in determining the content of the plays. An evaluation of the causes for the language varieties within the plays will then be presented, and possible effects of these language varieties on the audience members will be suggested. macklin as macbeth


The London Theatre and the Public

The mid- to late-eighteenth-century English theatre was a gathering-place for entertainment of people of all ranks and professions. Theatres existed in urban centres, with the strongest theatrical community situated in London. The main London theatres were Drury Lane and Covent Garden, the so-called "Patent" theatres, which could operate year-round and could accommodate a large audience. The non-Patent theatres -- Goodman's Fields, the Little Theatre in the Haymarket and Lincoln's Inn -- were limited by strict regulations about their periods of performance (often confined to the summer only) and by the actors' professional aspirations towards working in the Patent theatres (Wood 1). These restrictions imposed on the theatres limited the public that could attend the performances, creating a sense of community by those who were frequent theatre-goers. As E.R. Wood describes in Plays by David Garrick and George Colman the Elder (1982) , the audience was a microcosm of London society:

Readers of theatrical memoirs of the period may gather the impression that all London went to the theatre, from the king and the aristocracy, poets and politicians, lawyers and merchants, to prostitutes and servants (few artisans or labourers, whose working hours precluded theatre-going). Estimates suggest, however, that fewer than two per cent of the city population did so. This limited public had some sense of belonging to a community which included the players (Wood 4).

This sense of community was enhanced by the multiple hats worn by the playwrights examined in this collection. Most dramatists also played other roles in theatrical productions or had other professions. Actor-playwrights included Charles Macklin, David Garrick, Samuel Foote, Catherine Clive, Elizabeth Inchbald, Elizabeth Griffith, Thomas Sheridan and John Philip Kemble. In the cases of Macklin, Garrick, Clive and Kemble, these characters' acting careers were so celebrated that they eclipsed their other professional roles. Likewise, playwrights were often theatre managers: David Garrick managed Drury Lane from 1747 to 1776 until it was passed to Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1776), Colman the Elder directed the Covent Garden theatre from 1767 to 1774, after which his son took over the management (Baldwin), and Foote rented the Haymarket for many years, successfully acquiring a royal patent in 1766 (Howard). The working relationships between playwrights, actors and managers were compounded by the multiple roles juggled by these individuals.

The intimacy of the limited theatre scene provoked many interactions between the playwrights. Collaboration, friendship, plagiarism and feuding were commonplace. Many playwrights wrote for the theatre managers at Covent Garden and Drury Lane, resulting in friendships or falling-outs depending on the success of their plays. Many instances of plagiarism occurred: a celebrated instance of this occurred when Foote and Murphy simultaneously released their own versions of The Englishman Return'd from Paris (1756). Other cases included an accusation that Reed duplicated one of the characters in Foote's The Minor (1760) in The Register Office (1761) (Eckersley), and Bickerstaff's charge against Cumberland for having plagiarized his work in The Summer's Tale (1765) (Keenan). Paper-wars were common, and feuding resulted from conflicts between dramatists (which could be profitable, as Foote and Macklin discovered (Howard)). At the other end of the spectrum, Colman and Garrick's collaboration on The Clandestine Marriage (1766) demonstrates the artistic potential of the close-knit theatrical community. At its best, the good-natured competition between the playwrights was productive and creative.

The degree of contact between the playwrights naturally led them to investigate similar themes. The most prominent example of this is the sudden abundance of Indian characters in plays performed in 1774; this character type occurs in no other year in the plays examined in this survey. Because playwrights, theatre owners and actors were well aware of their target audience, they performed material that would have been meaningful to the theatrical public, particularly satire of contemporary fashions, people and events. Common objects of satire often dealt with current events. For instance, Richard Brinsley Sheridan's elopement with Elizabeth Linley and Elizabeth Chudleigh's bigamy are satirized in Samuel Foote's A Trip to Calais (1776; published 1778). New fashions were also satirized: oratory schools were parodied in Foote's The Orators (1762), while Methodism bore a particularly virulent attack in Reed's The Register Office (1761). The fashionable Italian opera, the foremost competitor to the London playhouses, was satirized in works such as Colman's The Musical Lady (1761; published 1762) and Ut Pictura Poesis! (1789). Foreigners, especially the French, were frequent targets of satire; this is best represented in Foote's The Englishman in Paris (1753) and its sequel The Englishman Return'd from Paris (1756). Finally, the inner workings of the theatre itself became the subjects of productions in plays such as Colman's An Occasional Prelude (1772) and The Manager in Distress (1780). Despite the relatively small size of the theatrical community, it can be considered representative of the general London public because of the diversity of the play-goers. The interests of the public are clearly reflected in the plays' contents, which are always bitingly topical.

