The Provoked Wife by Sir John Vanbrugh (1697)

‘Lord, how like a Torrent Love flows into the Heart, when once the Sluice of Desire is open’d! Good Gods! What a Pleasure there is in doing what we should not do!’
(Lady Brute)

Cast

The cast list is clipped and to the point i.e. not as entertaining as some.

THE MEN
Constant
Heartfree
Sir John Brute
Treble, a Singing-Master
Rasor, Valet de Chambre to Sir John Brute
Justice of the Peace
Lord Rake, Companions to Sir John Brute
Colonel Bully
Constable and Watch

THE WOMEN
Lady Brute
Belinda, her Niece
Lady Fancyful
Madamoiselle
Cornet and Pipe, Servants to Lady Fancyful

Brief plot summary

Sir John Brute is tired of matrimony. He comes home drunk every night and is continually rude and insulting to his wife. She is meanwhile being tempted to embark upon an affair with the witty and faithful Constant. Divorce is not an option for either of the Brutes at this time, but forms of legal separation have recently come into existence, and would entail a separate maintenance to the wife. Such an arrangement would not allow remarriage. Still, muses Lady Brute, in one of many discussions with her niece Belinda, ‘These are good times. A woman may have a gallant and a separate maintenance too’.

Belinda is at the same time being grumpily courted by Constant’s friend Heartfree, who is surprised and dismayed to find himself in love with her. The bad example of the Brutes is a constant warning to Heartfree to not marry.

The Provoked Wife is a ‘talk play’, with the focus less on love scenes and more on discussions between female friends (Lady Brute and Belinda) and male friends (Constant and Heartfree). These exchanges are full of jokes, but are also thoughtful and often have an air of melancholy and frustration.

After complications caused by a forged-letter, the play ends with marriage between Heartfree and Belinda and stalemate between the Brutes. Constant continues to pay court to Lady Brute, and she continues to shilly-shally.

Extended plot summary

Lord Brute has a soliloquy about bored he is of being married – he encounters Lady Brute who asks an innocent question and sets off his surly angry replies – then Lady Brute has a soliloquy wondering what she did in her life to merit such treatment (although she admits 1. she married Brute for his money 2. everyone warned her about him, but she thought she could ‘change’ him.)

Enter Belinda, Lady Brute’s niece, and they have an extended dialogue about what a brute Lord Brute is. Belinda has spotted that her aunt is in love with Constant. Lady Brute gives a speech about how women ought to resist the temptation to flirt and coquette. Both then unite in critiquing the character of their neighbour, the exorbitant flirt and narcissistic Lady Fancyful.

Scene 2 Lady Fancyful’s dressing room Where we meet the lady herself and there is comic interaction between her English maid – who tells the truth about her appearance – and her super-flattering French fashion adviser, Mademoiselle, who tells her what she wants to hear. A letter arrives containing a song some admirer has composed for her. Lady Fancyful calls for Pipe her musician who comes and sings it.

Another letter arrives, Fie! she is so popular! It is more prosaic, from an admirer who says he will tell her all her Faults if she comes to the Walk in St James’s Park. There follows a comic dialogue between Lady Fancyful, who feigns to be shy and nervous of meeting an unknown man. Mademoiselle hands her all her accoutrements and virtually drags her out the door.

(It is a notable feature of this scene that entire sentences from Mademoiselle are in French, indicating that the audience was expected to understand it. Does this indicate the openly educated aristocratic audience which plays were still targeted at, at this late date?)

Act 2 Scene 1 St James’s Park Enter Lady Fancyful and Mademoiselle. The letter writer turns out to be Heartfree, who they know already to be ‘a profess’d Woman-hater’. Heartfree proceeds to tell Lady Fancyful she’s a damn attractive woman but has made herself so prettified and pretentious that she has become a figure of fun. He says he will reform her. Lady Fancyful decries his awful manners, and they exit.

Heartfree is immediately greeted by Constant (who we know from Scene 1 that Lady Brute knows is paying court to her) and they have a dialogue which is, in effect, Cynicism (Heartfree) talking to True Love idealism (Constant). Heartfree provides one summary:

I persuade a Woman she’s an Angel, and she persuades you she’s one.

At greater length:

As for her Motion, her Mien, her Airs, and all those Tricks, I know they affect you mightily. If you should see your Mistress at a Coronation dragging her Peacock’s Train, with all her State and Insolence about her, ‘twou’d strike you with all the awful Thoughts that Heav’n itself could pretend to from you; whereas I turn the whole Matter into a Jest, and suppose her strutting in the self-same stately Manner, with nothing on her but her Stays and her under scanty quilted Petticoat.

Constant has loved Lady Brute since he first saw her at her wedding and wonders why she studiously avoids him. Heartfree says ‘Tis women for you’, but we know it’s actually because ‘Lady Brute’ does in fact love him but wants also to remain true to her principles.

Enter Lord Brute who is brutishly blunt about how he hates being married, though he concedes that Lady Brute is virtuous. He invites Constant and Heartfree to come out tonight, get drunk and bed some whores.

Scene 2 Lady Fancyful’s Lady Fancyful admits to Mademoiselle that Heartfree’s rudeness did in some manner affect her. Enter Mr Treble who has set a poem of Lady F’s to music. He sings it. She asks if there are any new songs in Town and Treble produces another one which they get Lady F’s singer, Pipe, to sing.

The chief characteristic of the poems in these plays is how utterly mechanical and unlyrical they are (like the plays themselves, like the taste of the times):

Not an Angel dwells above,
Half so fair as her I love.
Heaven knows, how she’ll receive me;
If she smiles, I’m blest indeed;
If she frowns, I’m quickly freed;
Heaven knows she ne’er can grieve me.

Lady Fancifull can’t get Heartfree out of her thoughts and agonises about writing a letter to him.

Act 3 Lord and Lady Brute and her niece Belinda are just finishing luncheon. He declares he will smoke and is anticipating being visited. The womenfolk wonder if the visitor is Constant and vow to stay in the room, despite his choking smoke. They deliberately prattle about their petticoats to wind up Sir John until he loses his temper, throws his pipe at them, and drives them out the room.

Heartfree and Constant arrive at this moment and ask Sir John what’s wrong and he curses all women. He invites them to sit and share a glass, he notices Constant is sad, because of a woman, is it? This is dramatic irony because it is, of course, because of Sir John’s own wife that Constant is sad. Sir John proposes a toast to Constant’s mistress, with the same ironic effect.

A servant announces some of his hearty friends (Lord Rake and Colonel Bully) are at the door calling him away to drink and make some kind of plan for the evening. He tells our two heroes to stay till he gets back. Heartfree realises this is an opportunity for Constant to forward his troth and agrees. Exit Lord Brute.

Enter Lady Brute and Belinda who good-humouredly spar with Constant (who feels faint with love for Lady B) and Heartfree, who allows himself to be taught how to be a Perfect Man by pert Belinda.

