Theatre Database
Home | Ancient Theatre | Medieval Theatre | 16th Century | 17th Century | 18th Century | 19th Century | 20th Century

JOSEPH ADDISON (1672-1719)

The following article was originally published in European Theories of the Drama. Barrett H. Clark. Cincinnati: Stewart & Kidd Company, 1918.

JOSEPH ADDISON was born at Milston, Wiltshire, in 1672. He was a student at the Charter House, which he left in 1687, to enter Queen's College, Oxford. After two years he was transferred to Magdalen, where he was graduated in 1693. He distinguished himself while at college for his shyness and his scholarship. In the year of his graduation he published his Account of the Greatest English Poets. Through Dryden, to whom he addressed some complimentary verses, he was introduced to Tonson, who set him to work translating Juvenal, Persius, Virgil, and Heredotus. While he was still at Oxford, where he remained on a fellowship after his graduation, he was on the point of taking orders, but a royal pension was obtained for him, and he set forth on his travels on the Continent. He started in 1699, spent a year and a half in France, a year in Italy, and another in Switzerland, Austria, and Germany; and after a stay of some months in Holland, he returned to England toward the end of 1703. He was reduced in circumstances, and had little hope of preferment in politics, so that he was forced to join the writers in Grub Street. But, owing to a change in the tide of affairs, and to Addison's popularity after the publication of his poem, The Campaign, he was made Under Secretary of State. Meantime he was engaged in literary work, and in 1706 he produced an unsuccessful opera, Rosamond. Two years later Addison was deprived of his position as Under-Secretary, but was offered a Secretaryship in Ireland under the Lord Lieutenant. In 1711 he lost the post owing to a change of the Ministry. Steele's Tatler papers began to appear in 1709, and Addison's first contribution dates from the same year. In 1711 he and Steele brought out the first number of The Spectator, which continued until 1714. In 1713 his tragedy of Cato was performed and met with great success because rather of its political timeliness than for any dramatic power inherent in it. An unsuccessful play, The Drummer, was produced, anonymously, in 1714. During the winter of 1715-16 Addison was employed by the Whig Party to uphold its interests, and he published The Freeholder, a political paper; his reward was in all probability the position of Commissioner for Trade and Colonies. In 1716 he married the Countess of Warwick. In 1717 he was made Secretary of State. Failing in health, he resigned the position a year later. The next year he engaged in further political controversy, which resulted in a break with Steele. The following year he died.

Of Addison's criticism as a whole it may be said that it represented a commonsense attitude based upon neo-classic ideals. Of his dramatic criticism proper, confined as it was almost wholly to five or six Spectator essays, there is not so much to be said. These essays were written before he had evolved the critical standards which add so materially to the value of his later contributions. However, the drama essays briefly sum up the rationalistic tendency of criticism in the early eighteenth century. Addison condemned English tragedy because it was not sufficiently moral, and he proceeded to write a dull tragedy in order to show what beautiful and stately sentiment should go into tragedy. He was rigidly classic in his denunciation of the tragi-comedy. Not until Johnson published his 156th Rambler (in 1751) was the classic spell broken.