Lillo, George

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Lillo, George (1693(1)-1739). English, Theater.

George Lillo wrote the landmark play, The London Merchant, which has, for centuries, been deemed the prototype for the domestic tragedies of the Enlightenment. There is much disagreement over the details of his life (notably his birth year), though two facts are reasonably secure: that he was a goldsmith’s son and himself a successful merchant, possibly similar to the main character in his famous tragedy. He began writing plays in 1730, and achieved important stage successes with both Merchant (1731) and The Fatal Curiosity (1736).

The London Merchant tells of George Barnwell, an apprentice who is lured to steal and commit murder by an evil prostitute. In his dedication, Lillo posited that the magnificence of a tragic drama was directly proportional to the number of people affected by it. Thus, he chose his subject from everyday life because contemporary audiences could not sufficiently relate to the lessons of traditional tragedies. Paralleling the increasing power and dignity gained by the English merchant class, Lillo’s model shifts the source of a tragic hero’s nobility from social class to moral character.

The impact of George Lillo’s apprentice hero is evident in the bourgeois tragedies of Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, Diderot, Denis, and Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim, all of whom praised the play. That into the 1800s the apprentices of London were required to see The London Merchant as a moral warning indicates that Lillo’s drama held respect beyond the theater.

Further Reading:

James L. Steffensen, ed., The Dramatic Works of George Lillo, 1993.

Benjamin Fisler

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