Enter Lady Fancyful (‘an Inundation of Impertinence’ as Lady Brute calls her) who lights up the stage very much as Lord Foppington lights up The Relapse. She proceeds to tell the ladies how rudely Heartfree addressed her and suggested she reform her entire appearance and manner and very amusingly to act out how clumsy and crude he would have her be.

Belinda realises that Lady Fancyful is in love with Heartfree, and decides to make her jealous by a little flirting with Heartfree. It works, as Lady Fancyful reveals in an aside to the audience: she does fancy Heartfree and Belinda flirting with him does make her jealous.

Heartfree grows bored, realises there’s no scope for Constant to advance his love suit to Lady Brute with the room full of women, and they leave. Lady Fancyful is very irked by the devout leave Heartfree takes of Belinda, while almost ignoring her. She vows to go home and study her revenge.

Re-enter Constant leading to a very elevated dialogue with Lady Brute, in which he declares his love and she replies with her Virtue.

LADY BRUTE: He who has Discretion enough to be tender of a Woman’s Reputation, carries a Virtue about him may atone for a great many Faults.
Const. If it has a Title to atone for any, its Pretensions must needs be strongest where the Crime is Love. I therefore hope I shall be forgiven the Attempt I have made upon your Heart, since my Enterprize has been a Secret to all the World but yourself.
LADY BRUTE. Secrecy, indeed, in Sins of this kind, is an Argument of weight to lessen the Punishment; but nothing’s a Plea for a Pardon entire, without a sincere Repentance.
CONSTANT: If Sincerity in Repentance consists in Sorrow for offending, no Cloyster ever inclos’d so true a Penitent as I should be.

You need your wits about you to really grasp the cut and thrust of these sharp remarks. There is something very intimate about such a deep and searching matching of wits, more so than in conventional love compliments. Constant and Lady Brute draw very close but at the end, when he asks for some token that he may have hopes his suit is heard, she tears his hand from hers and says that’s all she has time for and runs out.

When Heartfree re-enters Constant is in raptures that Lady Brute has at least given him Hope although, when Heartfree asks how she expressed it, it is comedy (and maybe an indication of how difficult it was even for contemporary audiences to follow such a cut-and-thrust dialogue) that Constant can’t remember the precise form of words she used. In fact, if you have to carefully reread the end of the dialogue to realise that she didn’t.

Scene 2 Sir John, Lord Rake, Colonel Bully in a pub, drinking and singing songs about going to the Devil. It is interesting that these songs are all cast in opposition to the government and the prevailing culture. They reference recent legislation about freedoms of speech and association, which they declare themselves against. It is the old aristocratic culture defying the new mercantile, legislative Whig culture of William III.

Scene 3 Lady Brute’s bedchamber Lady Brute and Belinda have a complex dialogue in which they first declare that women only behave the way they do (wear uncomfortable stays, go to plays, walk in the dusty park, even live in smoke-filled London) with the aim of attracting men, as if they were trivial frivolities they could throw off at any moment.

They then go on to describe in minute detail all the artifices they employ at the theatre to show themselves off to men, to smile to show off their teeth, show a variety of facial expressions, Yes it is a ridiculous world in which women so perform for men. And yet, Lady Brute finishes, Nature has given them One Thing which ensures they will always be top.

Yet our kind Mother Nature has given us something that makes amends for all. Let our Weakness be what it will, Mankind will still be weaker; and whilst there is a World, ’tis Woman that will govern it.

Then they talk about their loves. Lady Brute confesses she is weakening under Constant’s constant attack and pledges of love. But she wishes she had a partner in crime and asks if Belinda will not surrender to Heartfree. He isn’t that interested, Belinda replies. They agree to see the two young blades again, in Spring Garden, but will wear masks next time for greater amusement.

Act 4 Scene 1 Version 1 Lord Brute, Lord Rake and the Colonel refer to having stabbed someone i.e. in a drunken street brawl! They confirm their aristocratic, Royalist sympathies by accosting a passerby who turns out to be a dissenting i.e. non-confirmist tailor. They steal the vicar’s gown that the tailor was carrying, Lord Brute dresses up in it, and then they accost what the jovially refer to as ‘the enemy’ i.e. the constable and watch. Lord Brute attacks them with a club but the watch overcome him and arrest him (the others run off).

Version 2 In 1725 the play was revived and Vanbrugh, still living, rewrote this scene to make the poor tailor who the posh drunks (the ‘Courtiers’ as he calls them) attack, a woman’s tailor – and he is carrying not just any woman’s outfit, but a dress he has made for Lady Brute!

Sir John Brute immediately requisitions it and puts it on so that, when they are stopped by the constable and the watch, the latter joke about him being an Amazon, and Sir John drunkenly jests that he is Boudicca:

SIR JOHN: Sirrah, I am Bonduca, Queen of the Welchmen; and with a Leek as long as my Pedigree, I will destroy your Roman Legion in an Instant—Britons, strike home!

This makes the repartee with the constable, and then with the justice of the peace they bring him before, much funnier, in the broad pantomime tradition of men dressing up as women – if he is the queen then his accompaniers must be his maids of honour and so on – there is much more scope for banter, but it doesn’t stop there.

David Garrick in Vanbrugh’s Provoked Wife, Theatre Royal, Drury Lane painted by Johann Zoffany (1763)

Still drunk, Sir John tells the justice that he is none other than Lady Brute. This raises things to a new comic level, with Sir John giving an extended impression of a rebellious, drunken, lawless wife and the justice and officers sympathising with the poor – and they think, absent – Sir John.

But I am intrigued: did Vanbrugh revise this scene because it made the plot tighter, tying in his wife even to Sir John’s wild nights out, and shedding a drunken ironic light on the marriage which is the subject of the play?

Or because, by 1725, ridiculing the clergy had simply become untenable in what, over the 25 years to the revised version, had become a much more restrained and bourgeois society? That it had become too controversial and disrespectful to appear in a ‘comedy’? Whereas grown men dressing up as women is not only timelessly funny, but politically safe?

Scene 2 Heartfree can’t get the thought of Belinda out of his head and when Constant joins him he can’t help revealing that he, too, is one of the party of unhappy lovers. A servant brings a letter, pretending to be from anonymous admirers but infact from Lady B and Belinda, inviting them to a rendezvous in Spring Walk that evening at 8pm. Heartfree says he is too lovestricken to go, but Constant persuades him.

Version 1 Drunk Sir John Brute in the disguise of a cleric is brought by the constable to the house of the justice who politely tries to get to the bottom of it. When asked his name Sir John hiccups and says his name is Hiccup and the justice asks if he is one of the Hiccups of Norfolk. After more banter the justice lets him go. On the way out Sir John asks the constable if he wants to go pick up a whore, and when the latter says no, curses him and staggers off into the night.

