I read somewhere or someone mentioned that Ibsen was the first playwright to write tragedies in prose about ordinary people; and whilst naturally I thought to myself that he no doubt wasn’t, I couldn’t at the time think of a good counter-example. There are plenty of comedies which feature ordinary people (from Menander to Ben Jonson), but that is no doubt an effect of comedy’s being fundamentally anti-tragedy. But tragedies about ordinary people? Why would anyone write one? After all, if a man isn’t at least an aristocrat, who cares about his problems?
But George Lillo wrote such a tragedy in 1731, choosing a humble clerk, George Barnwell, as his tragic hero, with the rest of the cast made up of merchants, servants and women of uncertain vocation.
Lillo is conscious of the lack of toffs in his play, for he writes an apologia for it as a preface:
If princes, etc., were alone liable to misfortune, arising from vice or weakness in themselves or others, there would be good reason for confining the character in tragedy to those of superior rank; but, since the contrary is evident, nothing can be more reasonable than to proportion the remedy to the disease … I am far from denying that tragedies … where the persons introduced are of the highest rank, are without their use, even to the bulk of the audience … Considering the novelty of this attempt, I thought it would be expected from me to say something in its excuse
Yes, he seems to think that, taking playwrighting as a form of moral instruction, it might better achieve this end with regard to the majority of the audience if it involved the lives of people they could identify with. (A crazy notion, as I’m sure we’d all agree, particularly when it doesn’t fit into our pre-conceived scheme of literary development).
As you may also instantly appreciate from the fact that Lillo sees writing as being ultimately moral, The London Merchant is in fact an incredibly dull and uninteresting play. As we find all too often in c18th plays, the characters are in the main mere exemplars of virtues and vices. George Barnwell himself is a gratingly virtuous boy, whose tragic flaw is his own innocence; evil is entirely retained in the character of Millwood, a wicked temptress who seduces Barnwell and proceeds to get him first to rob his master and then to murder his uncle, before they are both sentenced to be hanged. As is the way with evil, Millwood is the only interesting character in the play.
Lest you get the idea however that Lillo thinks all evil emanates from womankind, and that men would be entirely virtuous if it weren’t for their scheming and persuasion, there are a few good speeches of Millwood’s in the play (the only interesting part of it, in fact), in which she states her reasons for acting in such a thoroughly evil manner. Here is one towards the end: your typical unrepentent serial killer speech:
Well may I curse your barbarous sex, who robbed me of ’em [perfections of body and mind] ere I knew their worth; then left me, too late, to count their value by their loss. Another and another spoiler came, and all my gain was poverty and reproach. My soul disdained, and yet disdains, dependence and contempt. Riches, no matter by what means obtained, I saw secured the worst of men from both. I found it, therefore, necessary to be rich, and to that end summoned all my arts. You call ’em wicked, be it so; they were such as my conversation with your sex had furnished me withal … Men of all degrees, and all professions, I have known, yet found no differences but in their several capacities; all were alike wicked, to the utmost of their power. In pride, contention, avarice, cruelty and revenge, the reverend priesthood were my unerring guides … [there follows further satire] … I hate you all; I know you, and expect no mercy. Nay, I ask for none; I have done nothing that I am sorry for; I followed my inclinations, and that the best of you does every day. All actions are alike natural and indifferent to man and beast, who devour, or are devoured, as they meet with others weaker or stronger than themselves … [etc., she goes on]
Although, as it happens, this kind of social Darwinism is sadly not apparent in the rest of Lillo’s world, where everyone, as I said, is painfully dull and virtuous. But it is interesting nonetheless, that in this play, and in Jane Shore which I read earlier, there is this interest in the lives of women insofar as they are dependent on men, and how they might emancipate themselves from this – although it may be that it wasn’t until the late c19th, that any writer thought up a means of emancipation that didn’t end in their death.