Plays

The Beaux' Stratagem

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

The Beaux’ Stratagem (1707) is George Farquhar’s last play: it premiered a month and a half before his untimely death aged 30, at the Queen’s Theatre in Haymarket, a new venue built by dramatist and architect John Vanbrugh on the Western fringes of the city of London. Seen as one of the most humane and democratic writers of the post-Restoration stage, Farquhar did not live to see the play become one of the most performed plays of the eighteenth century.

Farquhar’s last play is the story of two fortune-hunting beaux, Aimwell and Archer, who have journeyed from London to the provincial town of Lichfield. Their plan is to work their way through several towns, alternately pretending to be master and servant until one of them finds a rich heiress. But at the first hurdle, Aimwell falls sincerely in love with his prey, and begins to woo the beautiful Dorinda in earnest. Meanwhile his ‘footman’ Archer arouses the wistful interest of the unhappily married Mrs Sullen, the wife of a boorish squire. The play is further populated by a corrupt innkeeper, his lovely daughter, a highwayman, a disguised Irish priest, a country gentlewoman who believes she has healing powers, and a lowly servant who became one of the best-loved comic roles of the eighteenth century.

The Beaux’ Stratagem has been praised for the range, depth and naturalism of its characters: at a time when most comedies were written in, for and about London, Farquhar leaves behind the tendency to portray country folk as uncouth and laughable rustics. In addition, the play has been seen as broaching the gap between the sharp wit of Restoration comedy and its plots full of rakes and rascals, and the more genteel, sentimental comedy of the eighteenth century, whose focus falls not on sexual one-upmanship but on the realities of marital discord. The use of marriage as a way to improve social status had been long dramatized and satirized, but it is in his discussions of divorce that Farquhar reaches out to a humane understanding of the feasibility of marital harmony.

Feminist criticism has read into the play an early stirring of woman’s rights. In the previous century, plagued by the failings of patriarchal authority in kingship and commonwealth, questions had been raised about marriage being the best and/or only option for women, as it brought with it the possibility of unkind husbands and further loneliness. Farquhar’s comedy, ending with both marriage and divorce, highlighted the need for a reform of the divorce laws; this was a pertinent topic, as, despite the ills of marriage, only six divorces were granted by an Act of Parliament between 1660 and 1714.

The Country Wife

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

A satirical comedy focused on the vices and hypocrisies of Restoration London, The Country Wife has been admired as a farce, condemned as immoral or frivolous, and praised as a sharp and sophisticated drama.

Wycherley satirises female hypocrisy, true and false masculinity and human folly through three neatly linked plots. In the first, the rakish Horner pretends to be sexually impotent in order to trick his way into the intimate company of married ladies; he is confident that their fear of scandal is the only thing keeping them from debauchery.

In the second plot, Mr and Mrs Pinchwife come to London from the country; Mrs Pinchwife wants to enjoy all the pleasures of the town, including being loved by Horner, and her husband’s covetousness plays right into her hands.In the third plot, Horner’s friend Harcourt successfully woos Pinchwife’s sister, Alithea, away from her proposed husband Sparkish.

Wycherley’s racy prose dialogue creates an energetic and complex comedy of sex that combines cynicism, satire and farce. The Country Wife was first performed in 1675 by the King’s Company at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.

Double Falsehood or the Distressed Lovers

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Double Falsehood, or The Distressed Lovers has long been the subject of scholarly and theatrical doubt. In 1728, Lewis Theobald, Shakespeare editor and struggling man of letters, published the play, claiming it to be his revision of a work ‘Written Originally by W. SHAKESPEARE’, of which he happened to be in the possession of three manuscript copies. Whilst many over the years have slammed this work as forgery (perhaps a play by James Shirley or Philip Massinger masquerading as Shakespeare), perhaps an attempt to jump on the bandwagon of the revivifying English theatre in the patriotic cultural politics of the eighteenth century, in the 1780s, Edmond Malone discovered records dating from the 1600s confirming a play by Shakespeare and his sometime collaborator, John Fletcher. This lost play, The History of Cardenio, performed by the King’s Men in 1613, and entered into the Stationer’s Register in 1652, has a plot and characterisation very close to Theobald’s revision. Any manuscripts Theobald may have had are thought to have perished in the fire that destroyed the Covent Garden Theatre Museum in 1808, and thus, the original play remains lost to a modern readership.

