Tom Thumb (play)

Last updated

Titlepage to Tom Thumb: a Tragedy TomThumbFielding.png
Titlepage to Tom Thumb: a Tragedy

Tom Thumb is a play written by Henry Fielding as an addition to The Author's Farce . It was added on 24 April 1730 at Haymarket. It is a low tragedy about a character who is small in both size and status who is granted the hand of a princess in marriage. This infuriates the queen and a member of the court and the play chronicles their attempts to ruin the marriage.

Henry Fielding English novelist and dramatist

Henry Fielding was an English novelist and dramatist known for his rich, earthy humour and satirical prowess, and as the author of the picaresque novel Tom Jones. Additionally, he holds a significant place in the history of law enforcement, having used his authority as a magistrate to found what some have called London's first police force, the Bow Street Runners. His younger sister, Sarah, also became a successful writer.

<i>The Authors Farce</i> Play by Henry Fielding

The Author's Farce and the Pleasures of the Town is a play by the English playwright and novelist Henry Fielding, first performed on 30 March 1730 at the Little Theatre, Haymarket. Written in response to the Theatre Royal's rejection of his earlier plays, The Author's Farce was Fielding's first theatrical success. The Little Theatre allowed Fielding the freedom to experiment, and to alter the traditional comedy genre. The play ran during the early 1730s and was altered for its run starting 21 April 1730 and again in response to the Actor Rebellion of 1733. Throughout its life, the play was coupled with several different plays, including The Cheats of Scapin and Fielding's Tom Thumb.


The play incorporated part of the satire in The Author's Farce and also was a farce because the tragedies in the play became absurd. Additionally, Fielding explored many issues with gender roles through his portrayals of characters. Critics largely enjoyed the play and noted its success through comedy. As the play later was edited to become the Tragedy of Tragedies , critics like Alberto Rivero noted its impact on Fielding's later plays.

Farce Comedy genre

In theatre, a farce is a comedy that aims at entertaining the audience through situations that are highly exaggerated, extravagant, and thus improbable. Farce is also characterized by physical humor, the use of deliberate absurdity or nonsense, and broadly stylized performances. It is also often set in one particular location, where all events occur. Farces have been written for the stage and film.

<i>The Tragedy of Tragedies</i> play

The Tragedy of Tragedies, also known as The Tragedy of Tragedies; or, The Life and Death of Tom Thumb the Great, is a play by Henry Fielding. It is an expanded and reworked version of one of his earlier plays, Tom Thumb, and tells the story of a character who is small in stature and status, yet is granted the hand of a princess in marriage; the infuriated queen and another member of the court subsequently attempt to destroy the marriage.


Tom Thumb was added to the ninth showing of The Author's Farce that took place on 24 April 1730. Together, the shows lasted at the Haymarket until they were replaced by Fielding's next production, Rape upon Rape. They later were revived together on 3 July 1730 for one night. Tom Thumb was also included with other productions, including Rape upon Rape for 1 July 1730, and was incorporated into the Haymarket company's shows outside of the theatre on 4 and 14 September 1730 at various fairs. It was later turned into the Tragedy of Tragedies. [1]

When the play was no longer featured alongside of The Author's Farce, the satire becomes less evident. To combat this problem, Fielding added other components, including footnotes, prefaces, and prologues, to the second edition of the written version. [2] This is another component that Tom Thumb shares with The Tragedy of Tragedies, and an aspect common to Fielding's so-called 'Scriblerus plays', which incorporate the use of H. Scriblerus Secundus as a pen name for the print editions. [3]

The Scriblerus Club was an informal association of authors, based in London, that came together in the early 18th century. They were prominent figures in the Augustan Age of English letters. The nucleus of the club included the satirists Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope. Other members were John Gay, John Arbuthnot, Henry St. John and Thomas Parnell. The group was founded in 1714 and lasted until the death of the founders, finally ending in 1745. Pope and Swift are the two members whose reputations and work have the most long-lasting influence. Working collaboratively, the group created the persona of Martinus Scriblerus, through whose writings they accomplished their satirical aims. Very little of this material, however, was published until the 1740s. Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford and Mortimer occasionally joined the club for meetings, though he is not known to have contributed to their literary output. He, along with Henry St John, 1st Viscount Bolingbroke, contributed to the literary productions of the Club.

