She Stoops to Conquer – first performed in March 1773 at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden – was an immediate hit with audiences. However, the play’s success was by no means certain: Oliver Goldsmith had taken a huge risk by forsaking the popular mode of sentimental comedy in favour of a ‘laughing comedy’ inspired by the verbal, physical and occasionally vulgar humour of the Restoration and Renaissance theatre.

In order to win over his audience, Goldsmith recruited David Garrick, London’s premier theatre manager, to write a prologue for the play in which he explains and endorses this model of comedy.

The London theatregoers took to ‘laughing comedy’ with such gusto that a printed edition of the play was rapidly put together and published on 25 March 1773, with the initial print run of 4,000 copies selling out in an impressive three days. It became fashionable to bring the printed text to live performances so that jokes and lines could be read along with and shouted back to the characters on stage.

What’s digitised here?

  • pp. 1–5: the opening scene of the play, in which the audience is introduced to the main characters. Tony Lumpkin is portrayed from the very beginning as a bumbling, rustic jester. He is a comic character type at odds with the refined men and women of sensibility who had dominated the stage in both comedies and tragedies throughout the middle years of the 18th century.
  • pp. 39–40: Mrs Hardcastle’s conversation with Hastings wittily demonstrates the contrast between the town and country. In particular, Mrs Hardcastle’s garish attempts to follow London fashion are ridiculed.
  • pp. 51–56: an example of the laughing comedy style, in which fast-paced dialogue creates a clever yet absurd and farcical scene. This passage has its roots in older modes of the comedic genre, such as the narrative jokes and jests of the Renaissance period as well as oral storytelling traditions. It provides a natural imitation of human interaction, as opposed to the affected moralising of sentimental comedy.