I’d been looking forward to reading Dr Benjamin Hoadly’s comedy, and I wasn’t disappointed. The plot goes something like this: Bellamy loves Jacintha, the daughter of Mr and Mrs Strictland; Mr Strictland is the jealous husband and does all he can to stop Jacintha marrrying Bellamy; meanwhile, Frankly loves Clarinda, whom he saw at Bath and soon discovers to be in London, staying – the audience but not Frankly soon realises – with Jacintha and the Strictlands. The play opens, however, with Ranger, a resident of the Temple and a character Garrick made his own. Ranger is a rake and a hero, and his various antics cause confusion and yet bring ultimate resolution.
The crux of the plot occurs around midnight at the Strictlands’ house. Jacintha executes a plan to escape dressed as a boy and run away with Bellamy; a lovestruck Frankly, not Bellamy, however is waiting for her and mistakes her for Clarinda, under whose windows he thought he was waiting. Just as this confusion is unfolding, Clarinda herself turns up and believes Frankly is cheating on her with Jacintha. Bellamy then arrives but all the chaos has given Mr Strictland (a now very suspicious husband indeed) time to lock the gates and foil the young lovers’ plans. This would be enough for most farces, but the presence of Ranger takes things to the next level: whilst everyone else is running round the garden, Ranger, out (improbably) on a nigh-time prowl, spots the ladder Jacintha has used to escape. He climbs it and finds his way into Mrs Strictland’s bedroom, attempts to woo her, fails, and is then interrupted by Mr Strictland’s return. Ranger hides in a hurry and leaves his hat behind. This makes Mr Strictland very suspicious indeed, and the husband starts interrogating his wife. During this time, however, Ranger has found Jacintha and breaking off his molestation when he realises that she is the beloved of his friend Bellamy, helps her escape.
The next day, Jacintha’s safety is reported to Bellamy, who forgives Frankly. Ranger then finds Clarinda and persuades her to admit her enduring love for Frankly. A great gathering at the home of Jack Meggot, everyone’s mutual acquaintance, is organised, and here all the other wrinkles of the story are worked out: Ranger admits that is was he who was in Mrs Strictland’s bedroom and pacifies her husband by testifying to the lady’s propriety. Bellamy marries Jacintha, and a song concludes the play. Ranger sums things up as follows in the final moments of the last scene.
RANGER […] I cannot sufficiently admire at the whimsicalness of my good fortune, in being so instrumental to this general happiness. Bellamy, Frankly, I wish you joy with all my heart, though I had rather you should be married than I for all that. Never did matrimony appear to me with a smile upon her face till this instant.
At the start of the 1791 edition I’m using, there’s a very critical note, informing the reader (surprisingly) that “there is not one stroke of wit in the whole play; and it is a matter of concern to see comedies by prescription keeping possession of our stage, triumphing over better modern productions”. Now, this may well be a joke, but it makes one good point. This is a comedy of a different age: it has more action (lots of climbing in and out of windows, chasing of chairs and carriages) than Goldsmith or Sheridan; and it has Ranger, whose rowdiness is closer to the Restoration than the Reform end of the eighteenth century.
RANGER (climbing the ladder into the Strictlands’ house) There can be no harm in seeing how the land lies – I’ll up. All is hush – Ha! A light, and a woman! By all that’s lucky, neither old nor crooked!
The idea that there’s no wit in this play, I do not accept. It’s true that there’s less repartee, but I think Hoadly had a fine ear for comic timing and structure. The proof of this is the dénouement scene where everyone comes clean: this could easily have been quite dull, were it not made to interrupt an intimate tête à tête between Frankly and Clarinda, just at theat point where they were each to announce fully their love for one another. As Clarinda, seeing the crowd of lovers, wives, (and a suspicious husband) approach, puts it:
This is downright malice.