Some time ago, The Times Literary Supplement stopped taking the pulse of British intellectual life. It is testimony to their grandeur, however, that they would devote this week’s cover to something so seemingly otiose as the appearance of a new edition of Henry Fielding’s plays. A world that cares about such things is indeed a better world than the one we have.
Here, the rather unadorned periods of Claude Rawson:
“Henry Fielding died almost exactly a quarter of a millennium ago, on October 8, 1754. He was by then best known as one of the masters of the European novel, and as a political journalist, social thinker, and magistrate. Two decades earlier, however, he had been England’s leading playwright, producing over two dozen plays in less than ten years. His dramatic career was curtailed by the Licensing Act of 1737, which his own plays helped to provoke, and which remained in force until 1968, though latterly in the cause mainly of moral rather than political censorship. His plays are now seldom produced, but Shaw called him ‘the greatest practising dramatist, with the single exception of Shakespear, produced by England between the Middle Ages and the nineteenth century’, a wording which, as is sometimes remarked, left room for Shaw himself to claim the top spot.”
Above all, however, it is in their style and technical organization that the novels draw most deeply on the plays. The keen sense of the well-shaped, tightly ordered narrative, with firm plot-resolution, for which Tom Jones is especially celebrated, is a remarkable application of playwriting disciplines to a work of panoramic scope and untheatrical length, and the novels show many local signs of theatrical organization: chapters or episodes framed as set pieces, analogous in shape and length to a scene in a play, comic misunderstandings, reversals and well-timed coincidences, conversations heard at cross purposes. They also show an alert ear for dialogue of a stylized and typifying kind, designed to bring out the cant of social groups or the character – revealing accents of wicked or foolish types, and showing marked traces of the dramatic genres Fielding practised: the manically aphoristic repartee of Restoration wit-comedy, the quick-time exchanges of farce, the bumptious precisions of comic opera, the stage-rustic speech of Squire Western.”