The Provok’d Husband

I was expecting to get round to reading this play, the third on my list, a bit sooner: as it turns out however, the text was harder to find than I anticipated. Things got a bit easier once I worked out that the version performed in 1753 was almost certainly Colley Cibber’s reworking of John Vanbrugh incomplete original, called A Journey to London. As with other works in this series, albeit with more bibliographical travail, this post will now gather a few of my scattered thoughts about the play.

Sir John Vanbrugh, c.1704-1710.
This play is dedicated to Queen Caroline (wife to George II), with a text that makes much of the play’s “innocence”. After all, the “design of this play”, writes Cibber, is “chiefly to expose and reform the licentious irregularities that, too often, break in upon the peace and happiness of the married state”. This is a fair summary of the work, which recounts how Mr Townly, plagued by his gambling and wasteful wife, is slowly rescued from his dire domestic situation by his morally upstanding sister, Lady Grace, and by his friend Mr Manly, who, combined, persuade Lady Townly to change her ways. As a poetically just reward for their virtuous acts, Mr Manly and Lady Grace marry at the play’s end, after Mr Manly has had the time to thwart the plots and profligacy that abounds in the family of his relative Sir Francis Wronghead. Wronghead (played by Cibber in the first performance), seeking any money to be made from his new-won status as MP, has brought his whole family to London, where they immediately go mad: Lady Wronghead plots against the marriage of Manly and Lady Grace, and is taken in by an unscrupulous Count Basset, who,in fact, is really after Miss Jenny, the Wrongheads’ daughter. Thankfully, Manly undoes all these machinations and allows Sir Francis to escape back to the country, suffering nothing more than the loss of a great deal of money through his wife and daughter’s shopping trips in London.

This is a play all about London, its temptations and its perils. Lady Wronghead is, for example, comically short-sighted when she tells Manly that she brought her daughter to the capital “to learn a little more reserve and modesty”. London, however, is more than a pit of unscrupulous card-sharps and libidinous rakes, it also serves as a location in which time can be accelerated. It is this dramatically-useful acceleration that is perhaps the most dangerous aspect of the city. Our first hint of it comes when Wronghead’s carriage is knocked over by a speeding London muleteer on its way to the stables at the start of the play. The most striking instance of it, however, occurs when Manly tells Sir Francis of just what might happen to him if he doesn’t leave the city.

MANLY In one word, your whole affairs stand thus – In a week you’ll lose your seat at Westminster; in a fortnight my lady will run you into jail, by keeping the best company – In four and twenty hours, your daughter will run away with a sharper, because she hasn’t been us’d to better compay; and your son will steal into marriage with a cast-mistress, because he has not been us’d to any company at all.
SIR FRANCIS I’th’name of goodness, why should you think all this?

A “week”, a “fortnight”, “four and twenty hours” – time is everything here, yet for all the activity of the Vanbrugh-Cibber plot, there is something a bit odd about this play. Simply put, we never really see much action. There is lots happening, certainly, but it is largely reported to us by other characters, and the audience, a bit like Sir Francis, is stuck at the centre of the whirlwind. Admittedly, for the audience it is a much more entertaining position to be in than for the country gentleman.

One other thing about the audience in this play. There are several moments where the text becomes extremely self-conscious. The clearest is when Lady Grace meets with Manly as part of the collapse of Lady Wronghead’s plot against the couple. At this point their mutual affection is not yet established, and Lady Grace, for all her moral rectitude, has a charming set of asides to the audience as she speaks with Manly, exclaiming, for example, “methinks our conversation grows terribly critical!” Once Manly has gone, she again confides to the audience, opening her soliloquy with the extremely self-aware lines, “and now what am I to think of all this? Or suppose an indifferent person had heard every word we have said to one another, what would they have to say?” The complicity is palpable here, and distinguishes Lady Grace and the other ‘good’ Londoners like Manly and Mr Townly from the Wrongheads who, as well as being portrayed as idiots, are never allowed any complicity with the audience: they are the outsiders of the play as well as the outsiders to the fast-moving city.

The play’s conclusion also relies on theatrical self-consciousness. Lady Townly completes her reformation when she recoils at the sight of her former gambling partners. As she does, she uses one of the oldest metaphors for the description of the stage, that of painting: she is “amaz’d at my own follies so strongly painted in another woman”. Of course, as Lady Townly has just seen what the play’s audience has watched from the first act on, the unsubtle intimation is that the playgoers should have experienced similar reformation too. Yet the bluntness of such an implication, found again in Manly’s assessment of the fate of Lady Wronghead and company as “a sort of poetical justice […] not much above the judgment of a modern comedy”, might make one hesitate. It all seems too neat.

Cibber calls attention to the “innocence” of this play. Yet, I would say that it is innocent in a particularly self-conscious way. There is no naïve innocence here; in its place, there is instead the rather complicated innocence of audience complicity found in the upstanding Londoners. Such innocence is that which draws attention to its instructive aims even as it performs its instructive examples, leaving any playgoer at once able to see the moral and aware of how such moral endings are ultimately artificial. Perhaps this provoking self-consciousness was what, in Cibber’s view, was needed to make a comedy truly capable of moral reform.


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