Version 2 As explained above, in the 1725 revision of the play, Sir John is dressed in his wife’s dress, and this allows for the a joke whereby drunk Sir John accuses the arresting officer of trying to ravish him! It is literally knockabout stuff:

SIR JOHN Sir, there may have been Murder, for aught I know; and ’tis a great Mercy there has not been a Rape too—that Fellow wou’d have ravish’d me.
SECOND WATCH: Ravish! Ravish! O lud! O lud! O lud! Ravish her! Why, please your Worship, I heard Mr. Constable say he believed she was little better than a Maphrodite.
JUSTICE: Why, truly, she does seem a little masculine about the Mouth.
SECOND WATCH: Yes, and about the Hands too, an’t please your Worship; I did but offer in mere civility to help her up the Steps into our Apartment, and with her gripen Fist—ay, just so, Sir.
[Sir John knocks him down.]

Scene 3 the Spring Garden Heartfree and Constant meet with Lady Brute and Belinda wearing masks/disguises. All of them are shadowed and eavesdropped on by Lady Fancyful and Mademoiselle, also in masks. Heartfree & Constant & Lady Brute and Belinda are just commencing some heavy bantering when Sir John enters the scene, still dressed as a doctor of divinity and roaring drunk. He hails Constant and Heartfree as friends and grabs both the women, assuming they are their whores. Lady Fancyful and Mademoiselle retired in fear to a nearby arbour.

Heartfree, who never wanted to come anyway, leaves, Sir John starts insulting the ‘whores’, at which Lady Brute runs to Constant for protection and shows him her face. Heartfree re-enters, Belinda runs to him and shows him her face. Realising who the ladies are, Constant and Heartfree order Sir John to leave which, a little improbably, he does.

Belinda and Heartfree now have a fairly frank conversation in which he admits he loves her and might even go as far as marriage. It’s getting dark. She invites him to take a turn around the park and the exit. Meanwhile, Constant is chatting up Lady Brute and tells his friend not to hurry back.

Constant tells Lady Brute his love but she puts up objections; she is married and is not her virtue, her loyalty to her awful husband, part of what Constant likes about her? If she abandoned her virtue would it not destroy his love? And more of the same. Constant decides to storm the citadel and starts kissing her hand, her arm, her neck and pulls her towards a nearby arbour. Except this is the very arbour Lady Fancyful and Mademoiselle are hiding in. As Constant and Lady Brute reach the entrance to it, Lady Fancyful and Mademoiselle come running out past them.

Because of this, Lady Brute is thrown into utter terror that they witnessed her kissing a strange man, her reputation will be shot, her virtue worthless, her life not living. Terribly upset, she grabs Belinda, who is now just returning from her stroll with Heartfree, and rushes her off home.

The last word goes to Lady Fancyful, who is herself upset at seeing Heartfree pay court to Belinda, and out of her upset emerges a determination to take revenge.

Act 5 Scene 1 Lady Fancyful’s house A brief recapitulation of Lady Fancyful’s determination to be revenged.

Scene 2 Sir John Brute’s house The men have come back to Lady Brute’s house i.e. there are Constant, Heartfree, Lady Brute and Belinda. The servant assures them Sir John was seen staggering blind drunk into a tavern and will be some while, so ladies invite the men to stay and play a round of cards. But they have barely settled before the servant reappears to announce Sir John was kicked out of the tavern and has unexpectedly arrived home!! Quick quick, a panic-stricken Lady Brute hides the men and Belinda in the closet!

Sir John staggers in, filthy and bloody, and is rude and insulting to his wife. He begs a kiss, and she is so disgusted he deliberately smothers her in kisses till she is as dirty as him, then ‘tumbles her’, presumably onto a couch or divan. First he wants a ‘cold tea’ and proceeds to kick open the door of the closet and discovers… Heartfree and Constant! Sir John is elaborately, drunkenly polite to them and Lady B begs them to leave which – after assuring Sir John of his wife’s virtue they do.

Sir John has a bit more rant, slumps into a high chair and falls asleep snoring. Lady Brute is thrown into a panic (again) about her reputation. Belinda comes up with A Cunning Plan. They’ll tell Lord Brute that Belinda and Heartfree are now a loving couple and that they hid in the closet to escape detection and rumour, Constant hid with them so as to protect her ladyship’s reputation. Belinda says she’ll even go so far in backing up the story as to marry Heartfree – which leads to more dialogue about suitable and unsuitable marriages.

Having arrived at this plan, they ironically curtsey to the stinking filthy slob in the chair and call a servant to clean him and put him to bed.

Rasor, the servant they give this task to, alone on stage, now reveals that he has overheard everything the women said and will use this information to tell the French maid he is in love with in order to win her favours!

Scene 3 Lady Fancyful’s house Mademoiselle has told Lady Fancyful that her own paramour is Rasor from Lord Brute’s household i.e. she is the paramour Rasor was talking about a a moment ago. Lady Fancyful tells Mademoiselle to tell Rasor to tell Lord Brute everything that happened in the Spring Garden, masks, making love, kissing and all i.e. to betray Lady Brute’s adultery to him.

Exit Lady Fancyful. Enter Rasor who rushes over and snogs Mademoiselle, and then dangles his news in front of her, demanding kisses before he tells her everything he overheard i.e. Lady Brute loves Constant, the trio hiding in the closet, Lady Brute conspiring to help Belinda marry Heartfree.

But then Mademoiselle, conversely, dangles her news in front of him, demanding kisses as she tells him about the couple meeting in Spring Walk. She gets Rasor quite worked up and, for more ‘favours’, demands that he goes back and tells his master (Sir John) all she has revealed. He exits.

However, only seconds later, Lady Fancyful enters and regrets her course of action. It will probably lead to Belinda and Heartfree getting married, which is the last thing she wants. She tells Mademoiselle to call Rasor back!

Scene 4 Constant’s lodgings It is, by now, the next morning. Heartfree and Constant are pondering how to talk Sir John out of his suspicions at finding the pair of them in his wife’s closet when a letter arrives. It’s from the ladies who say explain their Cunning Plan i.e. to tell Sir John the couple were hiding because of Heartfree and Belinda’s secret intention to get married, which they wished to keep hid.

Good plan, but Heartfree is reluctant and it leads to an extended dialogue about fidelity in marriage (that old, old, old chestnut).

Scene 5 Sir John Brute’s house Constant and Heartfree rendezvous with Lady Brute and Belinda. Belinda asks Heartfree how he fancies the idea of matrimony and he says it’s a leap in the dark but he’s prepared to risk it (hardly young love).

Enter Sir John who is not unnaturally quite rude about finding two strange men in his wife’s closet. But Constant quickly rises to defend Lady Brute’s virtue and discovers (as Heartfree had told him) that the coward Sir John quickly backs down.

Sir John soliloquises, declaring he’s never loved his wife and she’s never loved him, he doesn’t know why she married him, and lamenting that he is without doubt a cuckold to the young stallion in front of him, who has threatened to draw his sword. The choice comes down to dying a hero or living a rascal. Oh well…

And so he gives his hand to Constant and, when Heartfree asks for the hand of Belinda, willingly gives it – all the while cursing and damning them both as dogs!