Language Variation

An intense initiative to standardize the English language is a well-known development of the eighteenth century. Scholars have identified a primary cause of this standardization as the need to have a variety-free written medium with which to govern the British Empire (Stein 7). A conscious effort to develop a "standard" version of a language requires a group of individuals to set the standard and then to monitor the language. To be considered authoritative in this field, the members of this group must be well-educated, and are likely to live in a similar area, which would facilitate communication within the group. The assumptions that members of this educational and regional group share about proper orthography, grammar and vocabulary -- and in the case of spoken language, pronunciation -- are thus carried into the standard version of the language.

Once the version of the language intended to become the standard has been developed, it must be be recognized as standard by users of other dialects and varieties. This is achieved through publication (for instance, Jonathan Swift's Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue (1712) and Johnson's A Dictionary of the English Language (1755)) and education (such as lectures in oratory, including those by Thomas Sheridan). Interestingly, Swift and Sheridan were Irish; their social and regional mobility would have impacted their own language, and by extension, the content of their educational materials. As Lawrence Klein argues in " 'Politeness' as linguistic ideology in late seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England", this recognition was achieved by developing Standard English through the use of "politeness" in speech, which was characteristic of the elite class. Upwardly-mobile middling classes were thus very interested in adopting this polite linguistic variety; this interest contributed to the rapid dissemination of the "standard" language.

As a result of prioritizing a particular linguistic variety associated with education and social elevation, other language varieties were connoted with a lack of education and a lower class. As Dieter Stein argues in his article "Standardization and social factors" in his book Towards a Standard English: 1600-1800 (1994), social ranking through language use is a three-step process:

1. in a process of selection, certain variants are not elected as the correct ones;

2. the ones not elected receive a connotation as "vulgar" and "dialectical";

3. the people using these vulgar and dialectical forms are branded as socially and intellectually inferior (Stein 7).

This social and intellectual ranking through language use in English is especially damaging to the relationships between various nations of Britain, as the standard form of "English" reinforces a perceived hierarchy over Scottish, Welsh and Irish dialects, and thus over Scottish, Welsh and Irish individuals. In this collection of plays, this phenomenon is observed when individuals who are well-educated and who may have an elevated social rank, but who speak with a regional accent, are denigrated to a social status inferior to that which they may deserve. Such characters appear in Reed's The Register Office (1761), Foote's The Orators (1762) and in Murphy's The Apprentice (1756). In the latter play, a Scottish actor who received acclamation in Edinburgh for his portrayal of Macbeth is mocked by members of a London "Spouting Club" because of his accent. His attendance at the "Spouting Club" suggests that he has been unable to find work in a London theatre, likely also because of his accent. Further evidence of this hierarchy of dialects in English appears in the biography of Charles Macklin, a playwright and actor of Irish origin, who was dismissed from his first acting company because of his inappropriate accent.

Because of the social stigmas associated with dialect use, language variation is an effective way of providing an intellectual and social profile to a literary figure without engaging in a great deal of description. In drama, a playwright's ability to use description is extremely limited, as he or she must represent the time and space of the action as well as the characters' development entirely through dialogue and stage directions. Eighteenth-century drama was a particularly confining idiom for which to write, as candlelight and the strict layout of the stage (Wood 2) were not conducive to plot or character development. Thus, language variation in the dialogue of plays takes on an important role in portraying a character, as the only other means of characterization exists directly in the dialogue's narrative. A playwright of this time would require his or her audience to determine the significance of the dialect use based on cultural assumptions about language's relationship to social, intellectual and moral rank. As discussed above, these assumptions would have been developed through the process of standardizing the English language.

david garrickTo aid the audience in understanding a character's social position and his or her expected role in the play, the playwrights of the late eighteenth-century relied on character types to act as a kind of shorthand, which the frequently-attending audience members would be expected to recognize and understand. Using these stock character types, the playwright was saved the trouble of developing minor characters necessary to the action, leaving him or her free to focus on the protagonists, who are almost invariably socially superior, Standard-English-speaking characters. Stock figures are nearly always characterized by some form of non-Standard English, which establishes them as inferiors within the social sphere of the play and in the action of the play itself. The language varieties used by the character types can be divided into two primary categories: varieties based on nationality (not English), and varieties based on profession (middling to lower social status). There are a few linguistic exceptions to this division, such as educated and sophisticated men and women, English country folk and Cockneys, class-crossing characters, and characters with very specific linguistic profiles (e.g. classical scholars, malaprops, and orators). This website provides a social and linguistic analysis of 25 recurrent character types.

