Irregular Theater, the Discourse of Farce, and Hogarth’s Line of Deformity


2007 ASECS, Atlanta GA
“‘To Exhibit a Dumb Shew’: Hogarth and the Theater”

“Irregular Theater, the Discourse of Farce, and Hogarth’s Line of Deformity”

During the first half of the eighteenth century, a brand of so-called “irregular” theatrical entertainment—popular, not always licensed or legitimate, both “English” and “foreign”—made its problematic way into the public eye. From fairgrounds to tennis courts, street corners to patent theaters, dramatic entertainment was more and more frequently incorporating para-theatrical forms like song and dance, stage magic, automata, pantomime, harlequinade, and slapstick, wooing consumers whose aesthetic palates were becoming increasingly modern and commercial. While the stage was incorporating a growing number of forms newly imagined as marginal, the lived world around it was simultaneously becoming more theatrical. In daily papers, new and revived plays were puffed and hawked; in those same papers, readers followed the Toft affair and traced the newest exhibitions of natural curiosities and man-made monstrosities; they read of Isaac Fawkes’ noted “Dexterity of Hand,” available for consumption in both the James Street playhouse and his booths in the summer fairs. In 1723, John Rich infamously introduced consumers to the Continental traditions of commedia, and the competing patent theater rose to the challenge—spurred on by a consumer base eager to not only see but also participate in the spectacle. Heidegger’s masquerades attracted urban consumers who delighted in the opportunity to become actors themselves. Debates about what did or ought to constitute the increasingly nationalized stage may have come to a head with the Collier controversy, but they did not end there; in fact, they seemed to become only more embedded in the warp and weft of popular culture, more talked about in an ongoing disciplinary effort. For critics of such urban leisure activities, the British stage—on all levels—was being infiltrated by what one author unabashedly refers to as “Mind-debauching, Body-weakening, womanizing Entertainments” (National Alarm 4).

The eighteenth-century stage was awash with the kind of problematic performances—“dumb shews”—that, curiously, form the foundational metaphor of Hogarth’s own Analysis of Beauty. The well-known theatricality of the lived world around the London stage is powerfully documented by his popular prints; depicting a world in sometimes perilous action, Hogarth’s work dramatizes the variegated theater of London. Scholars of Hogarth’s theatricality routinely emphasize the “visual-verbal reciprocities” (Lindberg, “Ridotto” i) between print, theater, and the social drama itself; Mary Lindberg goes even further by arguing that the stage provides Hogarth with an aesthetic alternative to the conventionalized and limiting rubrics of “sublime” history painting and, I would argue, “high art”. These traditionally elevated visual conventions “build stereotypes that limit artists and implicitly, the judgments of art criticism” (Lindberg, “Hogarth’s Theatrical Writings” 32). In a passage of the Analysis of Beauty from which we have drawn for the title of this panel, Hogarth clearly underscores the fact that his art should be viewed theatrically: “my Picture was my Stage and men and women my actors who were [by] mean[s] of certain Actions and express[ions] to Exhibit a dumb shew” (Hogarth, Analysis 209). Indeed, Lindberg notes elsewhere that Hogarth’s “prints and engraved sequences…inspired a wide range of dramatic entertainments throughout the eighteenth century” including “comedy of manners, burletta with tableau vivant, specialty act, ballad opera, pantomime, and a morality ballad opera” (“Ridotto” i).

