Colman the Elder, George

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Colman the Elder, George (1732-94): English, Theater

George Colman the Elder, one of the most successful playwrights of the second half of the eighteenth century, contributed in no lesser measure than Goldsmith, Oliver and Sheridan, Richard Brinsley to the rebirth of "laughing comedy" in opposition to the moralism of the "sentimental comedy".

Educated at Westminster School and Oxford, Colman pursued his dramatic career despite the opposition of his guardian, the Earl of Bath. His first success was Polly Honeycombe (1760), a farce explicitly targeting the sentimental novel, but his major commercial and artistic breakthrough came with The Jealous Wife (1761), his best comedy, a highly comic adaptation of Fielding, Henry's novel Tom Jones. Other comedies followed, including The Clandestine Marriage (1766), jointly authored with his friend David Garrick, but his versatility found expression in pantomimes, tragedies, operas, critical essays, and a translation of Terence's comedies. In 1764 Colman became a member of Johnson, Samuel's Literary Club and from 1767 to 1774 he was manager of Covent Garden. In this role he was instrumental in bringing to the stage such masterpieces as Sheridan's The Rehersal and Goldsmith's The Good-Natur'd Man and She Stoops to Conquer.

Colman's dramatic taste did not differ significantly from that of the now more famous playwrights of the age. Following the example of Fielding's satirical novels, Colman held up human foibles and follies as objects of ridicule, and the grotesque features of his characters are portrayed to demonstrate the absurdities of human nature. Often neglected by critics of drama, Colman's "laughing" comedies are the best example of what has been termed "rococo" comedy in that they offer satirical characterization of human traits within small-scale and detailed illustrations of domestic life.

Further Reading:

Thomas Price, "Introduction" to Critical Edition of The Jealous Wife and Polly Honeycombe by George Colman the Elder (1732-1794), 1977.


Massimiliano Demata

Universita di Bari

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