Two Revelations Meanwhile, Lady Fancyful has crept in in disguise, takes Belinda aside and reveals – in disguise – that she is an anonymous woman who is already married to Heartfree who made her swear not to tell anyone or he’d murder her! With wild improbability, instead of spotting this as a scam, clever Belinda is depicted as believing it and herself betrayed by Heartfelt’s bigamy.

At the same time a servant hands Heartfree an anonymous letter, supposedly from ‘a friend’, claiming the author has slept with Belinda, had a child by her and another is on the way!

Thus when Constant turns to ask the happy couple if they want to send for a priest, they both burst out with bitter accusations of the other, insisting the wedding be delayed, and start to chase each other round the stage!

Rasor, the servant, watching this, laments his part in their downfall and decides to set all right. He exits and returns a) dressed in sackcloth as a repentant b) pulling in Lady Fancyful and Madamoiselle.

He undoes all the complications of the plot. he tells the cast that Lady Fancyful lied in the anonymous letter as from a woman who was married to Heartfree; that the letter claiming Belinda was ever made pregnant was also a lie; and he tells Sir John that no illicit activity took place before the closet scene i.e. he is not a cuckold.

Rasor sets all straight and miserably apologises to the whole cast.

Belinda and Sir John ask who made him do it? Rasor claims he did it, he fell like Adam, out of Lust. Who was his Eve? He pulls off the mask of Mademoiselle. The company gasp! But behind her was the snake, Satan. Rasor pulls off the mask of Lady Fancyful!! The company gasp again!!

ALL: Lady Fancyful!
BELINDA: Impertinent!
LADY BRUTE: Ridiculous!
ALL: Ha! ha! ha! ha! ha!

Lady Fancyful tries to put a brave face on it till the end, claiming that Belinda and Heartfree will make such a wretched couple she was doing them a favour – then pompously exits, followed by Mademoiselle.

Heartree and Belinda promptly forgive each other and prepare to go to church. Constant interrupts to sing a love song which, inappropriately, describes the sad fate of an innocent maid in ancient Greece who lets herself be ravished then is abandoned by her lover. Hmmm. In the last six lines Belinda and Heartfree say, nonetheless, they’ll risk it, and:

HEARTFREE: Then let’s to Church: And if it be our Chance to disagree——
BELINDA: Take heed—the surly Husband’s Fate you see.

Constant and Lady Brute are, however, no further forward in their love affair. It is an oddly muted and almost sad finale.


Thoughts

This play isn’t as good as The Relapse because a) its central the monster figure, Lady Fancyful, isn’t as epically monstrous as Lord Foppington was in that play, and b) there is something frustrated and melancholy about the frustrated love of Constant and Lady Brute.

Unless I’m missing something, they don’t even speak in the finale, let alone get anywhere near marrying – for that would overthrow the premise of the play which is Lady Brute’s solid virtue.

Articles about The Provoked Wife describe it as ‘a talk play’ or even a ‘problem play’ i.e. one designed to prompt discussion of the ‘issues’ by the audience. I hazard the suggestion that this is to overcredit theatre audiences as moral philosophers rather than as, well, people out for a night’s entertainment.

If you went for dinner after seeing the play, in the middle class tradition. possibly one line of chat would be to discuss the rights and wrongs of Lady Brute’s behaviour – which is certainly complex. My opinion would be that she made the same mistake so many women do (I say this because I listened a few days ago to a radio news item about the new legislation being brought in to help battered wives in which the same way of thinking came up again and again) – that she could change a brute. She had an over-high opinion of her ability to change someone, and an under-real understanding of how difficult it is to change anybody. (I speak as the father of two teenagers who I have been trying to persuade to get up before noon and tidy their own rooms for what seems like several hundred years.) Changing people’s behaviour is hard; changing their character almost impossible.

So is she right to reject Constant and remain in her unhappy marriage? It certainly feels wrong to have played Constant along as far as she did, if she has no real intention of leaving her husband.

But in my opinion, the real talking point of the play is that it is marred. In a number of ways it doesn’t quite come off, it feels unfinished, it feels like it needed one more draft to make it mesh.

The most obvious aspect of this is the way the traditional ‘blocker’ of the happy marriage of the young couple doesn’t evolve organically from the setup but is introduced only at the end of the final act (Lady Fancyful’s scheme to discredit Heartfree and Belinda)… and then is promptly undone about two minutes later. These plays veer close to being farces, and this last minute complication and last second resolution feel stuck on with sellotape.

And the ad hoc, last-minute feel of the Complication goes some way to undermining the comic grandeur of Lady Fancyful. She has such epic comic promise in the first half, that we feel her determination to outdo Belinda and grab Heartfree for herself deserved some grander, wilder, more elaborate Scheme.

So maybe it is to some extent the ‘issues’ which it deals with which give The Provoked Wife its rather chewy, problematic flavour. But it is also the way the entire plot structure feels a little undercooked and leaves you feeling somehow cheated.

Vanbrugh’s style

That said, Vanbrugh’s prose style again shows itself much more clear, direct, comprehensible and therefore more obviously funny than many of the other comedies I’ve read. This quote isn’t particularly funny, I give it as an example of his clarity.

BELINDA: Sure it must feel very strange to go to Bed to a Man.
LADY BRUTE: Um – it does feel a little odd at first; but it will soon grow easy to you.

‘A little odd’, I was just struck by the perfect naturalness of a phrase which we still use 320 years later.

Here’s another example.

BELINDA: And some careful Thoughts on your own, I believe, have hindered you from sleeping. Pray how does this matrimonial Project relish with you?
HEARTFREE: Why, ‘faith, e’en as storming Towns does with Soldiers, where the Hope of delicious Plunder banishes the Fear of being knock’d on the Head.

Hmm. Maybe what I like about it is its lack of subtlety and sophistication. Possibly I am not sophisticated enough to appreciate the more recherché and long-winded texts. Whatever the reason, I think there’s no denying Vanbrugh’s style is pithier, his phrasing more direct and accessible than his contemporaries.

Sir John Brute has a handy quote which sums up the thing I’m talking about, the way many characters in other Restoration comedies express themselves in such lengthy and convoluted phraseology, sometimes mixed up with legal or specialised jargon, that you need notes to understand them – and that the characters sometimes don’t even understand each other!

SIR JOHN BRUTE: Your People of Wit have got such cramp ways of expressing themselves, they seldom comprehend one another.

In my view, Vanbrugh is never like that. He is always lucid and forceful in his expressions.

