'And Yet I Remember'

Ageing and Old(er) Age in English Drama between 1660 and the 1750s

by Katarzyna Bronk-Bacon (Author)
Monographs XIV, 262 Pages


«And Yet I Remember» explores representations of ageing and old age in English drama from 1660 to the 1750s. Within these approximately ninety years, England witnessed significant developments in medicine and the advent of sentimental philosophy, which began to transform attitudes toward old age and ageing. This study discusses the enduring cultural and literary stereotyping of old(er) people in culture and drama of this period. The chapters are organised around the stereotypes that kept reappearing in cultural, medical and religious narratives on old age, namely the desiring old man (senex amans) and woman (the «lusty old widow») and the nostalgic and wise elder. Exploring many diverse storylines between 1660 and the 1750s that treat old age and present old(er) characters, the analyses in this study further show how the choice of genre, personal experiences and attitudes of the playwright, and political and cultural revolutions affected the representation of older people.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Preface
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1 ‘The New Old?’ Adapting Old Age
  • Chapter 2 The Old Desire: Senes Amantes and the Sexual Decorum
  • Chapter 3 Life After ‘Death’? The Case of the Old Widowed Woman
  • Chapter 4 ‘And Yet I Remember’: Nostalgia and Wisdom
  • An (Age-Related) Epilogue
  • Bibliography
  • Index

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I would like to acknowledge that this volume was financed by a grant from the National Science Centre, Poland, number 2014/13/B/HS2/00488, titled ‘Embodied Sites of Memory? Investigations into the Definitions and Representations of Old Age and Ageing in English Drama between 1660 and 1750’. I am thankful for all the support of Adam Mickiewicz University and the Faculty of English. I wish to particularly thank Aleksandra Niewiadomska and Aldona Górska, AMU curator, for all the help I have received during the completion of my research.

Furthermore, I wish to express my gratitude to the anonymous reviewers of this volume for their insightful comments and to Colin Phillips for his help in proofing the volume. I likewise want to thank Laurel Plapp and her team at the Oxford branch of Peter Lang for their guidance and assistance in producing the book. It is always a pleasure to work with them.

To my parents, Sabina and Ryszard Bronk, and my smaller family of three, Simon, Sebastian and Maja – nothing would be possible without all of you!

This book incorporates previously published material from: ‘“Next unto the Gods My Life Shall be Spent in Contemplation of Him”: Margaret Cavendish’s Dramatised Widowhood in Bell in Campo (I&II)’, Studia Anglica Posnaniensia 52/3 (2017), 345–62, and ‘“Esse versus Percipi”: The Old and the Elderly in Restoration and Early Eighteenth-century English Plays’, Cultural Intertexts. Journal of Literature, Cultural Studies and Linguistics 5 (2016), 21–34.

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When in 1947 Elisabeth Mignon published her Crabbed Age and Youth: The Old Men and Women in the Restoration Comedy of Manners, she initiated a very important, focalised research direction within the then slowly developing discipline of British humanist(ic) gerontology, and its literary sub-branch in particular. Literary criticism had, of course, noted the various old and elderly characters in individual narratives within British literature before the crystallisation of literary gerontology, but within drama for instance, for a significant period of time, ageing studies suffered from what J. Douglas Canfield termed ‘institutionalized Elizabethophilia’.1 Indeed the Early Modern Period, and Renaissance in particular, offered a plethora of narratives of ageing, and Shakespeare himself is responsible for creating the seminal texts on the meaning and processes of ageing. Publications such as Mignon’s had to wait for a more ‘fertile’ ground, that is until the value of Restoration drama, and its comedies in particular, was finally recognised as a legitimate – usually meaning serious and academically worthy2 – research area. Mignon’s Crabbed Age and Youth was, therefore, innovative not only because it called for an appreciation of Restoration drama, but also because the author did not dismissively acknowledge the generic existence of inter-generational dynamics, but in the study of the ‘world versus the blocking character’ she proposed to see the ‘human’ behind the stock character, and a human behind his/her ‘age’ in particular. Despite announcing in her Preface that she would read the comic convention through the old male and female characters, she managed to go beyond genre analysis and made her ← xi | xii → volume one of the most valid contributions to literary and humanist(ic) gerontology, which offers evidence of an ingrained and quite overt drive in dramatic constructs and the popular imagination of the Restoration towards what we now define as ageism.

Crabbed Age and Youth paid most attention to the well-known playwrights within the timeframe (Wycherley, Dryden, Congreve, etc., and Behn) and their most recognised plays, and she analysed only those pieces that followed the convention of the comedy of manners. On the basis of these, Mignon came to a conclusion that before the 1660s, and during the Renaissance in particular, the genre of comedy and the playwrights themselves were extremely violent towards their fictional elderly. She states:

Indeed, Mignon’s analyses confirm her suggestion that comic playwrights saw the old(er) generations as embodiments of what the cultural milieu criticised the most: ‘musty morals’4 and the ‘outmoded code’5 of behaviour. As such, the biggest humiliation within Restoration comedies of manners was reserved for those who opposed the spirit of change or, even worse, nostalgically missed the regime and morality of the Interregnum. This was the conduct ascribed to and observed in older characters who, along with their sentiment for the ‘good old days and ways’, manifested their denial of ageing and what it entailed.