Hogarth’s use of the phrase “dumb shew”—a particular form of theatrical entertainment under fire during the eighteenth century, especially since Rich’s Harlequin Doctor Faustus—is crucial here, for it draws attention to the complex and at times contradictory understanding of contemporary theater at work in Hogarth’s aesthetics. While “the theater” in general proves an adequate metaphor for Hogarth’s aesthetic, it doesn’t clarify the relationship between that aesthetic and the ongoing, contemporary debates about theatrical kinds. What kind of theater best fits Hogarth’s aesthetic sensibility? And how do we fold contemporary debate into that sensibility? I posit “irregular entertainments” as perhaps the most relevant theatrical analogue, in part because it is so much debated. As much as the image of the “dumb shew” sits at the center of Hogarth’s Analysis, so too does the debate about those “dumb shews.” Taken up with the language of bodies staged in variegated motion, the Analysis yet illuminates a problematic much like the celebrated indistinction between the serpentine line of beauty and the serpentine line of deformity. Within that sense of motion, Hogarth seems to have a contradictory sense of what counts as elegant irregularity, given that “regularity and sameness…is want of elegance and true taste.” While the “discerning viewer” might “form his judgment of…graceful acting” by the elegant movements of “a fine gentleman, or hero,” the “characters of punch, harlequin, pierrott, or the clown” are “inelegant” and even grotesque (112). However, these same “clowns” appear at other times to offer just such an alternative aesthetic—even “in as high a taste of lines as the Antinous or the Apollo” (97). If Hogarth’s graphic works seek ultimately to “Exhibit a dumb shew,” what are we to make, for instance, of comments published elsewhere in the Analysis critiquing certain elements associated with “dumb shew”—like the “characters of punch, harlequin, peirrot, or the clown”—as “inelegant excesses”? While “regularity and sameness, according to our doctrine, is want of elegance and true taste” (57), the nature of the oft-discussed “variety” explored in Hogarth’s Analysis is unable, indeed, to completely divorce the “serpentine” from the “grotesque,” the “deformed” from the “beautiful.” We might usefully ask just what the difference is—if there is any difference at all—between a “dumb shew” and a “dumb shew.” These same representatives of invasive, “foreign,” effeminizing entertainments are in fact at times the best articulations of the practical experience of pleasure that underwrites Hogarth’s aesthetic—even as he seems at other times to disavow them as “inelegant” and excessive.

Theophilus Cibber reimagines one of Hogarth’s most famous “dumb shew[s]” to create his own—A Harlot’s Progress, subtitled in full awareness of the discourse of farce. The Ridotto al Fresco, a Grotesque Pantomime Entertainment was first performed in 1733 at Drury Lane. Dedicated to Hogarth, Cibber’s Progress, a literal “dumb shew,” provides an interpretation of Hogarth’s graphic theatricality, excavating an alternative logic of the stage. In Cibber’s ballad-opera-slash-“grotesque pantomime entertainment,” Hogarth’s aesthetic detours become legible as partial responses to—and incorporations of—the discourse of farce in the early eighteenth-century, a discourse suggestive of the cross-generic, embodied, participatory impulses of a modern public sphere. Drawing on the emerging fashion for “ridottos,” Cibber’s Harlot’s Progress “reduces” the six-plate narrative of Hogarth’s prints to a loose collection of four primary scenes: the young maid’s arrival in London, her affair with the Jewish keeper, her arrest in the Drury Lane apartment, and her imprisonment in Bridewell. These scenes are themselves recast through a mélange of pantomime, slapstick, and ballad opera. Throughout, Hogarth’s plates are ascribed the actions of a “dumb shew”; after the scene in Bridewell, for instance, all the characters escape to the Ridotto al Fresco where they likely with an extravagant display of pantomimic dance, spectacular scenery recreating Vauxhall in miniature, and a hodgepodge of traditional commedia scenes. As Lindberg notes, “Cibber shifts the Hogarthian tone from an ineluctable moral formula (the wages of sin equal death) to one that transforms social and moral punishment into lyrical pageantry” by sublimating the “grim occasions portrayed by Hogarth” with “the mechanical humor of harlequinade” (ii). Any “potential moral commentary” has been replaced by “stage antics and dance” (ii). But why must this be seen as a negative? Or more properly, why must moral commentary be always seen as an other to “empty entertainment” and the mechanized, excessively consumable antics of bad art? Cibber excavates the grotesque potential in Hogarth’s images, deliberately marginalizing both the elevated, classically-inspired masque tacked on to the pantomime and the overtly more socially conscious elements of Hogarth’s series, leaving his audience at play in the fields of eighteenth-century leisure pursuits—pantomime, harlequinade, slapstick, magical transformation, and outdoor participatory theater.