The nationalities of characters types are portrayed linguistically through variations in orthography, vocabulary and grammar. Few spelling errors occur in the plays themselves, aside from the misspelling of "boys" in the title of The Rehearsal, or Bays in Petticoats (1750; published 1753), by Catherine Clive, a notoriously poor speller (Hetherington vii). However, major deliberate orthographic variation occurs in representations of the pronunciation of different regional accents, especially of the French, Welsh, Irish and Scottish dialects. The orthographic variations specific to these nationalities attain some degree of standardization, as the same wrong spellings indicating non-standard pronunciation occur throughout the collection. The audience is also able to identify nationality through the characters' use of vocabulary distinctive to a specific region. This trait is particularly apparent in portrayals of Irish characters, who are easily distinguished by their frequent endearments, guttural ejaculations and swearing "by Saint Patrick!", as well as French characters, whose use of Franglais immediately distinguishes them as foreigners. Non-standard grammar appears frequently in portrayals of foreign characters' "Broken English" to reinforce these figures' lack of "polite" language, and their correspondingly low-level positions in English society.

The professions of character types are also portrayed with linguistic variations. However, most professional characters who are English do not use non-standard pronunciation (orthography). Grammatical variation is also less common within this group, although it occurs occasionally to demonstrate that a character is not well educated. In most cases, professions are determined by the use of vocabulary specific to the profession in every possible context. For instance, the stock lawyer characters use legal jargon, nautical characters use shipboard language, and military characters use battle terms to describe activities that bear no relation to their professions. Because of their use of professional vocabulary, these characters are relegated to minor roles in accordance with their social status as middle-class or worse, while the members of the gentility speak Standard English. Occasionally, characters will attempt to modulate their dialect use to reflect their upwardly-mobile aspirations; one such case is in Burgoyne's The Heiress (1786), in which the middle-class Miss Alscrip tries to emulate her fiancé's sister Lady Emily's fashionably affected speech, which the audience learns is an act on Lady Emily's part.

In addition to serving as a means of easily identifying a socially or intellectually inferior character type, language variation in eighteenth-century comedies serves as a way of contributing to the humour in the plays. For instance, Foote's The Englishman in Paris (1753) and its sequel The Englishman Return'd from Paris (1756) rely on the comic effect produced by the eponymous Buck's bad French, represented with variations in vocabulary and orthography. Upwardly-mobile figures are particularly guilty of faulty vocabulary, particularly those who attempt to affect a classical education. An especially humorous example of this occurs in Cowley's Who's the Dupe? (1779), in which Gradus' Greek quotations are outdone by his rival Granger's desperate attempt to make English vocabulary sound like Greek. Old Cockney, in Bickerstaff's Love in the City (1767) makes similar errors, referring to such works of literature as "Virgil's Ovid". Orthographic variation that represents by a false foreign accent also adds to the comic effect, as demonstrated in Garrick's The Irish Widow (1772), in Foote's Taste (1752) and The Minor (1760), and in Sheridan's St. Patrick's Day (1775; published 1788). Grammatical variations do not usually produce a comic effect in themselves, but are often used to reinforce a character portrayal that is comic in other ways. One exception to this is Cadwallader's unvaried use of female pronouns in Kemble's The Female Officer (published 1763)); this surprisingly apt variation produces dramatic irony.

Some grammatical forms that appear non-standard to the twenty-first-century reader are widespread throughout the collection and are not distinctive to any one character type. These basic language trends include the form "you was", inconsistent uses of "you" and "thou" for the second person pronoun, and multiple negations for emphasis. In her article "Double Negation and Eighteenth-Century Grammars" (1982), Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade explores how the latter trend is portrayed in grammar textbooks of the eighteenth-century. She finds that grammarians were trying to exclude double negation from standard written English, basing the language on the algebraic rule that two negatives make a positive (van Ostade 279). However, double negatives for emphasis have been used in English since medieval times. Despite the efforts to remove them from written English, they were common to eighteenth-century informal speech and were (and still are) used to mark speakers as poorly educated or provincial (van Ostade 283). Double negation for emphasis, then, is a form of dialect that marks the speaker in question as a social and intellectual inferior.