Since 1947 no scholar of Restoration has published such a focalised, monographic study of dramatic presentations of old age and ageing in these final decades of the seventeenth century, while more and more literary scholars and historians have published their revisions of Renaissance drama ← xii | xiii → from the perspective of humanist gerontology (i.e. Ellis 2009; Taunton 2011; Martin, 2012). Some more general studies of the representations of age have offered more interpretations of the most well-known age-themed plays from the Restoration (i.e. Mangan, 2013), but never really going beyond what has already been said about these dramatic pieces. This neglect of the topic of ageing in the works from the final decades of the seventeenth century is even more surprising considering the advancement in humanist and cultural gerontology and within the history of old age (i.e. the amazing research done by Pat Thane, Lynn L. Botelho and Susanna R. Ottaway), not to mention the ever-growing interest in and appreciation of the Restoration. ‘And Yet I Remember’: Ageing and Old(er) Age in English Drama between 1660 and the 1750s, apart from constituting a personal academic homage to Elisabeth Mignon, is to address this ‘periodic imbalance’ in literary gerontology.

However, precisely because gerontology has developed so much since Mignon’s study, I wish both to continue and broaden her research in the light of newer theories and more interdisciplinary research material. Within this volume I propose to extend the research to encompass a larger scope of dramatic narratives (stemming from comedies, tragedies and tragicomedies, with an occasional farce); and, importantly, to continue the investigation into the first half of the eighteenth century, which brought about new modes of thinking and new ways of treating old age. ‘And Yet I Remember’ brings forth an informative and yet feasible old age-themed survey and study that presents and investigates multifarious dramatic pieces ranging from 1660 – when the Restoration said farewell to the ‘bad-old’ age of the Interregnum, while still nostalgically it looked back to the Renaissance – to the 1750s, when the enlightened thought, development in medicine and the philosophy of sentimentalism are said to have transformed, if not revolutionised, the perception and attitude toward old age and ageing.

This monograph concludes my research grant, titled ‘Embodied Sites of Memory? Investigations into the Definitions and Representations of Old Age and Ageing in English Drama between 1660 and 1750’ (2014/13/B/HS2/00488), granted by the National Science Centre, which began in 2015. The book’s structure and its methodological choices were dictated ← xiii | xiv → by the project’s framework. As such, this monograph is both an ending and a beginning, in this particular order, because while it contains the findings of the project and answers the questions I posed in my research proposal, it hopefully becomes a springboard for further, broader research into theatrical and dramaturgical contributions to humanist(ic) and literary gerontology.

1 J. Douglas Canfield, Heroes and States: On the Ideology of the Restoration Tragedy (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2000), 3.

2 Mignon says in her Preface: ‘It is no longer necessary to apologize for the works of a great period in the history of English drama’. Elisabeth Mignon, Crabbed Age and Youth: The Old Men and Women in The Restoration Comedies of Manners (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1947), vi.

3 Ibid., 4.

4 Ibid., 5.

5 Ibid., 4.

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‘Prithee Cynthia look behind you, / Age and wrinkles will o’ertake you’.1 This is a teasing threat that Campley from Sir Richard Steele’s The Funeral, or, Grief a-la-Mode (1701), uses to grab the attention of the young Lady Harriot. Even though in repartee she claims she prefers these two ‘evils’ – age and wrinkles – to his courting, both know well enough that she would do whatever it takes to avoid these markers and symptoms of biological and social decline. When youth is the privileged status and the fleeting ideal, to age is to consciously move towards the abject periphery, the domain of the ambivalent Other. As such, to age is to regress; a backward movement that denotes nothing but inevitable degeneration. In the introduction to their Childhood and Old Age: Equals or Opposites, Jørgen Povlsen, Signe Mellemgaard and Ning de Coninck-Smith capture this well, saying ‘old age is seen as negative, a deficiency, a loss, a decline, youth is the age of growth and possibilities. Where youth represents the future, old age represents the end of the future’.2 While, as seen above, Steele reproduced this sentiment at the very beginning of the eighteenth century, the young gallants and belles in Restoration drama decades earlier thought exactly the same. To them, even more than to the generations of the Enlightenment, to age was to be progressively pushed to the margins and longingly look back at the prerogatives of the young. They knew that old age was superficially praised but that even this symbolic pedestal was a meagre pay for the actual position in this libertine world governed by youthful vigour. Not surprisingly, then, fear of decline, of loss, of diminishing returns motivates the actions ← 1 | 2 → and decisions of the youth featured in dramatic narratives between 1660 and the 1750s.