(After writing that, I read the Wikipedia article which explains that The Relapse was deliberately phrased simply and bluntly ‘to be suitable for amateurs and minor acting talent’, but that The Provoked Wife was written for more versatile professionals including leading actors of the day, and so is deliberately more emotionally subtle. That may be true, especially the scenes in which Lady Brute and Belinda, or Constant and Heartfree, discuss the emotional subtleties of their situations – but I don’t think it disproves my basic point that, even in those situations, Vanbrugh has a gift for clarity of expression unmatched by his rivals.)

Misandry

BELINDA: Well, you Men are unaccountable things, mad till you have your Mistresses, and then stark mad till you are rid of ’em again. Tell me honestly, Is not your Patience put to a much severer Trial after Possession than before?
HEARTFREE: With a great many I must confess it is, to our eternal Scandal;

Misogyny

LADY BRUTE: We are as wicked, Child, but our Vice lies another way: Men have more Courage than we, so they commit more bold, impudent Sins. They quarrel, fight, swear, drink, blaspheme, and the like: Whereas we, being Cowards, only backbite, tell Lyes, cheat at Cards, and so forth.

As I’ve mentioned, in my opinion these formulations aren’t intended to be the statement of some great philosophy or worldview, the reverse. They are the social clichés and stereotypes of their day, bromides and truisms which have little or no value as statements of fact, but are the oil which lubricates the complicated machinery of the comic plots.

HEARTFREE: I shou’d have, if I had a good Opinion enough of her’s, to believe she cou’d do as much by me. For to do ’em right, after all, the Wife seldom rambles, till the Husband shews her the way.
CONSTANT: ‘Tis true, a Man of real Worth scarce ever is a Cuckold, but by his own Fault. Women are not naturally lewd; there must be something to urge ’em to it. They’ll cuckold a Churl, out of Revenge; a Fool, because they despise him; a Beast, because they loath him. But when they make bold with a Man they once had a well-grounded Value for, ’tis because they first see themselves neglected by him.

You can choose to read this stuff as meaningful and so be upset by the way it transgresses our 21st century woke values. Or you can see it as the verbiage and small change of conversation which is required to make the plays go.


Related links

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Notes on William Congreve

This short post consists of the interesting points from the introduction to the 1985 Penguin edition of Congreve’s plays, introduced and edited by Eric S. Rump. (I’m afraid I find it funny that a man who edited a book full of smutty jokes was called Rump.)

Congreve was born in the West Riding of Yorkshire in 1670. His family moved to Ireland where he was educated at Kilkenny College – where he met fellow student Jonathan Swift, b.1667 – and at Trinity College in Dublin.

Aged 19, in 1689, Congreve left Ireland to travel to London and make his fortune as a wit. Aged 22 he published a novel titled Incognita: or, Love and Duty reconcil’d, whose title sounds like a play.

He befriended John Dryden, the leading literary figure of the age, who supported him through the rest of his career, writing rave reviews and introductions to his plays.

A year later his first comedy, The Old Bachelor, was performed. In all, Congreve write just four comedies, and in a relatively short career of seven years. They are:

  • The Old Bachelor (1693)
  • The Double Dealer (1693)
  • Love for Love (1695)
  • The Way of the World (1700)

And one tragedy:

  • The Mourning Bride (1697)

Congreve abandoned the stage for good in 1700, just as he turned 30.

A ‘good’ run for a play in those days was fourteen nights. Thus The Old Bachelor was a runaway success and played for… fourteen nights! A failure ran for three nights, the bare minimum required to cover its costs, a fact referred to in several of the plays themselves. William Wycherley’s second play, Love In A Wood, was not a success, ran for just 6 nights, and was never revived in his lifetime.

The Old Bachelor is, according to Rump, ‘a play in which a young, talented writer is content to re-explore the comic territory earlier mapped out by writers such as Etherege and Wycherley, but in doing so, is able to bring to the material’. It has freshness and distinctiveness.

It is also notable for the skill with which Congreve gives each character their own speech rhythms. Some critics claim you could be given any bit of dialogue from any of his four plays and be able to identify the character solely from their speech rhythms and idiolect. Rump thinks that’s pushing it a bit, but the fact people suggest this shows the care Congreve took to give each character their own distinctive speech patterns.

Congreve’s fourth and final play, the Way of The World, followed a gap of five years and was much-anticipated. It opened to great expectation and was presented by an all-star cast – but it was a relative failure. Why?

Well, it was by 1700 twelve years since the Glorious Revolution had swept away the Stuart kings and their world of carefree aristocratic hedonism. The new queen, Mary II, was more like Queen Victoria. She was not amused by the stage’s persistent attacks on marriage and conventional morality.

The times had changed. The overthrow of James II in 1688 represented not just a change in monarch but the triumph of the new mercantile class over the libertine aristocrats of Charles’s court.

Did Congreve intend to cease writing for the stage after The Way of the World bombed? He was certainly stung by the criticism of his plays included in the detailed critique of the stage written by Jeremy Collier (A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage), so much so that he wrote a long reply, Amendments of Mr. Collier’s False and Imperfect Citations.

But Collier was merely reflecting what many people felt by the late 1690s. The Society for the Reformation of Manners had been founded in 1692 and began to bring lawsuits against playwrights for outraging public morality. So did Congreve abandon the stage with an aristocratic flourish of disdain? No.

The record shows that Congreve continued his association with the stage after The Way. He shared with Vanbrugh the management of the new Queen’s Theatre in the Haymarket; he wrote the libretto for an opera, Semele, set first by Eccles and a lot later by Handel. He translated the works of Molière, and produced over the next ten years a trickle of poetry and translations of Latin classics for various collections – in other words he continued to be active in the theatre and in literature and letters. But he never again wrote a play.

In 1714, on the accession of the Whig Hanoverian King George, Congreve was given financial security with the award of a sinecure, Secretary to the island of Jamaica. He never married but had dalliances with several aristocratic ladies, most notably Henrietta Godolphin, second Duchess of Marlborough, daughter of the famous general, John Churchill, first Duke of Marlborough. They probably met some time before 1703 and the duchess subsequently had a daughter, Mary, who was believed to be his child. Upon his death, Congreve left his entire fortune to the Duchess of Marlborough.

William Congreve died in London in January 1729 and was buried in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.


Reviews of William Congreve

Reviews of other Restoration comedies

The Way of The World by William Congreve (1700)

FAINALL: If it must all come out, why let ’em know it, ’tis but the way of the world.

From a historical point of view, the most interesting thing about The Way of The World is that it was not well received. It was an attempt to continue the Restoration comedy conventions of aristocratic libertinage into what had become, by 1700, a new world of mercantile, bourgeois respectability. Its studied cynicism felt out of date.

MIRABELL: I say that a man may as soon make a friend by his wit, or a fortune by his honesty, as win a woman with plain-dealing and sincerity.