A story of passionate love and devastating betrayal, Double Falsehood follows the story of ‘Cardenio’, found in Cervantes’ Don Quixote (1605). At the hypothesised time of the play’s composition in the early 1610s, English literary culture was having a Cervantic ‘moment’, with Thomas Shelton translating the novel into English in 1607, publishing it in 1612. A Spanish play based on Cervantes’ work, Don Quixote de la Mancha (?1605-8) by Guillén de Castro, may also have been a direct source. In Theobald’s version, the libertine Henriquez has forced himself on the humble Violante, and abandoned her, leaving a heartless letter. He now sets about pursuing Leonora, who is engaged to his friend Julio. With the collusion of Leonora’s father Don Bernard, he forces her to the altar, having first lured Julio to court on a false errand. Warned by Leonora, Julio turns up in time to prevent the wedding and Leonora’s suicide. Julio is ejected from the house.

The grief-stricken Julio is living in a mountainous plateau. Violante is dressed as a shepherd and living nearby. Leonora has taken refuge in a nunnery in the same region; Henriquez is still pursuing her. Henriquez’s virtuous elder brother Roderick arrives in time to save Violante from being assaulted by the Master of the Flocks, who has seen through her transvestite disguise. Violante and Julio discover that they have both been wronged by Henriquez.

Roderick arranges for Leonora’s father, Julio’s father, Leonora and Violante to meet at a lodge. Violante, who is disguised as a page, confronts Henriquez with his cruel letter to her; she leaves and returns dressed as a woman, and Henriquez seems to fall in love with her anew. Leonora is reunited with Julio.

First produced at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in 1727, Double Falsehood has had no subsequent professional stage performance. Put on through the eighteenth century for private entertainment, in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries it has been reworked by scholars for private readings or university performances. Oxford general editor Gary Taylor attempted to work back and ‘undo’ Theobald’s emendations in order to recreate a work closer to the hypothesised Shakespeare and Fletcher original: first appearing at a private reading in New York in 2006, the play was staged as a public performance in Wellington, New Zealand, in 2009.

Gabriel (Adamson)

Faber and Faber
Type: Text

This is noisily Protestant England - the England of William and Mary's Glorious Revolution at the end of a century of civil strife. This is London in the 1690s, the monster city tamed into awe by our only Orpheus: Henry Purcell.

Monarchs, princes, prostitutes, wigmakers, composers, tapsters, musicians, transvestites and watermen jostle for attention in the teeming, unruly world of late seventeenth-century London, where enthralling stories both real and imagined merge and intersect.

Gabriel premiered at Shakespeare's Globe, London, in July 2013 with Alison Balsom, one of the world's finest trumpeters, performing the music of Purcell and Handel.

Love For Love

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Love for Love is an acute and comical examination of gender identity, dissecting humours and affectations with the wit, energy and complexity of a farce of manners.

Mrs Foresight, who is married to an impotent, superstitious, old hypochondriac, is consumed by unsatisfied needs; her aging sister, Mrs Frail, who has sown her wild oats, is looking for a wealthy husband. The men are only too eager to satisfy the women. Sailor Ben has returned from the sea, his heart set upon finding a partner; Tattle, a rake, pursues the rich and lovely Angelica, but is more than happy to seduce Miss Prue on the side; while Valentine, the preferred suitor of the play’s heroine Angelica, has financially ruined himself among women of the town and has a bastard child to support. The plot of this socially satiric Restoration comedy turns upon the devices used by Angelica to find, in a corrupt society, true love in marriage.

Love for Love was written by 1694 and first performed in 1695, in an indoor tennis court.

The Recruiting Officer

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Farquhar’s warm-hearted comedy combines satire and bonhomie to depict the army’s exploitation of sex, money, law and class in a provincial town.

The dashing Captain Plume, a recruiting officer for the Grenadiers, and his sidekick Sergeant Kite have returned from the Battle of Blenheim in order to recruit in Shrewsbury. Plume is in love with the county heiress Silvia; his friend Worthy, a local gentleman, is in love with Silvia’s cousin Melinda. But both women have recently come into splendid fortunes, putting them out of reach of their lovers.

Silvia’s father sends her away to the country to distance her from Plume, but she returns to town dressed as a man and offers to enlist in the army with him. Meanwhile Kite is dressing up as a fortune teller in order to recruit gullible young men into the army; Melinda is conducting a strategic flirtation with Captain Brazen; and Melinda’s maid Lucy is also trying to recruit a husband for herself.

Farquhar’s smart plotting deals with army corruption and sexual intrigue, but with a light-heartedness and optimism that is fresh and entertaining. His touching exploration of the impact of warfare on civilian society has been a stage favourite since it was first performed in 1706 at Drury Lane.

The Relapse

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Vanbrugh’s vivacious study of characters is an ironic sequel to Colley Cibber’s Love’s Last Shift and contains many of the same characters and themes.

