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Oliver Goldsmith published ‘An Essay on the Theatre; or, A Comparison between Laughing and Sentimental Comedy’ in the first edition of The Westminster Magazine, in January 1773.

The essay sets out Goldsmith’s argument that the fashion for sentimental comedy or, as he terms it, ‘bastard tragedy’ (p. 6), was killing off laughter among audiences. Laughter, he believed, was the true purpose of theatrical comedy. The crucial question he puts to the reader and critic is ‘whether the exhibition of human distress is likely to afford the mind more entertainment than that of human absurdity?’ (p. 4). Sentimental comedies – which are rarely read and performed today – drew on aspects of tragedy and presented noble, ‘good, and exceedingly generous’ characters who elicited audiences’ sympathy. Goldsmith found the genre tedious and wanted to offer audiences pure, unruly and well-written comic entertainment.

Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer was staged two months later in London. The timely appearance of ‘An Essay on the Theatre’ may have been a strategic move by Goldsmith to smooth the way for his play, which eschewed the sentimental and self-identified as a laughing comedy.

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