Holcroft, Thomas

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Holcroft, Thomas (1745-1809). English, Theater.

One of the most important figures of British radicalism during the years of the French Revolution, Thomas Holcroft promoted the philosophy of the Enlightenment and in his dramas and novels attempted to spread the French revolutionary ideals of equality, democracy, brotherhood and general improvement in England.

Holcroft's humble beginnings did not prevent him from achieving literary fame. He had little or no formal education but from 1784, after having widely traveled and worked for several years as a shoemaker and an actor, he started a successful career as a playwright. In his comedies, he oscillated between the sentimental and laughing modes. His masterpiece, The Road to Ruin (1792), whose protagonist, young Harry Dornton, wastes his father's money in gambling but finally repents, engages with highly sentimentalized ideals whereby man's innate goodness is tested against adversity. Holcroft also imported and popularized the latest continental theatrical trends, most famously in Tale of Mystery (1802), with which he introduced melodrama to the English stage.

He associated himself to Godwin, William and other leading figures of English radicalism. In 1794 he was jailed, tried for high treason and eventually acquitted. His prose fiction reflects the political debates of the age, and Anna St Ives (1792) and Hugh Trevor (1794-97) belong to the genre of the Jacobin novel: like Godwin, Holcroft emphasized the corruption of the individual living in an unjust political system and promoted his own radical ideals by embedding them within the literary conventions of the standard eighteenth-century novel.

Further Reading:

Joseph Rosenblum, Thomas Holcroft. Literature and Politics in England in the Age of the French Revolution, 1995.

Massimiliano Demata

Universita di Bari