Written in the Spring of 2013 for a reading of George Lillo’s The London Merchant. Unmentioned in this piece is Lillo’s extensive, proto-Brechtian use of narrated episodes, which have the distancing effect of forcing the audience to focus on the plight of the socially repressed: the poor and women. My reading is influenced by a lecture on the play from Joe Roach, and the writing of Raymond Williams, both 18th-century scholars who treat melodrama with the moral seriousness (and prurient interest) it warrants. -DL
Between 1731 and 1747, George Lillo’s The London Merchant was staged 96 times, making it one of the most successful plays of the 18th century. The play was offered into the 19th century as traditional Christmas and Easter fare, much in the manner of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in the Victorian era or Thornton Wilder’s Our Town in postwar America. Like those plays, The London Merchant gives a face to a class of people not yet represented on the English stage: the god-fearing, Protestant middle class. Bourgeois tragedies would become common in Germany and France by the last quarter of the 18th century, but the experiment began in England, with this play. Contemporary procedural crime dramas like Law & Order, which focus on common criminals, and even documentary radio programs such as This American Life, which catalog ordinary Americans’ lived experience, owe something to George Lillo and The London Merchant.
By replacing kings and queens onstage with merchants and the middle class, Lillo elevates the workaday crises of the masses to the level of dramatic discourse. George Barnwell, our protagonist and apprentice to the titular London merchant, is tempted to commit unspeakable crimes, for which he is forced to repent and beg Christian forgiveness. Lillo’s story was intended as a cautionary tale for the 10,000 to 20,000 apprentices living and working in London. And yet, for all of the play’s apparent moralizing, there is a real emotional currency to the action. Crimes of passion like those described in this play were very real, and there is a vivid sense that Lillo saw similar unfortunate reprobates dangling from a hangman’s noose.
However, the play is not only sermons; it is also filled with sex and violence enough to function as entertainment. Described by Lillo as “a lady of pleasure,” Millwood conspires to ensnare George Barnwell. Millwood represents a different morality than that preached from the Sunday pulpit. For her there are no gods, no masters, only a series of roles to play in pursuit of her goal. Millwood is a woman alone in the world. Without a husband, she preys on men, extracting from them what she needs to survive. Through Millwood we see the dependency of women on their male counterparts, and the lengths to which some women are forced to go should they desire some modicum of agency in a patriarchal society.
In many ways, The London Merchant is a precursor to our modern realistic drama. This drama of common men and women, who, rather than changing the course of history, are changed by it is much like our own. Modern tastes may have shifted toward subtler, more understated plot devices than those of The London Merchant, but the desire to explore all lives, great and humble, remains. In the men and women of this play we see ourselves, though perhaps not our contemporaries, our very near ancestors.