When encountering The Ridotto al’Fresco from a perspective invested in Hogarth’s alternative aesthetics, however, the apparent lack of socially conscious commentary seems itself a challenge to the very presuppositions of the age that “good” art requires such aspirations. Annie Richardson, for instance, notes that “Discussions of the ‘end’ of taste in the divine plan are the sine qua non of the moral-sense [aesthetic] paradigm”; as she goes on to state, “There is no evidence in the Analysis…[that] Hogarth [has] a teleological concept of an end for beauty” (125). If a Hogarthian aesthetic teleology must exist, it seems primarily a self-reflexive teleology, an aesthetic enjoyment in the pleasures of participating in the material, embodied, human world.

The kinds of leisure activities—even pursuits, to use a loaded word for our panel—that Cibber’s Ridotto embeds itself in indeed epitomize the “wanton[ness]” critics repeatedly situated at the heart of popular farcical entertainments. J.H., the forthright author of the National Alarm; or, Seasonable Admonition to the Degenerate Natives of the once formidable Island of Great Britain, articulates a commonplace of the day: Luxury, and more particularly what Maxine Berg and Elizabeth Eger have described as “[the] production [of], [the] trade [in], and the civilizing impact of superfluous commodities” (7), is a “vile” “Seducer” that makes its lovers into patterns of “soft Effeminacy” by inspiring an unaccountable desire for empty “Foolery” (Alarm 7). The language of emptiness is particularly associated with the “destructive Vice” of ostensibly “unmeaning” leisure activities. In the National Alarm, as in many other such pamphlets, poems, and essays, these effeminizing leisure activities cohere around entertainments like masquerades, farces, operas, and ridottos—the very matter of Cibber’s Harlot’s Progress, and the “dumb shews” underwriting the Analysis.

Ridottos, figuring centrally in this discourse, epitomize the pleasures of the town. While at Tyner’s Vauxhall gardens, where the inaugural ridotto al fresco occurred in 1730, paying customers could, in fine weather, wander the gardens, grottoes, groves, and pavilions, all of which were decorated with sculptures and paintings—many by Hogarth—while enjoying vocal as well as instrumental music. One observer of the age describes the ridotto as “a tolerable pretty Jumble of Music, Dancing, Gaming, &c. but, at best, a bare-fac’d Masquerade, where People are admitted disguis’d, without a Vizard, and hide their Hearts by their natural Faces” (Dorman 28).i As a more accessible and even plebeian activity, it is also intimately associated with commerce and trade, most visibly in the languages of gaming and sexual pursuit through which the ridotto is often described.ii The ridotto figures as a highly suspect form of theatre precisely because it dissolves boundaries between the arts, between producers and consumers, and, because of its participatory aesthetic, between the consumer’s reason and his enjoyment. The ridotto, especially as it exists discursively, epitomizes the discourse of farce characterizing critical responses to bad art.

Throughout Cibber’s entertainment, the piece carries a tone of happy, immersive enjoyment that celebrates the dissolution of such boundaries. Pantomimic scenes that seem especially ripe for satirical or critical gibes drawing on nationalist aesthetics—like the master of the Ridotto’s escapades, “perform’d by the little Harlequin Dog”— capitalize instead on a materialist aesthetic that enjoys the “Variety of People” who “appear in Masquerade.” Rich, the pioneer of pantomimic entertainments on the English stage, was well-known for performing Harlequin roles himself, once as a dog; yet, Cibber’s Ridotto only gestures, unironically, toward the image that commonly generates critique. It does not seem that we should critique Rich, his Harlequinades, or the illegitimate theater he typically represents; it seems rather that we should enjoy it, knowingly. At the end of the Harlot’s Progress, when Kitty and her band of roving prostitutes “are discover’d all leaning in an indolent manner upon their Blocks” (12), any threat surrounding their “indolence” is immediately repudiated: “The Keeper enters, and seeing them so idle, threatens to beat ’em–as they take up their Hammers and Beetles, and are going to beat, the Blocks all vanish, and in their stead appear Harlequin, Scaramouch, Pierrot, and Mezetin, each takes out his Lady to dance, and signify they’ll go to the Ridotto al’Fresco; the Keeper runs away frighted, and they all dance off.” Significantly, the repudiation at hand seems not only one of the corporeal punishment about to be inflicted upon the idle harlots, but also one of the threat their idleness suggests. Idleness, the nominal hallmark of luxury and “of Entertainments despicably vain” (National Alarm 7), is here transformed into a kind of tongue-in-cheek escape from the “Keepers” of the aesthetic and material good. Ultimately, the “Scene changes to the Ridotto al Fresco, illuminated with several Glass Lustres, (the Scene taken from the place at Vauxhall)” (Harlot 12).