The inconsistent second-person pronominal use in these works is an interesting case for analysis. Characters often switch between the forms in the same sentence or speech, as in this excerpt from Bickerstaff's The Maid of the Mill (1765):

Fairf. Farmer, give us thy hand; nobody doubts thy good will to me and my girl; and you may take my word I would rather give her to thee than another; for I am main certain thou wilt make her a good husband.

Giles. Thanks to your kind opinion, master Fairfield; if such be my hap I hope there will be no cause of complaint.

Fairf. And I promise thee my daughter will make thee a choice wife.---But there is one thing to be considered.---Thou know'st, friend Giles, that I, and all belongs to me, have great obligations to lord Aimworth's family; Patty, in particular, would be one of the most ungrateful wretches this day breathing, if she was to do the smallest thing contrary to their consent  and approbation.---I need not tell thee what she owes them (Bickerstaff 6-7).

This example demonstrates the complex social dynamics of "thou" and "you" use. "Thou" is most often employed by country folk, such as Fairfield and Giles, as a verbal marker of archaism and a corresponding lack of sophistication.However, Giles uses "your" when addressing Fairfield, his potential father-in-law, while Fairfield's address of Giles as "thou" reinforces their unequal social roles. As in modern French, the second person plural is a sign of respect, while the second person singular is a more familiar form used in situations of both intimacy and condescension (Lass 97). A similar example to the one above occurs between the brothers Manlove and Nightshade in Cumberland's The Choleric Man (1774), in which the urban Manlove casually addresses his provincial brother as "thou", while Nightshade employs "you" as a sign of respect (a reversal of the usual country-city choice of pronouns). However, the inconsistencies of these trends and the frequency of code-switching are exemplified in Fairfield's statement "you may take my word I would rather give her to thee" (my emphasis).

Finally, "you was" (second person singular) is used nearly universally for "you were" in this collection. This non-standard idiom is especially favoured by the socially superior characters whose English is otherwise standard; it is not used as often by speakers of dialect marked in other ways, and does not apply in constructions where "thou" is used as the second person singular pronoun. The recurrence of "you was" in the protagonists' speech suggests that it is a form of language variation that marks the character as a speaker of the "polite" English favoured by the gentility. The hypercorrection of "you was" reinforces the speaker's perception of him or herself as formal and educated. The audience would have been aware of this perception, and, based on the frequency of "you was" in the collection, likely recognized it as a form used in everyday speech as well as in literature. For an analysis of "you was", see Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade's article "'You was’ and eighteenth-century normative grammar" (2002).

The plays examined in this collection are representative both of the mid- to late-eighteenth-century London audience's interests, and of their understanding of the relationship between language use and social status. Based on the small estimated percentage of the London population that attended the theatre, the non-standard English varieties represented in the plays were not likely to have had a profound effect on spoken English in London. However, the playwrights' reliance on stereotypical associations between certain linguistic tendencies and social and intellectual status to depict stock characters in the plays would probably have reflected widespread perceptions about dialect use. Because these associations between dialect and status would have been reinscribed in the audience's consciousness at every performance of a play, the plays that employ language variation act as a kind of unconscious educational tool. The frequently-attending audience members would have internalized the ideas about how language connotes social status, and would possibly have used these ideas in judgments of others in their daily lives. The theatre, therefore, played an important role in the process of standarization of the English language by offering inferior portrayals of those who speak in dialect.

Works Cited:

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Fitzgerald, Percy Hetherington. The Life of Mrs. Catherine Clive, with an Account of Her Adventures On and Off the Stage; a Round of Her Characters, Together with Her Correspondence. London: A. Reader, Orange Street, Holborn, 1888.

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Stein, Dieter, and Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade, eds. Towards a Standard English, 1600-1800. Berlin; New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 1994.

Tieken-Boon van Ostade, Ingrid. "Double Negation and Eighteenth-Century English Grammars". Neophilologus 66, 2: April 1982. 278-285.

---. “‘You was’ and eighteenth-century normative grammar”. Katja Lenz and Ruth Möhlig (eds.). Of Dyuersite & Chaunge of Langage: Essays Presented to Manfred Görlach on the Occaion of his 65th Birthday. Heidelberg: C. Winter Universitätsverlag, 2002. 88-102.

White, Douglas H. ‘David Garrick: February 19, 1717-January 20, 1779.’ Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 89: Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Dramatists, Third Series. A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book. Edited by Paula R. Backscheider, University of Rochester. The Gale Group, 1989. Literature Resource Center. 27 May 1008.

Wood, E.R. Plays by David Garrick and George Colman the Elder. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.