A pen name is a pseudonym adopted by an author and printed on the title page or by-line of their works in place of their "real" name. A pen name may be used to make the author's name more distinctive, to disguise their gender, to distance an author from some or all of their previous works, to protect the author from retribution for their writings, to combine more than one author into a single author, or for any of a number of reasons related to the marketing or aesthetic presentation of the work. The author's name may be known only to the publisher or may come to be common knowledge.

A revised edition of the play was published with a few alterations, including adding two scenes, Prologue, Epilogue, and Preface. Another revision came on 30 November 1730 and added another act to follow Act II, Scene 9. This act attacked Colley Cibber's recent appointment as the Poet Laureate. The new Act, titled The Battle of the Poets, or, The Contention for the Laurel, was published on its on 17 December 1730. However, this act was not Henry Fielding's; it is attributed to Thomas Cooke but authorship was never proven. [4]


Cast according to the printed billing: [5]

Tom Thumb Character in literature

Tom Thumb is a character of English folklore. The History of Tom Thumb was published in 1621, and was the first fairy tale printed in English. Tom is no bigger than his father's thumb, and his adventures include being swallowed by a cow, tangling with giants, and becoming a favourite of King Arthur. The earliest allusions to Tom occur in various 16th-century works such as Reginald Scot's Discovery of Witchcraft (1584), where Tom is cited as one of the supernatural folk employed by servant maids to frighten children. Tattershall in Lincolnshire, England, reputedly has the home and grave of Tom Thumb.

King Arthur legendary British leader of the late 5th and early 6th centuries

King Arthur was a legendary British leader who, according to medieval histories and romances, led the defence of Britain against Saxon invaders in the late 5th and early 6th centuries. The details of Arthur's story are mainly composed of folklore and literary invention, and his historical existence is debated and disputed by modern historians. The sparse historical background of Arthur is gleaned from various sources, including the Annales Cambriae, the Historia Brittonum, and the writings of Gildas. Arthur's name also occurs in early poetic sources such as Y Gododdin.


Fielding, writing as Scriblerus Secondus, prefaces the play by explaining his choice of Tom Thumb as his subject:

It is with great Concern that I have observed several of our (the Grubstreet) Tragical Writers, to Celebrate in their Immortal Lines the Actions of Heroes recorded in Historians and Poets, such as Homer or Virgil, Livy or Plutarch, the Propagation of whose Works is so apparently against the Interest of our Society; when the Romances, Novels, and Histories vulgo call'd Story-Books, of our own People, furnish such abundance and proper Themes for their Pens, such are Tom Tram, Hickathrift &c. [8]

Fielding reverses the tragic plot by focusing on a character who is small in both size and status. The play is a low tragedy that describes Tom Thumb arriving at King Arthur's court showing off giants that he defeated. As a reward, Arthur grants Tom the hand of princess Huncamunca, which upsets both his wife, Dollalolla, and a member of the court, Grizzle. The two plot together to ruin the marriage, which begins the tragedy. [9] Part way through the play, two doctors begin to discuss the death of Tom Thumb and resort to using fanciful medical terminology and quoting ancient medical works with which they are not familiar. However, it becomes apparent that it was not Tom who died, but a monkey. [10] The tragedy becomes farcical when Tom is devoured by a cow. This is not the end of Tom, because his ghost later suffers a second death at the hands of Grizzle. [11] Then, one by one, the other characters farcically kill each other, leaving only the king at the end to kill himself. [12]


Tom Thumb incorporates part of the satire found within The Author's Farce: the mocking of the heroic tragedy that has little substance beyond dramatic cliche. The satire originates in a play within The Author's Farce in which the character Goddess of Nonsense selects from various manifestations of bad art; of the manifestations, Don Tragedio is the one selected as the basis for the satire within Tom Thumb. Fielding, in following the "Don Tragedio" style, creates a play that denies the tradition and seeks newness within theatre only for newness's sake, regardless of the logical absurdities that result. [13] In Tom Thumb and Tragedy of Tragedies, Fielding emphasises abuses of the English language in his character's dialogues, by removing meaning or adding fake words to the dialogue, to mimic and mock the dialogues of Colley Cibber's plays. [14]