To quote the excellent Wikipedia article:

The tolerance for Restoration comedy even in its modified form was running out at the end of the 17th century, as public opinion turned to respectability and seriousness even faster than the playwrights did. Interconnected causes for this shift in taste were demographic change, the Glorious Revolution of 1688, William’s and Mary’s dislike of the theatre, and the lawsuits brought against playwrights by the Society for the Reformation of Manners (founded in 1692). When Jeremy Collier attacked Congreve and Vanbrugh in his Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage in 1698, he was confirming a shift in audience taste that had already taken place. [The Short View is actually mentioned by name in The Way of the World, act 3, scene 2]. At the much-anticipated all-star première in 1700 of The Way of the World, Congreve’s first comedy for five years, the audience showed only moderate enthusiasm for that subtle and almost melancholy work. The comedy of sex and wit was about to be replaced by the drama of obvious sentiment and exemplary morality. (Restoration comedy Wikipedia article)

The cast

The names, as usual, include some comic inventions which immediately raise a smile e.g. Petulant, Foible and Mincing. But the profiles are thin compared to some other cast lists I’ve read.

THE MEN
Fainall – in love with Mrs. Marwood
Mirabell – in love with Mrs. Millamant
Witwoud – follower of Mrs. Millamant
Petulant – follower of Mrs. Millamant
Sir Wilfull Witwoud – half brother to Witwoud, and nephew to Lady Wishfort
Waitwell – servant to Mirabell

THE WOMEN
Lady Wishfort – enemy to Mirabell, for having falsely pretended love to her
Mrs. Millamant – a fine lady, niece to Lady Wishfort, and loves Mirabell
Mrs. Marwood – friend to Mr. Fainall, and likes Mirabell
Mrs. Fainall – daughter to Lady Wishfort, and wife to Fainall, formerly friend to Mirabell
Foible – woman to Lady Wishfort
Mincing – woman to Mrs. Millamant

Overall plot summary

Mirabell and Mrs Millamant are in love. Mrs Millamant’s vain aunt and guardian, old (55) Lady Wishfort, is preventing their marriage as revenge on Mirabell for having pretended to be in love with her. Mrs Millamant is set to inherit a fortune from old Lady Wishfort, so long as she marries with that lady’s approval. Mrs Millamant loves Mirabell but pretends not to.

Mrs Millamant is also wooed by two silly lovers, Witwoud and Petulant, who cordially dislike each other and are the butt of countless jokes by the much cleverer Mirabell and Fainall.

Mirabell devises a plot (‘a matter of some sort of mirth’) to embarrass Lady Wishfort, who is eager to get a husband. Mirabell persuades his servant, Waitwell, to dress up as his uncle, Sir Rowland, and woo Lady Wishfort. (Waitwell has been married that day to Lady Wishfort’s waiting woman, Foible.) Mirabell hopes that when Lady Wishfort realizes how foolish she has been in a) nearly committing bigamy b) the social disgrace of being wooed by a servant – that she will give permission for the marriage of Mirabell and Mrs Millamant – and also part with the fortune she controls.

Money, as always, is a key element to the plot.

This is the main plot. There are other characters and incidents involving marriage and money. Lady Wishfort’s daughter is married to Fainall, Mirabell’s confidant and sidekick. Fainall, besides sparking off Mirabell, is having an affair with Mrs. Marwood.

Also dominating sections of the play is the sub-plot about the prospective husband who Lady Wishfort has selected for Mrs Millamant, namely her nephew Sir Wilfull Witwoud (half-brother to the other Witwoud).

There are other admirers of both Mirabell and Mrs Millamant. Possibly the least sympathetic character is Mr. Fainall, son-in-law of Lady Wishfort and lover of Mrs. Marwood, who goes from being Mirabell’s ‘friend’ to becoming his bitter vengeful enemy.

More detailed plot summary

Act 1 A chocolate house Mirabell and Fainall have just finished playing cards. A footman comes and tells Mirabell that Waitwell (Mirabell’s male servant) and Foible (Lady Wishfort’s female servant) were married that morning. Mirabell tells Fainall about his love of Mrs Millamant, Fainall explains the ladies love meeting in a women-only ‘cabal’.

Witwoud appears and demonstrates what a fool he is:

WITWOUD: My dear, I ask ten thousand pardons. Gad, I have forgot what I was going to say to you.

Our heroes get Witwoud to insult his supposed friend, Petulant, in his absence. He reveals the extraordinary fact that Petulant sometimes arranges for himself to be ‘called’ by friends when he’s in a pub, so as to appear popular. Then Petulant appears and there is more comic business, but not before Petulant has announced he hears that Mirabell’s uncle, Sir Rowland, has arrived in town.

Witwoud and Petulant announce they will go for a stroll round St James’s Park and Mirabell draws out the uncouthness of their manners; they think being rude and coarse enough to gentlewomen to make them blush is an achievement, what they call being severe.

Act 2 St. James’ Park Mrs. Fainall and Mrs. Marwood are discussing their hatred of men. Fainall and Mirabell appear and while Mrs F and Mirabell walk ahead, Fainall accuses Mrs. Marwood (with whom he is having an affair) of loving Mirabell (which she does). They have a terrific argument, with her threatening to tell everyone and his wife that they’ve been having an affair – leading her to burst into tears and he to apologise profusely. Not very funny.

Continuing the theme of unhappy marriage, Mrs. Fainall (Mirabell’s former lover) tells Mirabell that she hates her husband, Fainall, and then they begin to plot to deceive Lady Wishfort into giving her consent to the marriage.

MRS. FAINALL: So, if my poor mother is caught in a contract, you will discover the imposture betimes, and release her by producing a certificate of her gallant’s former marriage.
MIRABELL: Yes, upon condition that she consent to my marriage with her niece, and surrender the moiety of her fortune in her possession.

Enter Mrs Millamant accompanied by the fool, Witwoud, and her servant, Mincing. Some funny lines:

WITWOUD: I confess I do blaze to-day; I am too bright.

and:

WITWOUD: Pray, madam, do you pin up your hair with all your letters? I find I must keep copies.
MILLAMENT: Only with those in verse, Mr. Witwoud. I never pin up my hair with prose. I think I tried once.
MINCING (her maid): O mem, I shall never forget it.

Mrs Millament is very angry and cynical about mankind, love etc. She perplexes Mirabell with a parting shot that she knows about his ‘plan’. How the devil does she know that?

Enter the newly-wed servants Waitwell and Foible. Congreve does write funny lines:

MIRABELL: Waitwell, why, sure, you think you were married for your own recreation and not for my conveniency!

Mirabell reminds them of their roles in the plan, namely Foible will tell Lady Wishfort that Mirabell’s rich uncle, Sir Rowland, has arrived in town, and Waitwell will then dress in disguise and pretend to be Sir Rowland.

Act 3 Lady Wishfort’s house We’ve had to wait till the third act to meet the ogre, Lady Wishfort. We are introduced in a comic scene with Lady Wishfort and the maid, Foible, who struggles to manage her hair, her makeup (and her booze). Foible exits while Lady Wishfort talks to Mrs Marwood, who mentions she saw Foible just now in St James Park with Mirabell.

