Soldier Playwrights, Public Honor, and the Making of Liberal Arts Culture, 1660-1737
Author: Bill Blake
Degree: Ph.D. in Literary and Cultural Studies, Carnegie Mellon University, 2011
The subject of my dissertation is the soldier playwright in wartime and postwar England, from the restoration of Charles II in 1660 to the Stage Licensing Act of 1737. During these years, I argue, the public stage was shaped by the interests of a non-sectarian, liberal community of war veterans and active military officers, a self-idealizing group that formed in the early days of the Restoration and then regrouped under the pressures of the Glorious Revolution and its aftermath. Soldier playwrights such as Davenant, Orrery, Tuke, Howard, Cavendish, Buckingham, and later, Vanbrugh, Dennis, Steele, and Farquhar, shared a common ideal of public authorship that merged literary-reflective values with a postwar cultural ethic. As I show in my dissertation, the crucible for this soldier-playwright ethos—a civic humanist blend of “cultural service” and rhetorical aesthetics—was the crisis of civic society in the post-Civil War and post-revolutionary years of late-Stuart Britain. As the restored order came under threat from Protestant middle-class backlash, an influential group of old guard military veterans and patrician leaders attempted to newly model the public stage as a humanitarian institution, a postwar bastion of deliberative conscience, relaxed virtue, and renewed public spirit.
On this front, the peacemaking commitments of the militarist-intellectual community clashed with the growing militancy of public moralists like Jeremy Collier and Josiah Woodward, leading to a very public controversy over the moral effects and social functions of the postwar British theaters. On another front, the cultural and aesthetic terms of the soldier-playwright movement began to be contested from within: Dryden, in particular, a non-soldier playwright who sought to elevate matters of form and style to a standard of professional specialism, engaged in a protracted series of angry and even violent literary feuds with some of the best-known authors of the day. Ultimately, as the century unfolded, both the nature of military culture and the nature of literary practice shifted almost entirely. The Augustan tradition, represented most notably by Swift and Pope, marks a radical restructuring of literary taste and the formation of a newly anti-militaristic cultural outlook—an outlook that, I maintain, continues to influence our perceptions of the relationship between literary values and public life today.