Augustan drama  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Augustan drama can refer to the dramas of Ancient Rome during the reign of Caesar Augustus, but it most commonly refers to the plays of Great Britain in the early eighteenth century, a subset of eighteenth century Augustan literature. King George I referred to himself as "Augustus," and the poets of the era took this reference as apropos, as the literature of Rome during Augustus moved from historical and didactic poetry to the poetry of highly finished and sophisticated epics and satire.

In poetry, the early eighteenth century was an age of satire and public verse, and in prose, it was an age of the developing novel. In drama, by contrast, it was an age in transition between the highly witty and sexually playful Restoration comedy, the pathetic she-tragedy of the turn of the century, and any later plots of middle-class anxiety. The Augustan stage retreated from the Restoration's focus on cuckoldry, marriage for fortune, and a life of leisure. Instead, Augustan drama reflected questions the mercantile class had about itself and what it meant to be gentry: what it meant to be a good merchant, how to achieve wealth with morality, and the proper role of those who serve.

Augustan drama has a reputation as an era of decline. One reason for this is that there were few dominant figures of the Augustan stage. Instead of a single genius, a number of playwrights worked steadily to find subject matter that would appeal to a new audience. In addition to this, playhouses began to dispense with playwrights altogether or to hire playwrights to match assigned subjects, and this made the producer the master of the script. When the public did tire of anonymously authored, low-content plays and a new generation of wits made the stage political and aggressive again, the Whig ministry stepped in and began official censorship that put an end to daring and innovative content. This conspired with the public's taste for special effects to reduce theatrical output and promote the novel.

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