The satire of Tom Thumb reveals that the problem with contemporary tragedy is its unconscious mixture of farcical elements. This results from the tragedians lacking a connection to the tradition of tragedy and their incorporation of absurd details or fanciful elements that remove any realism within the plot. It is also possible that some of these tragedians clung to the tradition in a way that caused them to distort many of the elements, which result in farcical plots. These tragedies become humorous because of their absurdities, and Tom Thumb pokes fun at such tragedies while becoming one itself. The satire of the play can also be interpreted as a deconstruction of tragedy in general. Fielding accomplishes the breaking down and exposing of the flaws of Tragedy through showing that the genre is already breaking down itself. However, Fielding's purpose in revealing the breakdown is to encourage the reversal of it. [15]

Besides critiquing various theatrical traditions, there are gender implications of the dispute between King Arthur and his wife, Queen Dollalolla, over which of the females should have Tom as their own. There are parallels between King Arthur with King George and Queen Dollalolla with Queen Caroline, especially with a popular belief that Queen Caroline controlled the decisions of King George. The gender roles were further complicated and reversed by the masculine Tom Thumb being portrayed by a female during many of the shows. This reversal allows Fielding to critique the traditional understanding of a hero within tragedy and gender roles in general. Ultimately, gender was a way to comment on economics, literature, politics, and society as a whole. [16]


Jonathan Swift, when witnessing the death of Tom's ghost, was reported in the memoirs of Mrs. Pilkington to have laughed out loud; such a feat was rare for Swift and this was only the second time such an occurrence was said to have happened. [17] J. Paul Hunter argues that the whole play "depends primarily on one joke", which is the diminutive size of the main character. [18] F. Homes Dudden characterises the play as "a merry burlesque" and points out that the play was "a huge success". [19] Albert Rivero points out that the ignoring of Tom Thumb for its expanded and transformed version, Tragedy of Tragedies, "is a regrettable oversight because Tom Thumb constitutes a vital link in Fielding's dramatic career, its importance lying not so much in its later expansion into Scriblerian complexity as in its debt to, and departure from, the play it followed on stage for thirty-three nights in 1730." [20]


  1. Rivero 1989 p. 53
  2. Rivero 1989 p. 57
  3. Rivero 1989 p. 75
  4. Dudden 1966 pp. 58–59
  5. Fielding 2004 p. 385
  6. Fielding 2004 p. 381
  7. Fielding 2004 p. 383
  8. Fielding 1970 p. 18
  9. Rivero 1989 pp. 61–62
  10. Rivero 1989 p. 69
  11. Rivero 1989 p. 63
  12. TOM THUMB, A TRAGEDY by HENRY FIELDING, Rochester University Library
  13. Rivero 1989 pp. 54–55
  14. Rivero 1989 p. 63
  15. Rivero 1989 pp. 55–58
  16. Campbell 1995 pp. 19–20
  17. Hillhouse 1918 note p. 150
  18. Hunter 1975 p. 23
  19. Dudden 1966 pp. 56–57
  20. Rivero 1989 pp. 53–54

Related Research Articles

The Conquest of Granada is a Restoration era stage play, a two-part tragedy written by John Dryden that was first acted in 1670 and 1671 and published in 1672. It is notable both as a defining example of the "heroic drama" pioneered by Dryden, and as the subject of later satire.

Chrononhotonthologos is a satirical play by the English poet and songwriter Henry Carey from 1734. Although the play has been seen as nonsense verse, it was also seen and celebrated at the time as a satire on Robert Walpole and Queen Caroline, wife of George II.

Augustan drama

Augustan drama can refer to the dramas of Ancient Rome during the reign of Caesar Augustus, but it most commonly refers to the plays of Great Britain in the early 18th century, a subset of 18th-century Augustan literature. King George I referred to himself as "Augustus," and the poets of the era took this reference as apropos, as the literature of Rome during Augustus moved from historical and didactic poetry to the poetry of highly finished and sophisticated epics and satire.

The early plays of Henry Fielding mark the beginning of Fielding's literary career. His early plays span the time period from his first production in 1728 to the beginning of the Actor's Rebellion of 1733, a strife within the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane that divided the theatrical community and threatened to disrupt London stage performances. These plays introduce Fielding's take on politics, gender, and morality and serve as an early basis for how Fielding develops his ideas on these matters throughout his career.

