I suppose it would be more surprising to find there wasn’t any meta-theatre in the c18th, so obsessed did they seem back then with formal experimentation (not to mention satire). The target of this work of Fielding’s is the degeneration of tragedy since Shakespeare’s day – a theatrical equivalent to Pope’s Grub Street; its precise objects being, perhaps understandably, a little beyond my knowledge: Dryden’s The Conquest of Granada, Aureng-zebe and Cleomenes; John Banks’ The Earl of Essex; Nathaniel Lee’s Sophonisba etc. (but mostly just Dryden).
The subtitle is Tom Thumb the Great, and its ostensible subject that great, if small, hero’s return from his conquest of the giants, his engagement to the King Arthur’s daughter and his tragic death when he is accidentally eaten by a cow. The play has a commentator, one H Scriblerus Secundus, who feels the need to defend it, first in a preface – where he denies it is a parody at all, that it is rather the very epitome and exemplar of the tragic form; and claims it was written in Elizabethan times – and then in numerous footnotes throughout the play, which point out the play’s adherence to every rule of tragedy, its many neat rhetorical devices and give numerous examples of quotations subsequently borrowed from it by the aforementioned playwrights – which are, of course, quotations it has borrowed from those same playwrights. Indeed, it is in fact simply a quilt of other writers’ lines woven into a suitably tragic story; hence one meaning at least of the title.
For instance, the following speech by Queen Dollallolla, bemoaning that King Arthur, her husband, will marry her daughter to Tom Thumb:
Who but a dog, who but a dog
Would use me as thou dost? Me, who have lain
These twenty years so loving by thy side!
But I will be revenged. I’ll hang myself,
Then tremble all who did this match persuade,
For riding on a cat from high I’ll fall,
And squirt down royal vengeance on you all.
Derives, according to the footnotes, from these lines in Liberty Asserted:
This dreadful revolution in my fate?
Ulamar. Who but a dog, who but a dog?
This, from Banks (unspecified, which play):
– A bride
Who twenty years lay loving by your side.
And this, from Albion Queens:
For borne upon a cloud from high I’ll fall
And rain down royal vengeance on you all.
As we noted the other day in Cato, and though it’s not necessarily on Fielding’s mind (he does mention it though), he also performs many of the same rhetorical feats. The use of groups of four in a single line here reaches its apotheosis in the following speech by Tom Thumb:
Oh! happy, happy, happy, happy Thumb!
To which there is the footnote:
Masinissa [in Sophonisba] is one-fourth less happy than Tom Thumb: Oh! happy, happy happy!
And so on and so forth; – to be honest, I’m sure it was all funnier at the time, when the references might be known. To perform it today would be useless without somehow including the footnotes. Even such a reference as we get from Tom Thumb’s love-interest Huncamunca:
Oh! Tom Thumb, Tom Thumb! wherefore are thou Tom Thumb?
would mislead people nowadays, who would fail to see that it truly derives from Otway’s Marius:
Oh! Marius, Marius; wherefore are thou Marius?