Assessing the representatives of the youth of the comedy of manners, Elisabeth Mignon concludes that ‘For gallant and belle alike, the period of decay is as rapid as their maturity. There seems to be no middle or transition stage. They are young; then suddenly they are old’.3 Agreeing with such a binary diversification, Michael Mangan suggests that in the final decades of the seventeenth century, the theatre featured some of the youngest old people in drama, mainly because ‘old age sets in as sexual allure diminishes’.4 It is, therefore, no surprise that drama of this period is peopled with young characters who rush to live their lives to the fullest and gather all there is to gather, especially from those they categorise as the older generations, before they are themselves declared old and substituted by the young of the future generation. As a consequence, both youth and age valiantly guard their privileges, resultantly initiating inter-generational wars in which very rarely the result, even if called a compromise, is fair. This book studies such interrelationships, and focuses more on the experiences and representations of characters variously categorised within their dramatic worlds as old-er, scrutinising them as they learn to – or refuse to – accept an often enforced new identity, take up a new position within society, and apply a new set of culturally and socially defined set of rules that the younger generations and tradition, together with biology, designate for them within what turns out to be a rather one-sided compromise. As such, the present book, like Mignon’s, confirms that drama in general may be explored in search of enduring ways and means of stereotyping old(er) people, and that many plays themselves record multiple levels and shades of prejudice against the old and elderly.

Erdman B. Palmore distinguishes two types of ageism, which correspond with two types of stereotypes: positive and negative ones.5 While ← 2 | 3 → the term ageism was first introduced in 1969 by Robert Butler, the overt or very subtle ‘process of systematic stereotyping and discrimination against people because they are old (p. 35, 1995)’6 is an ages-long social and cultural cognitive mechanism. Just like in actuality, drama operates on the basis of such ‘cognitive short-cuts and […] countless approximations’,7 the intensity of which it modifies for the sake of comic or tragic presentation. The plays that are gathered in this volume likewise represent and discuss examples of both positive and negative prejudice against those categorised as old, and because it is anachronistic to apply the term ageism to the seventeenth or eighteenth century, the phrase ‘ageist’ will be used sparingly, and mainly to describe contextually extreme situations stemming from negative prejudice.

Old Age and Gerontology

The issue to be clarified first is what old age actually is and means. Biologically, it is a life stage with a clarified ‘deadline’ but a rather vague beginning. In other words, as Georges Minois concludes in the History of Old Age: From Antiquity to the Renaissance, ‘nothing fluctuates more than the contours of old age’.8 How old is old then? The history of old age teaches that the caesura between youth and life’s final stages has been shifting throughout the centuries and even across cultural and social paradigms within individual centuries. Considering the variety of potential old age thresholds, one might conclude that we have been taught to internalise a rather vague ideology of ← 3 | 4 → ‘aging past youth’.9 Indeed, historically speaking, one could be called and formally categorised as old at the age of thirty-five, forty, forty-five, fifty, fifty-eight, sixty and seventy. In formal narratives, the most common divide has been the sixtieth birthday,10 when one could claim exemptions from state-ordained and some more personal duties.11 The boundary for women has been more physiological, with the biological caesura usually determined by the menopause. Jay Ginn and Sara Arber note that ‘because of cultural norms about reproductive roles women’s working lives follow a different pattern from men’s – a “female chronology” (Itzin 1990)’.12 Cultural narratives further suggest that with women, the process of perceived (not necessarily biological) decline is said to begin much earlier and, thus, old age seems to last much longer. Even disregarding the gender distinction, later life has to be seen as ‘a nebulous existence of unpredictable duration’.13 And with the Bible imaginatively fixing the ‘deadline’ at 120,14 ageing could indeed become a voyage into a very long unknown.

Trying to reconstruct and deconstruct the idea of old age in view of the multiplicity of meanings of what old age denotes is the real gerontological challenge. Haim Hazan notes: ‘Knowledge about ageing is peculiar; alongside matters of life and death it embraces notions about dependency and autonomy, body and soul, and paradoxes emanating from irreconcilable tensions between images of the old, their own will and desires’.15 As ← 4 | 5 → such, age is seen as so spacious a concept that it accommodates both axioms and their absolute contradictions. Additionally, with theory, practice and individual experience rarely presenting themselves as fully compatible, old age remains a multidimensional concept that can only be studied in smaller aspects. This volume works within the confines of literary gerontology, with the second term constituting the humanities’ answer to what geriatrics saw as the problem of old age.

Biographical notes

Katarzyna Bronk-Bacon (Author)

Katarzyna Bronk-Bacon is Assistant Professor in the Faculty of English, Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan, Poland. She teaches the History of English Literature but specialises in Restoration theatre and drama. She has been exploring representations and dramatisations of ageing and old age and her current research on the matters of senescence, titled «Embodied sites of memory? Investigations into the definitions and representations of old age and ageing in English drama between 1660 and 1750», is supported by a grant from the Polish National Science Centre. She is the editor of «Experienc’d Age knows what for Youth is fit»?: Generational and Familial Conflict in British and Irish Drama and Theatre (Peter Lang, 2019).


Title: 'And Yet I Remember'