The Contrivances

A cross section of Drury Lane.
Harry Carey’s The Contrivances has a problem: the severe lack of what I will call dramatic tension. Admittedly, as an afterpiece to be performed in a rowdy and perhaps intellectually satiated theatre, I suppose suspense is not an absolute requirement. Still, it would have been nice, not least because this plot is once more along very familiar lines. Argus (the aptly-named curmudgeon) has a daughter Arethusa. Arethusa is in love with Rovewell but Argus wants her to marry Squire Cuckoo. Helped by Rovewell’s resourceful servant, Robin, Arthusa and her lover eventually outwit Argus and finish the play in each others’ arms. The problem with all this is that there is also the character of Hearty, who, after a chat with a despairing Rovewell at the start of the play, has this soliloquy for the audience:

How have I been deceived in this boy! I find him the very reverse of what his stepmother represented him; and am now sensible it was only her ill usage that forced my child away – His not having seen me since he was five years old, renders me a perfect stranger to him – Under that pretence, I have got into his acquaintance, and find him all I wish – If this plot of his fails, I believe my money must buy him the girl at last.

Such a speech makes it very clear that, whatever the hijinks of the play to come, there will be a happy ending, and thus robs the audience of any kind of suspence. As I write this, I’m starting to suspect that I’m being too harsh with Carey: as now with almost all romantic comedies, I think eighteenth-century audiences would be sure of a happy ending to this play whether or not Hearty reveals himself. That he does so is a fault, then, not against any notion of suspense but rather for being redundant: he assures the audience of a sweet conclusion that they were already pretty certain to have anyway.

There are three other things I want to point out about this play: one quite typical, and two a little odd. First, there is Robin, the typical resourceful servant, who disguises himself in no less than three different ways. First, he becomes a rustic servant, accompanying a cross-dressed Rakewell who is posing as Squire Cuckoo’s sister in the first – and unsurprising abortive – plan to elope with Arethusa. Second, he tries on the guise of a lawyer, this time managing to buy enough time for the lovers to make their escape. Third, he is a constable and so makes sure the mob that Argus calls on for help ends up doing nothing at all. All this is in the tradition of the cunning servant, and Robin does kind of run away with the play. The scenes with the mob contain some of the funniest lines, including this exchange with Argus:

ARGUS …they [the soldiers who accompanied Robin as a lawyer] gagged and blindfolded me, and offered forty naked swords at my breast – I beg of you, assist me, or they’ll strip the house in a minute.
MOB Forty drawn swords, say you, Sir?
ARGUS Ay, and more, I think, on my conscience.
MOB Then look you, Sir, I’m a married man, and have a large family […] I’ll call a constable [i.e. Robin].

Now for the two odd things. First, I find it strange and revealing that Squire Cuckoo never appears in the play. The fact that we don’t feel his absence as a problem reveals perhaps how strong the conventions of this kind of comedy are: having seen the older and patently unsuitable suitor brought to life in so many other productions, we don’t need yet another rendition here to be able to imagine him. The other oddity is one that I find quite touching (or as touching as an afterpiece can be): just before Hearty reveals himself as both Rovewell’s father and Argus’s best friend, a despairing Argus, feeling that his daughter is lost for ever, tells the mob,

ARGUS Would they had stripped my house of every pennyworth, if they had left my child.
MOB That’s a lie, I believe, for he loves his money more than his soul, and would sooner part with that than a groat.

I don’t know about other readers of this play, but I find the Mob’s judgment of Argus here a little unjust. This is surprising, since avarice is one of the typical characteristics of the over-protective fathers in these comedies, but Argus here is felt at least by me to have broken from that tradition a little. Pairing this with Hearty’s guarantee of a happy ending in the opening scene and one has a play that is both problematic but also – and most interestingly of all – seemingly written as if Carey himself was slightly tired of the constraints of this form.

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