Given this very brief sketch of Cibber’s entertainment and the ridotto phenomenon, it is not surprising that the actor-cum-author would frame his Harlot’s Progress in this manner; what is perhaps surprising is that, given the satirical nature of the age, Cibber would not choose to dramatize his “grotesque pantomime entertainment” in a similarly satirical manner. Many of the deliberately cross-generic performances popular on the legitimate stages drew ironically on their popular intertexts precisely to have their cake and eat it, too. Cibber’s entertainment, on the other hand, revels without apparent irony in the pleasures of irregular theater. The concatenation of farce, harlequinade, balladry, dance, and classical pantomime might itself seem ironic—or at least bizarre—to our eyes, and perhaps given the penchant of the age to satirize these concatenations we cannot exclude it as an interpretive possibility, but to assume Cibber’s Ridotto is therefore satiric is to deny the very alternative aesthetic of “dumb shew” underwriting Hogarth’s work.

In closing, I want briefly to explore one key scene in The Harlot’s Progress reprioritized by Cibber. Adapting the second plate of Hogarth’s Progress, Cibber focuses our attention on the extravagant comedy of things turned topsy-turvy. After kicking over the tea table in an attempt to distract Mordecai from her harlequin lover, Kitty and her keeper sing a performative “duette” dissolving their keeper/kept bond. When, after the song, Mordecai “pursues Harlequin” about the stage, a significant moment of self-reflexivity occurs:

A Picture falls down, Harlequin jumps thro’ the Hangings, and the Picture returns to its place and conceals him.–The Subject of the Picture, which was before an Historical Story, is now chang’d to a Representaion of the Jew with Horns upon his Head.–While he stands in astonishment, the other Picture changes likewise, and represents Harlequin and Kitty embracing–upon which the Jew runs out in the greatest surprize. (11)

Immediately thereafter, “The Scene changes to a poor Apartment in Drury-Lane,” both the venue of Cibber’s entertainment and the fourth plate in Hogarth’s series. It is almost as if we are witnessing the transformation of Hogarth’s Harlot’s Progress into Cibber’s. Interestingly, Cibber chooses a “Historical” painting already in Hogarth’s print to transform, via the magic of stage performance, into a farce; he duplicates this transformation in “the other Picture,” which also captures the lovers in both an embrace and a frame, saving them from the wrath of Mordecai, who plays Mezetin in the pantomimic Ridotto to come. It is tempting, indeed, to see this moment as a critical capsule from below. Here, we see not only life jumping out of Hogarth’s pictures, but also jumping back in—carrying with it the magic and drama of irregular theater. Here, we see literal performance of an alternative to conventionalized rubrics of “sublime” history painting—the framing, in dumb shew, of bad art.

If we look at Cibber’s Ridotto as a reading of Hogarth’s progress, and if we commit to the materialist, participatory world of Hogarth’s own Analysis, we can envision another available and historically viable reading of his work. Not only were the perceived moralizing or satiric tendencies of Hogarth’s aesthetic far from monolithically interpreted, but his works also suggest that a vibrant alternative performance mode was similarly available. While today, most of our collective literary-historical knowledge is only beginning to stretch outward from the cultural victors, Cibber’s Ridotto sketches out what the “missing link”—between the textual and the performative, the recorded and the lost—might look like.


Works Cited

Ambulator; or, A Pocket Companion in a Tour around London. 9th ed. London: T. Gillet, 1800.

Berg, Maxine and Elizabeth Eger. “The Rise and Fall of the Luxury Debates.” Luxury in the Eighteenth Century: Debates, Desires and Delectable Goods. Ed by Maxine Berg and Elizabeth Eger. New York: Palgrave, 2003. 7-27.

Cibber, Theophilus. The Harlot’s Progress; or, The Ridotto al’Fresco: a grotesque pantomime entertainment. As it is perform’d by his Majesty’s Company of comedians at the Theatre-Royal in Drury-Lane. Compos’d by Mr. Theophilus Cibber, … The songs made (to old ballad tunes) by a friend. [London] : printed for the benefit of Richard Cross the prompter; and sold at the theatre, 1733.