Foible returns and commences the Mirabell’s plan – telling Lady Wishfort that the newly-arrived Sir Rowland is interested in her. Lady Wishfort brings up the matter of Foible being seen with Mirabell but Foible thinks quickly on her feet and says Mirabell was calling Wishfort a super-annuated old so-and-so which so infuriates Lady Wishfort that she ceases to be suspicious. Then regrets frowning and raging, has her makeup been affected? Foible has a funny line:

FOIBLE: Your ladyship has frowned a little too rashly, indeed, madam. There are some cracks discernible in the white varnish.
LADY WISHFORT: Let me see the glass. Cracks, say’st thou? Why, I am arrantly flayed: I look like an old peeled wall. Thou must repair me, Foible, before Sir Rowland comes.

Exit Lady Wishfort and enter Mrs Fainall who reveals to Foible that she knows about the whole plan. They both depart but they have been overheard in turn by Mrs Marwood, who now knows about the scheme and the parts everyone is playing.

Mrs Marwood and Mrs MIllamant both lie to each other about how much they hate men and Mirabell in particular.

MRS. MARWOOD: I detest him, hate him, madam.
MRS MILLAMANT: O madam, why, so do I.  And yet the creature loves me, ha, ha, ha!  How can one forbear laughing to think of it?

Sir Wilful Witwoud arrives, a booming 40-year-old countryman who embarrasses his would-be foppish brother and ridicules his foppish appearance and speech.

WITWOUD: Why, brother Wilfull of Salop, you may be as short as a Shrewsbury cake, if you please. But I tell you ’tis not modish to know relations in town. You think you’re in the country, where great lubberly brothers slabber and kiss one another when they meet, like a call of sergeants. ’Tis not the fashion here; ’tis not, indeed, dear brother.

Mrs Marwood has told The Plan to Fainall as well as the fact that Mrs Fainall was once Mirabell’s mistress. He is doubly angry at his ‘friend’ a) for cuckolding him b) if Mirabell marries Mrs Millamant, Fainall’s wife will be deprived of Lady Wishfort’s legacy, and so Fainall will be worse off. (I think.)

Fainall rants against his wife, declares he never loved her, tells Mrs. Marwood he’ll get his wife’s money and go off with her (Mrs M). He kisses Mrs Marwood.

Act 4 Mirabell and Mrs Millamant discuss in detail the conditions under which they would accept each other in marriage. This has become known as The Proviso Scene and a) the frankness with which they discuss marriage as a business arrangement and b) the equality with which they do so i.e. the man isn’t dictating to the woman, they both approach the negotiation as equals, has meant the scene is referenced not only in books about Restoration comedy, but is often referenced in social histories of the period.

In fact during the scene they also reveal their the depth of feeling for each other. The scene leads up to Mirabell finally proposing to Mrs Millamant and, with Mrs. Fainall’s encouragement (almost consent, as Mrs Millamant knows of Mirabell’s and Mrs F’s previous relationship), Mrs Millamant accepts.

Mirabell leaves as Lady Wishfort arrives. She is flustered by all these people arriving at her house, including Sir Wilfull Witwoud, and she wonders how to receive him. Witwoud and Petulant reel in having got drunk with the country cousin. Sir Wilfull is carrying on getting very drunk and, according to Mrs Millamant, stinks (‘He has a breath like a bagpipe’).

Drunk Sir Wilfull is led away in time for Lady Wishfort to receive the pretended Sir Rowland who is, of course, Mirabell’s servant in a disguise. He pretends to be a brave braggadochio and when he hears that Mirabell has in a little way been wooing Lady W, he threatens to draw his sword and run him through!

The scene is notable for the way Lady Wishfort uses comically elaborate diction and Sir Rowland is bombastic.

LADY WISHFORT: No, don’t kill him at once, Sir Rowland: starve him gradually, inch by inch.
WAITWELL: I’ll do’t. In three weeks he shall be barefoot; in a month out at knees with begging an alms; he shall starve upward and upward, ’till he has nothing living but his head, and then go out in a stink like a candle’s end upon a save-all.
LADY WISHFORT: Well, Sir Rowland, you have the way,—you are no novice in the labyrinth of love,—you have the clue.  But as I am a person, Sir Rowland, you must not attribute my yielding to any sinister appetite or indigestion of widowhood; nor impute my complacency to any lethargy of continence.  I hope you do not think me prone to any iteration of nuptials?

This leads into a clever comic sequence: Sir Rowland has just begun wooing Lady Wishfort when a letter arrives from Mrs Marwood which Lady Wishfort starts reading aloud – and it explains that the man claiming to be Sir Rowland is an imposter!

Waitwell/Sir Rowland panics but his wife (and Lady Wishfort’s maid) Foible, tells him to seize the letter and face down the situation – so Waitwell/Sir Rowland seizes the letter from Lady Wishfort in mid-reading, and claims it is a hoax sent by Mirabell, a vain attempt to discredit Sir Rowland and retain his legacy, and – still in character – Waitwell/Rowland threatens to cut his throat, damn his eyes etc, and storms out to get a marriage contract for himself and Lady Wishfort to be married that night.

The interaction of the three, and especially Foible’s whispered asides to Waitwell, and then her spoken and feigned shock to Lady Wishfort, are all very funny. Incidentally an example of a woman (Foible) being far more quick-witted and clever than her man (Waitwell).

Act 5 There’s a sudden jump in the plot. Somehow Lady Wishfort has found out about The Plan and the act opens with her furiously denouncing Foible for her part in it and threatening to send her back to the slums where she found her.

And in fact she is entirely justified in being furious at discovering that her own pampered servant was exploiting her and exposing her to ridicule.

Lady Wishfort exits and Foible explains everything to Mrs Fainall i.e. Mrs Marwood revealed The Plan to Lady Wishfort who has sent to have Waitwell arrested. It was Mrs Marwood who revealed to Mrs Fainall that Mrs Fainall had once been unfaithful with Mirabell. But in this conversation, Foible also reveals that the servants once caught Mrs Marwood in a night of passion with Mirabell. Aha!

Enter Lady Wishfort with Mrs. Marwood, whom she thanks for unveiling the plot, but Mrs Fainall argues fiercely that she is not guilty and not to blame. There is an extended passage where Lady Wishfort describes Mrs Fainall’s childhood and how they took extreme care to make sure she was never exposed to boys or men or any kind of temptation (the theatre etc). I didn’t quite understand what it is Mrs Fainall is supposed to have done which is so ruinous: is it to have had some kind of fling with Meribell?

Enter Fainall who uses the information of Mrs. Fainall’s previous affair with Mirabell, and Mrs Millamant’s contract to marry Mirabell, to blackmail Lady Wishfort. Mr Fainall orders Lady Wishfort that a) she is forbidden to marry b) her daughter i.e. Mrs Fainall, shall immediately make over to him the remainder of her fortune.

