Category Archives: The Play’s the Thing

Promptbooks and Publication

As is no doubt evident from my last few posts, I’ve been looking into Francis Gentleman and his work on John Bell’s 1774 edition of Shakespeare quite a lot. I’m now writing my ideas up, and – as ever in this process – there’s quite a lot that won’t fit into my chapter. This includes a bit of work on the copytexts used by Bell and Gentleman for their publication. Continue reading Promptbooks and Publication

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.

The Non-Juror

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.

William Sancroft, a real-life non-juror and Archbishop of Canterbury. Nothing like Dr Wolf.
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.
BETTY Oh, here he comes himself sir, he will tell you more…

The Chaplet

Shorn of its music and most likely spectacular stage business and sets, Boyce’s “musical entertainment” took me five minutes to read. The Chaplet represents the vicissitudes of two couples: Damon and Laura, Palaemon and Pastora. “Scene: a Grove”, and everything is very pastoral indeed. The play opens with Damon abandoning his love Laura to go carousing and wandering while Laura is left to pine. In the next scene, Palaemon leaves Pastora in search of variety too. Pastora then meets Damon, resists his entreaties for a quick fling and resolves herself to go out looking for a husband. In the second act, Pastora and Laura compete for Damon’s hand in marriage, with the shepherd in the end proving loyal to his Laura. Pastora proclaims that “I’ll quit the dull plains for the city / Where beauty is follow’d by merit”, and then Damon and Laura, to end on a more positive note, finish the entertainment with lines of such a kind as “Ne’er yield to the swain, till he make you a wife / For he who loves truly, will take you for life.”

Poussin’s Et In Arcadia Ego, 1637-38.
I don’t have too much to say about this play. So much of it is stylised and conventional. ‘Laura’ is probably called so after Petrarch’s beloved, while the other monikers are similarly derivative: Pastora / Pastoral, for example, while Damon has a famous mowing ancestor created by Andrew Marvell. One other thought springs to mind, and that is that there is an inherent misogyny in the work: while Pastora is able to wander like Damon and Palaemon, she is still very much the victim, since all agency is largely in the hands of the men. Such a state is never questioned, despite a fair amount of satire in the play. We’ve already had one example in Pastora’s thoughts about merit’s place in the city, but another occurs in Damon’s drinking song. I’ll conclude with it and the way it generalises its soon to be proved erroneous ideas about love out to all society, largely with reason:

Push about the brisk bowl, ’twill enliven the heart;
While thus we sit on the grass,
The lover who talks of this suff’rings and smart,
Deserves to be recon’d an ass.
The wretch who sits watching his ill-gotten pelf,
And wishes to to the mass;
Whate’er the curmudgeon may think of himself,
Deserves to be reckon’d an ass.
The beau who so smart with his wel-powder’d hair,
An angel beholds in his glass,
And thinks with grimace to subdue all the fair,
May justly be reckon’d an ass.

The Suspicious Husband

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.

David Garrick (as Ranger) and Mrs Pritchard (as Clarinda) in The Suspicious Husband: in this scene, Ranger is tricked into trying to woo a masked Clarinda, who then reveals all, much to her cousin’s (!) embarassment.
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.

The Mock Doctor

Molière as Julius Caesar, painted by Nicholas Mignard in 1658.
This afterpiece, again by Fielding, is a translation-adaptation of Molière’s Le médecin malgré lui. I don’t know the Molière version well enough to give a good comparison, so will just make observations on this text while the memory of it is fresh. The plot is easy to relate: Gregory, a woodman, is forever getting into fights with his wife Dorcas; after being beaten by her husband, Dorcas takes her revenge by persuading two servants out looking for a doctor that Gregory is the best physician in the world, but will only admit it after being beaten. A beating ensues and Gregory finds himself ministering to Charlotte, the daughter of Sir Jasper, who has stopped speaking. Gregory prescribes punch, receives a fee, goes on a roll and gives prescriptions (including one for cheese) to several other patients eager for his attention. Just as he is heading home, he runs into Leander, Charlotte’s secret love, and he reveals that Charlotte has stopped speaking to prevent her forced marriage to Mr Dapper (wealthy, old and ugly – again). Gregory decides to smuggle Leander in to see Charlotte by disguising him as an apothecary. Whilst Leander is changing clothes, Dorcas appears: she receives some of the fees paid to Gregory for his medicines and tells Gregory that she was behind this ruse. Gregory soon spots a chance to pay her back, and has another doctor, one Dr Hellebore, take Dorcas into care as a madwoman. Leander returns, Gregory and he visit Sir Jasper, and Charlotte starts speaking to tell her father she’ll never marry Mr Dapper. Not knowing what to do, Sir Jasper obeys Gregory’s advice to leave Charlotte alone with the apothecary for a while. Dorcas then breaks in (having got free of Hellebore) and explains all. Sir Jasper is furious, but before he can do anything Leander (no longer disguised) and Charlotte return: Leander tells Sir Jasper he has just inherited a lot of money, and Sir Jasper blesses his union with his daughter. Everyone bursts into song and the play ends.

Writing this summary, I’m struck by the amount of retribution dealt out in the course of its two acts. The beating of Dorcas is avenged by the doctor-trick, and the doctor-trick by confinement in a mad house; meanwhile Charlotte pays her father back for his tyranny first by silence then by marriage to another. Yet for all this eye for an eye business – crucial to the play as a source of its slapstick antics – everything turns out right in the end, save for rather a lot of beating. The best violence comes when Sir Jasper’s servants do it to Gregory, all the time apologising and explaining that it’s for the higher good of getting him to come and cure Charlotte: “I ask pardon ten thousand times for what you have forc’d us to” says one, enlivening the farce with politeness.

One larger observation to finish. When Leander first meets Gregory, he explains that Charlotte’s illness isn’t real, and that if he has “any distemper, it is the love of that young lady your patient”. This is, of course, the real theme of the play: Gregory’s antics are the result of problems in his relationship with Dorcas, and everything else turns on love. We never learn the effect of the cheese Gregory prescribes because such results are not important, only the love-plot is. With this in mind, my favourite speech of the play is one spoken by Charlotte, in which she makes explicit the overriding power of love. The speech is all the more powerful for being one of the first times we hear her voice, and just what she has been bottling up.

SIR JASPER You shall have Mr Dapper –
CHARLOTTE No; not in any manner; not in the least, not at all: you throw away your breath; you lose your time: you may confine me, beat me, bruise me, destroy me, kill me; do what you will, use me as you will, but I never will consent; nor all your threats, nor all your blows, nor all your ill-usage, never shall force me to consent. So far from giving him my heart, I never will give him my hand: for he is my aversion; I hate the very sight of him; I had rather see the devil, I had rather touch a toad: you may make me miserable any other way; but with him you shan’t, that I’m resolved.