The Theater (1720) by Sir John Falstaffe


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Page 2

The continuation of _The Theatre_ bears little trace of the controversial
bitterness present in Steele's paper of that name or in some of the early
numbers of _The Anti-Theatre_. Except in the mock will in No. 16, there is
no reference to Steele's dispute with Newcastle in the entire series. Nor,
in spite of the title, is there any discussion of theatrical matters. As a
source of information about the stage, it is virtually without value. But
if it be accepted as merely another of the gracefully written series of
literary essays which were so abundant in the early eighteenth century, its
value and charm are apparent. The unidentified author was an accomplished
scholar, and he wrote on a variety of subjects which have not lost their
appeal. The interest aroused by the essays is perhaps inseparable from our
historical interest in the life and manners of the time, but it is none the
less genuine. Perhaps nowhere more than in the personal essays about
subjects of contemporary importance--of which these are examples--is there
a more pleasing record of the social and intellectual life of a period.

Of the ten essays reproduced here, probably the first (No. 16) is the only
one which contains allusions which will not be generally understood by
scholars. In this paper, in the account of the death of Sir John Edgar and
in the transcript of Edgar's will, there are references to Steele's dispute
with Newcastle over the control of Drury Lane Theatre. Falstaffe
facetiously recalls several points which were debated in the journalistic
war provoked by Steele's loss of his governorship, but in themselves the
points are of too little significance to merit explanation.

The several allusions to the South Sea Bubble in these essays will be
easily recognized. In Nos. 21, 22, and 26, Falstaffe considers the
absurdities engendered by the Bubble (as he had previously in _The
Anti-Theatre_, Nos. 10, 11, 12, and 14), exhibiting a healthy distrust of
the fever of stock-jobbing then at its height. Though less extreme than
Steele in his criticism of the South Sea Company, Falstaffe shows himself
to have understood several months in advance of the crash the fundamental
unsoundness of the wave of speculation produced by the company's policies.

The essay on duelling (No. 17) was probably suggested to Falstaffe by a
bill then pending in Parliament to make the practice unlawful. No other of
his essays resembles more closely those of his predecessor, Steele, who
during a lifetime of writing carried on a personal campaign to arouse
opposition to duelling. In Steele's own _Theatre_, there are two essays
devoted to the subject (Nos. 19 and 26).

One of the most interesting of Falstaffe's papers is his twenty-fourth: his
discussion of the recently published memoirs of the deaf and dumb
fortuneteller, Duncan Campbell, memoirs which we know to have been written
by Daniel Defoe. And from Falstaffe's conspicuous reference to _Robinson
Crusoe_ in the paper, it seems evident that he also knew the identity of
the author. What we have then is, in effect, a contemporary review of
Defoe's book. Maintaining an air of seriousness, Falstaffe examines the
extravagant assertions made so confidently by Defoe, ironically suggesting
the implausibility and absurdity of some of them. Falstaffe's
matter-of-fact comments are well adapted to exposing the incredibility of
the similarly matter-of-fact narrative of Defoe.

Who Sir John Falstaffe was we do not know. No clue to his identity has been
discovered. But from the essays themselves we learn something of his tastes
and predilections. A strong interest in classical antiquity is apparent in
numerous allusions to ancient history and mythology, allusions particularly
plentiful in _The Anti-Theatre_; an intelligent reverence for the writings
of Shakespeare may be observed in a series of admiring references; and
from his repeated remarks about Spain and Spanish literature, both in _The
Anti-Theatre_ and in _The Theatre_, we may probably conclude that he had
some special knowledge of that country and its literature. But all of this
can be but speculation. We know nothing positively about Falstaffe except
that he wrote a series of engaging essays.

Falstaffe's _Theatre_ is reproduced, with permission, from the papers in
the Folger Shakespeare Library.

John Loftis
Princeton University

Numb. XVI



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Books | Photos | Paul Mutton | Fri 28th Feb 2020, 13:27