<i>Love in Several Masques</i> play written by Henry Fielding

Love in Several Masques is a play by Henry Fielding that was first performed on 16 February 1728 at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. The moderately received play comically depicts three lovers trying to pursue their individual beloveds. The beloveds require their lovers to meet their various demands, which serves as a means for Fielding to introduce his personal feelings on morality and virtue. In addition, Fielding introduces criticism of women and society in general.

<i>The Temple Beau</i> play

The Temple Beau is a play by Henry Fielding. It was first performed on 26 January 1730, at Goodman's Fields after it was rejected by the Theatre Royal. The play, well received at Goodman's Fields, depicts a young law student forsaking his studies for pleasure. By portraying hypocrisy in a comedic manner, Fielding shifts his focus from a discussion of love and lovers.

<i>Rape upon Rape</i> Play by Henry Fielding

Rape upon Rape, also known as The Justice Caught in His Own Trap and The Coffee-House Politician, is a play by Henry Fielding. It was first performed at the Haymarket Theatre on 23 June 1730. The play is a love comedy that depicts the corruption rampant in politics and in the justice system. When two characters are accused of rape, they deal with the corrupt judge in separate manners. Though the play was influenced by the rape case of Colonel Francis Charteris, it used "rape" as an allegory to describe all abuses of freedom, as well as the corruption of power, though it was meant in a comedic, farcical manner.

The Letter Writers Or, a New Way to Keep a Wife at Home is a play by Henry Fielding and was first performed on 24 March 1731 at Haymarket with its companion piece The Tragedy of Tragedies. It is about two merchants who strive to keep their wives faithful. Their efforts are unsuccessful, however, until they catch the man who their wives are cheating with.

<i>The Welsh Opera</i> play

The Welsh Opera is a play by Henry Fielding. First performed on 22 April 1731 in Haymarket, the play replaced The Letter Writers and became the companion piece to The Tragedy of Tragedies. It was also later expanded into The Grub-Street Opera. The play's purported author is Scriblerus Secundus who is also a character in the play. This play is about Secundus' role in writing two (Fielding) plays: The Tragedy of Tragedies and The Welsh Opera.

The Grub Street Opera is a play by Henry Fielding that originated as an expanded version of his play The Welsh Opera. It was never put on for an audience and is Fielding's single print-only play. As in The Welsh Opera, the author of the play is identified as Scriblerus Secundus. Secundus also appears in the play and speaks of his role in composing the plays. In The Grub Street Opera the main storyline involves two men and their rival pursuit of women.

<i>The Lottery</i> (play) play written by Henry Fielding

The Lottery is a play by Henry Fielding and was a companion piece to Joseph Addison's Cato. As a ballad opera, it contained 19 songs and was a collaboration with Mr Seedo, a musician. It first ran on 1 January 1732 at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. The play tells the story of a man in love with a girl. She claims she has won a lottery, however, making another man pursue her for the fortune and forcing her original suitor to pay off the other for her hand in marriage, though she does not win.

<i>The Modern Husband</i> play

The Modern Husband is a play by Henry Fielding. It first ran on 14 February 1732 at the Royal Theatre, Drury Lane. The plot focuses on a man who sells his wife for money, but then sues for damages by adultery when the money is insufficient. The play also covers the stories of other couples and affairs and romantic pursuits.

<i>The Old Debauchees</i> play

The Old Debauchees, originally titled The Despairing Debauchee, was a play written by Henry Fielding. It originally appeared with The Covent-Garden Tragedy on 1 June 1732 at the Royal Theatre, Drury Lane and was later revived as The Debauchees; or, The Jesuit Caught. The play tells the story of Catholic priest's attempt to manipulate a man to seduce the man's daughter, ultimately unsuccessfully.

Play (theatre) form of literature intended for theatrical performance

A play is a form of literature written by a playwright, usually consisting of dialogue or singing between characters, intended for theatrical performance rather than just reading. Plays are performed at a variety of levels, from Broadway, Off-Broadway, regional theater, to Community theatre, as well as university or school productions. There are rare dramatists, notably George Bernard Shaw, who have had little preference as to whether their plays were performed or read. The term "play" can refer to both the written texts of playwrights and to their complete theatrical performance.