George Lillo  

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

George Lillo (February 4, 1693 – September 4, 1739) was a British playwright and tragedian. Very little is known of his biography, except that he was a jeweler in London as well as a dramatist. His family may have come from Flanders originally.

His most famous play was The London Merchant, or The History of George Barnwell (1731). It is notable for being what might now be called melodrama and for setting Augustan drama into a more melodramatic course. Lillo wished to create a new genre of play, the "domestic tragedy" (or bourgeois tragedy). Instead of dealing with heroes from Classical or Biblical history, he would deal instead with everyday people and present tragedies conducted on the scale of households, rather than kingdoms. Even though the Jacobean stage had flirted with merchant and artisan plays in the past (with, for example, Thomas Dekker and Thomas Heywood), this was a significant change in theatre, and in tragedy in particular. In The London Merchant, the subject is an apprentice who must struggle with his conscience. He makes an imprudent choice and repents of his vice to attain only the hand of a worthy girl. Lillo's domestic tragedy reflects, in a sense, a turning of the theater away from the court and toward the town. His plays concerned crises faced by the theater-going middle classes, rather than those that would concern kings and nobles only.

Lillo was also concerned that plays be morally correct and in keeping with Christian values. His next play was The Christian Hero (1735), a retelling of the story of Skanderbeg. It was followed by Fatal Curiosity (1736) and Elmerick, or Justice Triumphant (1740). Lillo also composed a ballad opera, Sylvia, or The Country Burial (1730), and adaptations of Shakespeare's Pericles (1738, retitled Marina) and the anonymous Elizabethan play Arden of Feversham (posthumously performed in 1759). The latter was based on the life of Alice Arden. Lillo's plays are prescient, in that melodrama and domestic tragedy would dominate English theater in the 19th century. His middle class tragedies lacked spectacle and the special effects popular with the public, even though their subject matter was closer to the public's own lives. In his own day, his later plays in particular were only moderate successes, and old style tragedies and comedies took back the stage.

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