This is the first play on my list of pieces performed in the 1753-4 season that I hadn’t already read. It was written by David Garrick and first performed in November 1741, before going on to notch up over a hundred performances before Garrick’s death in 1779. An afterpiece of just two acts, it is nevertheless very entertaining, even if a little unbalanced. The character of Sharp (the lying valet of the title) was written by Garrick to be performed by himself, and the machinations of this clever servant dominate the plot of the entertainment.
The trope of the servant whose mental capacities outstrip those of his master is an old one. In this play, we soon find that, without the help of the valet Sharp, the noble but profligate Gayless would never stand a chance of getting through the two days before his marriage to the wealthy Melissa without her discovering the parlous state of his financial affairs. When Melissa’s servant, Kitty, comes to visit Gayless and Sharp, Gayless panics and fears that the truth must be exposed. Sharp’s response is typical of his character and the humour of this play.
GAYLESS Melissa has certainly heard of my bad circumstances, and has invented this scheme to distress me, and break off the match.
SHARP I don’t believe it, sir; begging your pardon.
GAYLESS No? Why did her maid then make so strict an enquiry into my fortune and affairs?
SHARP For two very substantial reasons: the first to satisfy a curiosity, natural to her as a woman; the second, to have the pleasure of my conversation, very natural to her as a woman of taste and understanding.
Sharp’s egotistic attitue to women and bluntness (the latter evident in the way he says “I don’t believe it” before tacking on the polite niceties of “sir” and “begging your pardon”) bring this dialogue to life, albeit at the cost of Gayless. Kitty’s visit has caused such a stir as she has not only seen the poverty of Gayless’s household, but also brought news of her mistress’s idea to hold a pre-nuptial ball there, an entertainment Gayless cannot possibly pay for. This problem is the first complication of the play, and soon allows us to see Sharp in all his quick-witted glory as he rushes off to see Melissa.
Sharp’s interview with Melissa is really a kind of conversational ping-pong between himself and Kitty, each trying to outmanoeuvre the other as they attempt to persuade Melissa to drop the idea of holding a banquet at Gayless’s home. Here’s one example of the servants’ clever back and forth over Melissa’s head.
KITTY Why then, I’ll tell you what, madam; since you are resolved not to go to the supper, suppose the supper was to come to you: ’tis great pity such great preparations as Mr Sharp has made should be thrown away.
SHARP So it is, as you say, Mistress Kitty. But I can immediately run back and unbespeak what I have ordered; ’tis soon done.
Sharp eventually comes out on top, and even leaves with a half-guinea tip from Melissa. As soon as he is gone, however, the first act closes with a mysterious letter arriving from Gayless’s father, Sir William. We don’t learn its contents here, and the renewed vicissitudes of Gayless in the second act soon force it from our mind.
The second act opens with another visit from Kitty to the Gayless household, this time announcing that, although the wife-to-be is staying at home, she has nevertheless invited a whole bunch of her friends over to Gayless’s, including a nephew of Melissa’s who has been in France and – worst of all for someone hunted by the bailiffs – a local justice. Faced with such a tricky conundrum, Sharp’s methods push the limits of what might be acceptable. Having directed the guests into an absent neighbour’s better-furnished apartment, Sharp proposes that he get the dozing justice to pay for the promised dinner.
SHARP I have one scheme left which in all probability may succeed. The good citizen, overloaded with his last meal, is taking a nap in that closet, in order to get him an appeitte for yours. Suppose, sir, we sould make him treat us.
GAYLESS I don’t understand you.
SHARP I’ll pick his pocket, and provide us a supper with the booty
GAYLESS Monstrous! For without considering the villainy of it, the danger of waking him makes it impracticable!
SHARP If he wakes, I’ll smother him, and lay his death to indigestion – a very common death among the justices.
The blunt suggestion of murder makes us laugh with its cartoonish desperation, but it should also make us pause for thought. The French nephew – who is really Melissa in disguise – comments not soon after this on the peculiar moral problem posed by Sharp’s machinations.
MELISSA Ha, ha, ha, what lies doth this fellow invent, and what rogueries does he commit for his master’s service? There never sure was a more faithful servant to his master, or a greater rogue to the rest of mankind […]
This is a passage worth putting alongside Mandeville’s controversial idea that private vices provide public benefits. At first glance, this seems to be the opposite, since Gayless’s profligacy has made his ingenious servants descend into darker and darker solutions; yet, at the same time, things never turn out quite as tragically as they might and indeed the play ends hapily: one might even say that Gayless’s financial vices provide the benefit of Sharp’s astute manipulation of the public.
The play’s happy ending occurs with a series of revelations, in which we realise that whilst we have been paying attention to Sharp’s last-minute escapes, a larger plot has been unfolding. The mysterious letter at the end of the first act had, it turns out, revealed everything about Gayless to Melissa, leading her to test Gayless (and his servant) with all the impositions of the second act. At the play’s end, Melissa unmasks herself and forgives Gayless. As the company prepare to dance, the irrepressible Sharp pipes up.
SHARP Oh pray, sir, have supper first, or, I’m sure, I shan’t live till the dance is finished…
That this line, the last version of a running joke about Sharp’s starvation, makes us laugh far more than the neat tying up of the romantic plotline says a great deal about this play. In 1753, it was chosen as the afterpiece to The Beggar’s Opera, and Sharp would have shone all the more brightly in such a pairing, for his scrapes and inventions are of a much lighter tone than those in Gay’s ballad opera.