(To the Author of Fatal Friendship, a Tragedy), an unquestionably domestic tragedy inculcating a theological “lesson”. To this play, which was acted with “great applause” (Biographica Dramatica, 107), Aaron Hill was, I am convinced, considerably indebted for his Fatal Extravagance, which is, in turn, one of the sources of The Gamester.
In the early eighteenth century, then, there is clearly discernible a two-fold tendency toward middle-class tragedy which reaches its fullest expression in Lillo: the desire to lower the social level of the characters in order to make the tragedy more moving; and the desire to defend the stage by demonstrating its religious and moral utility. In his prologue to The Fair Penitent (l703), Rowe gave expression to the first: the “fate of kings and empires”, he argues, is too remote to engage our feelings, for “we ne’er can pity that we ne’er can share”; therefore he offers “a melancholy tale of private woes”. In his prologue, Lillo repeats this idea, but in his dedication he shows himself primarily concerned with the second tendency. Specifically challenging those “who deny the lawfulness of the stage”, he argues that “the more extensively useful the moral of any tragedy is, the more excellent that piece must be of its kind”; the generality of mankind is more liable to vice than are kings; therefore “plays founded on moral tales in private life may be of admirable use... by stifling vice in its first principles”. Dramatists who were concerned only or primarily with the first of these tendencies (the emotional effect), produced domestic or pseudo-domestic tragedies in the manner of Otway and Rowe. But those who stressed the second (moral and religious utility), seeking practical themes of widespread applicability, quite logically moved toward genuine middle-class tragedy. Thus Hill’s Fatal Extravagance is concerned with the “vice” of gambling; while Charles Johnson’s Caelia, or The Perjur’d Lover (1732) attacks fashionable libertinism of the day, telling the story which Richardson was later to retell in seven ponderous volumes. In Caelia the religious rationalization of the tragic action is subdued, Johnson apparently preferring to stress the social and moral aspects of his subject, and to this end he resolutely refused to expunge or modify the boldly realistic brothel scenes, against which a fastidious audience had protested.