Dorman, Joseph. The curiosity: or, the gentleman and lady’s general library. A Dissertation on Poetry, Music, Dancing, Balls, Assemblies, Ridottos, Masquerades, Polite Conversation, Italian Strolers, &c. York: Printed by Alexander Staples, 1738.

“A Familiar EPISTLE: From a young TEMPLER, to his FRIEND in the Country.” Delights of the Muses. London: Printed for J. Osborn; and J. Bailey, 1738. 202-210.

H., J. National Alarm; or, Seasonable Admonition to the Degenerate Natives of the once formidable Island of Great Britain. London: Printed and sold by George Woodfall, 1745.

Hogarth, William. Analysis of Beauty. Ed. and Intro. by Ronald Paulson. New Haven, Conn.: Published for the Paul Mellon Centre for British Art by Yale University Press, c1997.

The ladies delight. Containing, I. An address to all well provided Hibernians. II. The arbor vitæ; or, tree of life. A poem. Shewing whence it took it’s root, and has spread its leaves over all Christendom; being extremely useful to students in all branches of polite literature. III. The natural history of the arbor vitæ; or, the tree of life, in prose; printed from the original manuscript. IV. Ridotto al’ fresco. A poem. Describing the growth of this tree in the famous Spring-Gardens at Vaux-Hall, under the care of that ingenious botanist Doctor H—gg—r. London: Printed for W. James in the Strand, 1732.

Lindberg, Mary. “Hogarth’s Theatrical Writings: The Interplay between Theatre, His Theories, and His Art.” Theatre Notebook: A Journal of the History and Technique of the British Theatre. 47:1 (1993): 29-41.

—. “Introduction.” The Harlot’s Progress and The Rake’s Progress. Augustan Reprint Society 181. Los Angeles: William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, University of California, 1977.

Richardson, Annie. “From Moral Mound to the Material Maze: Hogarth’s Analysis of Beauty.” Luxury in the Eighteenth Century: Debates, Desires and Delectable Goods. Ed by Maxine Berg and Elizabeth Eger. New York: Palgrave, 2003. 119-134.

Statute, Moses [pseud.]. Ridotto: or, downfall of masquerades; in commendation of the suppos’d author of the poem, lately publish’d, call’d, The bawdy-house: a poem. London: Printed for A. Moore, 1723.


i He goes on, curiously, to critique the ridotto in negative comparison with masquerade: “In short, a Ridotto is as stupidly insipid, as a Masquerade is wittily brilliant; where one may find Love without Gallantry; a numerous Assembly, without Life or Gaiety; and Conversation without Wit” (28).

ii Ridottos al’fresco were so popular and well attended that they financed various alterations and improvements to Vauxhall (Ambulator 221). For language linking ridottos al’fresco to gaming, risk, and sexual pursuit, see Ridotto: or, Downfall of Masquerades (1723), The Delights of the Muses (1738), and The Ladies Delight (1732), specifically, the poem “Ridotto al’Fresco,” which describes “the Growth of this Tree [of Life] in the famous Spring-Gardens at Vaux-Hall, under the Care of that ingenious Botanist Doctor H—gg—r.” In “Ridotto al’Fresco,” the critic excoriates Heidegger and his successors for creating a space where “Play and Park alternately give joy” (21). He continues, describing the ridotto as a place where “Belles, Beaux, and Sharpers here together play”; in this promiscuous space, “Dice and Intrigue so mutually are blended, / That one begins as soon as t’other’s ended” (29). The beau-about-town Templar in The Delights of the Muses describes ridottos in a poetic epistle to a country friend as a site of pursuit, as well; enjoying the pleasures of the town, he might “at Ridotto spend the Night, / In silent Joy, and mask’d Delight; / And with dumb Signs, and pensive Moan, / Single some Female, to hunt down, / With whom, to Tavern we retire, / And quench in Love our am’rous Fire” (208). The dark walks were havens for young lovers and sites of danger for ladies who lost their way; one of the most famous ridottos of eighteenth century literature, of course, occurs in Burney’s Evelina, where it is particularly enjoyable to the gauche Madame Duval.

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