Colley Cibber’s The Non-Juror is a bit of an odd comedy. Nicholas Rowe’s prologue, however, gives the gist:
Tonight, ye Whigs and Tories both be safe,
Nor hope, at one another’s cost, to laugh:
We mean to souse old Satan and the Pope;
They’ve no relations here, nor friends we hope.
To expand on this, the general idea of Cibber’s play is to unite the audience in a happy mockery of non-jurors, those clergymen who refused to swear allegiance to William and Mary in 1688. Yet if this is the aim of Cibber’s comedy, it remains a little superficial. A quick summary of the plot will show why.
We start things off with Sir John Woodvil talking to his son Colonel Woodvil about Mr Heartly’s wooing of Maria Woodvil, Sir John’s daughter and the Colonel’s sister. Sir John, like all good curmudgeonly fathers in these plays, does not want his daughter to marry Heartly. A bit of prying from the Colonel reveals that Sir John has been influenced in his decision by the arguments of Dr Wolf (the ‘non-juror’, although Sir John doesn’t know it yet). As the Colonel tries to unmask Dr Wolf and so arrange marriage between Maria and his friend Heartly, more information comes to light. First, we learn that Wolf’s servant, Charles, is really a nobleman who fell into obscurity after taking the wrong side in the Glorious Revolution but now repents and joins the plot against the Doctor. Second, we discover that the Doctor wants to prevent Heartly’s marriage so as to marry Maria himself.
Actually, this second development, so foreseeable in that the Doctor is here playing the role of the stereotypical elder-lover preferred by the father and hated by the daughter, is a red herring: the Doctor only wants to marry Maria so as to get close to Lady Woodvil, Sir John’s wife and the true object of his affections. At this point, then, the Doctor’s crimes (leaving aside his lack of an oath of loyalty) total: deception, temptation, lust, and – as he makes a spirited attempt to cheat Sir John out of his inheritance – greed. His villainy is such that the non-juror stuff comes to look a bit superfluous.
Doctor Wolf, of course, soon over-reaches himself. He makes the mistake of relying on Charles, who is not only indebted to the Colonel for clearing his name but has also fallen in love with Maria. Soon the Doctor is unmasked in a clever coordinated effort, Charles restored to his family and willing to give up Maria to Heartly; the latter then promptly receives her hand in marriage from Sir John who has seen the error of his ways and everyone cries “huzzah”.
Peculiarly for me, I picked out relatively few passages as I was reading, being more interested I guess in the way that the question of non-jurors was approached in the strongly marked framework of eighteenth-century romantic comedy. I realised how strong the lines of character were when reading a speech by Maria, to her father, about the differences between her character and that of Lady Woodvil:
I don’t say my Lady is not in the right; but then you know, papa, she is a prude, and I am a coquet; she becomes her character very well, I don’t deny it, and I hope you see everything I do is as consistent with mine: your wise folk lays down what rules they please; but ’tis constitution that governs us all…
Now one can imagine this speech getting laughs from the audience, since it is so knowing in its reference to the kind of characters one finds in comedies of this period. That said, it also has a serious point, for Sir John explains that it was his “Ductile heart” that made it so easily for Dr Wolf to deceive him into supporting the non-juror cause. Of course, though, such things cut the other way too, and the best short line of the play is that spoken by Doctor Wolf when Maria reveals her part in the countermeasures against him. Frustrated, the villain calls her the one thing we may have thought she was, but now certainly is not:
Distraction! Outwitted by a brainless girl.
Here’s another bit of decent dialogue, this one in the line of dim and unintentionally funny servants:
BETTY O dear madam! I shall faint away, there’s murder doing.
SIR JOHN Who? Where, what is it?
BETTY The doctor, sir, and Mr Charles, were at high words jsut now in the hall, and upon a sudden there was a pistol fired between them: oh! I am afradi poor Mr Charles is killed.
SIT JOHN How?
BETTY Oh, here he comes himself sir, he will tell you more…