While in Cibber’s play the hedonistic rake, Loveless, ultimately resolves to be faithful to his long-suffering wife Amanda, Vanbrugh’s play tells of Loveless’s relapse into marital infidelity when he falls for the beautiful Berinthia. Meanwhile, Worthy, an ex-lover of Berinthia’s, tries to seduce Amanda by alerting her to her husband’s unfaithfulness.

Vanbrugh’s play also features a prominent and hugely entertaining farcical subplot in which the newly ennobled Lord Foppington (Sir Novelty in Cibber’s play) vies unknowingly with his penniless younger brother for the hand in marriage of Sir Tunbelly Clumsey’s daughter, Hoyden.

First performed in 1696, Vanbrugh’s witty and cynically comic play addresses the double standards expected of men and women in society and the hypocrisy that encouraged marriage as a cover for adultery.

The Rover

Aurora Metro Books
Type: Text

The Rover, alternatively known as 'The Banish't Cavaliers', is the most frequently read and performed of Aphra Behn's plays (Burke, 118). First performed by the Duke's Company at the Dorset Garden Theatre in 1677, the play was initially published anonymously. Only in the prologue of the third edition did Behn finally take credit for the play. It is believed that it took her this long to claim authorship because she was afraid of potential plagiarism charges, as the play closely resembles Thomas Killigrew's 'Thomaso.'

The Rover follows the escapades of a band of banished English cavaliers as they enjoy themselves at a carnival in Naples. The story strings together multiple plotlines revolving around the amorous adventures of these Englishmen, who pursue a pair of noble Spanish sisters, as well as a mistress and common prostitute. The titular character is a raffish naval captain, Willmore. He falls in love with a wealthy noble Spanish woman named Hellena, who is determined to experience love before her brother, Pedro, sends her to a convent. Hellena falls in love with Willmore, but difficulties arise when a famous courtesan, Angellica Bianca, also falls in love with Willmore. As this plot unravels, Hellena's older sister, Florinda, attempts to avoid an unappealing arranged marriage to her brother's best friend, and devises a plan to marry her true love, Colonel Belvile. Finally, the third major plot of the play concerns English countryman Blunt, a naive and vengeful man who becomes convinced that a girl, Lucetta, has fallen in love with him. When she turns out to be a prostitute and thief, he is humiliated and attempts to rape Florinda as revenge against all women for the pain and damage that Lucetta has caused him. In the end, Florinda and Belvile are married, and Hellena and Willmore commit to marry one another.

The revival of drama in England after the restoration of the monarchy (1660) is known as Restoration Drama. Its main features were the reopening of the theatres after the Puritan Interregnum, the formation of new acting companies, and the first appearance of women on the English stage. The dominant genres of the era were the comedy of manners and the heroic drama of Dryden and others, both of which show a strong French influence. This was encouraged by the king himself, who had become familiar with the works of Corneille and others while in exile in France.

In the two decades without drama many actors, playwrights, and regular theatregoers had died. The early Restoration audience was made up largely of courtiers and of aristocrats, although the influence of the middle classes became greater as the era wore on. Charles himself kept a tight control on the new theatres, issuing patents to only Thomas Killigrew of the King’s Men, who played at Drury Lane, and William Davenant of the Duke’s Men at Lincoln’s Inn fields Theatre. The new audience was so small, however, that it barely supported two theatres; the two companies merged in 1682 and separated again in 1695.

Because of their novelty value, the most famous performers tended to be women. By 1670 actresses were well established, the favourites being Nell Gwynn, Anne Oldfield, Elizabeth Barry, Anne Bracegirdle, and Mary Saunderson, the wife of the era’s most renowned actor Thomas Betterton.

The greatest achievement of the Restoration theatre was in comedy. The English comedy of manners was pioneered by Sir George Etherege, who took his cue from the works of Molière and other French and Spanish masters. The form was subsequently perfected by Congreve in such sophisticated works as Love for Love (1695) and The Way of the World (1700). Other writers to produce witty comedies of intrigue and sentiment included Aphra Behn and John Vanbrugh: the works of William Wycherley are darker and more satirical. George Farquhar, who enjoyed success with The Beaux’ Stratagem in 1707, is usually considered the last true exponent of Restoration comedy.

In tragedy, the attempt to imitate French neoclassical models spawned a number of high-flown works in rhyming verse, notably Dryden’s Tyrannick Love (1669) and Almanzor and Almahide (1671). The only Restoration tragedies to enjoy regular revivals today are Dryden’s All For Love (1678) and Thomas Otway’s Venice Preserv’d (1682), both of which are in blank verse.

The Restoration style of comedy fell out of favour in the early 18th century, when middleclass audiences began to reject its cynicism and licentiousness. The comedies were generally staged in bowdlerized form until the mid-20th century.

from Jonathan Law ed., The Methuen Drama Dictionary of the Theatre (London, 2011).