MR FAINALL: Lastly, I will be endowed, in right of my wife, with that six thousand pound, which is the moiety of Mrs. Millamant’s fortune in your possession, and which she has forfeited (as will appear by the last will and testament of your deceased husband, Sir Jonathan Wishfort) by her disobedience in contracting herself against your consent or knowledge, and by refusing the offered match with Sir Wilfull Witwoud, which you, like a careful aunt, had provided for her.

Fainall exits to give Lady Wishfort time to consider his demands.

Enter Mrs Millamant who declares that she has heard that The Plot is revealed, apologises for her part in it and is ready to marry Sir Wilfull. They call in Mirabell who throws himself at Lady Wishfort’s feet and abjectly asks, not even for forgiveness, but for Pity.

Re-enter Fainall still insisting on his demands; the blackmail threat is otherwise he will tell all the town about Mrs Fainall’s infidelity. But Lady Wishfort has been a little touched by Meribell’s pleading (and so has drunk Sir Wilfull who threatens to draw his sword and chop up Fainall’s document.)

At this critical juncture, Mirabell hints that he might have a way of saving Lady Wishfort’s fortune and her daughter’s reputation. Lady Wishfort says she’ll give anything, anything for that to happen; even the hand of Mrs Millamant in marriage.

Mirabell then presents two witnesses. First Mincing and then Foible confirm that Mrs Marwood is in love with Fainall, and that they conspired this whole thing together, Mincing adding that they found them in bed together. But this doesn’t address the main point – it discredits the pair but is no solution.

Then Mirabell presents his second trick. Waitwell brings in a black box which contains a legal document, witnessed by Witwoud and Petulant, whereby Mrs Fainall, while she was still a widow and before she married Fainall, signed “A Deed of Conveyance of the whole estate real of Arabella Languish, widow in trust to Edward Mirabell“.

In other words – it is not in Lady Wishfort’s power to give her daughter’s money to Mr Fainall, it is already legally pledged to Mirabell – and so Fainall’s blackmail scheme collapses!

He makes a rush as if to attack Mrs Fainall, but bold Sir Wilfull steps between. Fainall and Mrs Marwood depart, utterly crushed and vowing revenge.

MRS. FAINALL: Thank Mr. Mirabell, a cautious friend, to whose advice all is owing.

Lady Wishfort forgives her maid, Foible, and Mirabell’s servant Waitwell. And Mirabell is thanked by getting the hand in marriage of Mrs Millamant and the full £12,000 inheritance.

The way of the world

Congreve sprinkles references to the title throughout the text, using various incidents in the play to justify it.

FAINALL: Why, then, Foible’s a bawd, an errant, rank match-making bawd. And I, it seems, am a husband, a rank husband, and my wife a very errant, rank wife,—all in the way of the world.

FAINALL: If it must all come out, why let ’em know it, ’tis but the way of the world.

FAINALL: Very likely, sir.  What’s here?  Damnation!  [Reads] ‘A Deed of Conveyance of the whole estate real of Arabella Languish, widow, in trust to Edward Mirabel’l. Confusion!
MIRABELL: Even so, sir: ’tis the way of the world, sir.

But things are not so just because a writer says so. The claim that the way of the world involves adultery and faithless spouses or the humiliating revelation of embarrassing secrets or the overthrow of all your plans in ‘confusion!’ is neither a proof nor a truth.

It is just a rhetorical reinforcement of the cynical worldview the Restoration comedies demanded. In a way, the more his characters claim that that kind of behaviour is ‘the way of the world’, the less it feels like it. The more it feels like the outdated worldview of a bygone era.

Conclusion

For some reason I liked this play. I warmed to the rural boisterousness of Sir Wilfull Witwoud, and the scene where Sir Rowland is found out is very well done. The squabbling between Witwoud and Petulant is mildly diverting. Lady Wishfort’s pretentious diction when being wooed by the fake Sir Rowland is funny.

The way the entire play revolves around one Great Plan gives it simplicity and purity. But there are, I think, two objections:

1. The Great Reversal in the last act shares the weakness of all Restoration comedies, that it feels contrived. Right at the very very end it turns out that the fate of almost everyone depends on that one legal document, the deed of conveyance, a deus ex machina, a rabbit pulled out of a hat.

In the theatre it may work well as a sudden and dramatic revelation – but as you go away and think about it, it is an extraordinary vision that an entire set of human lives and loves are made to hang on one legal document. And that Mirabell knew about it all along and didn’t tell anyone he had this one-stop solution!

The more you think about it, the more contrived and unsatisfactory this feels.

2. I can’t overcome a nagging sense that the characters are all unpleasant. Fainall is meant to be Mirabell’s friend but quickly becomes an unpleasant, exploitative enemy. Mrs Marwood is just a graceless Iago, a fount of hate. Lady Wishfort is a crabbed, pretentious old lady. Mrs Millamant, for me, never comes to life. Maybe part of the reason the Provision Scene is remembered is because it’s one of the few scenes where she comes to life. They’re just not a very likeable crew.

Restoration clichés

Restoration comedies are all stuffed with the same old cynical clichés about men, women, marriage, poets, fops, lovers, cuckolds, mistresses and so on. Rather than ‘the way of the world’, they present an endless iteration of a small number of ideas about a narrow range of persons. A few of them are given more than usually memorable expression in this play:

Men

MRS. FAINALL: Is it possible? Dost thou hate those vipers, men?
MRS. MARWOOD: I have done hating ’em, and am now come to despise ’em; the next thing I have to do is eternally to forget ’em.

The country

MRS MILLAMANT: I nauseate walking: ’tis a country diversion; I loathe the country and everything that relates to it.


Related links

Reviews of other Restoration plays

Love For Love by William Congreve (1695)

SIR SAMPSON LEGEND: You are hard to please, madam: to find a young fellow that is neither a wit in his own eye, nor a fool in the eye of the world, is a very hard task.

The humour of a Restoration comedy often starts with the cast list – the names are always inventively comic in their literalness, and the character profiles are often very droll. Thus:

THE MEN
Sir Sampson Legend – father to Valentine and Ben
Valentine – fallen under his father’s displeasure by his expensive way of living, in love with Angelica,
Scandal – his friend, a free speaker
Tattle – a half-witted beau, vain of his amours, yet valuing himself for secrecy
Ben – Sir Sampson’s younger son, half home-bred and half sea-bred, designed to marry Miss Prue
Foresight – an illiterate old fellow, peevish and positive, superstitious, and pretending to understand astrology, palmistry, physiognomy, omens, dreams, etc.; uncle to Angelica
Jeremy – servant to Valentine
Trapland – a scrivener
Buckram – a lawyer

THE WOMEN
Angelica – niece to Foresight, of a considerable fortune in her own hands
Mrs. Foresight – second wife to Foresight
Mrs. Frail – sister to Mrs. Foresight, a woman of the town,
Miss Prue – daughter to Foresight by a former wife, a silly, awkward country girl

This one is fairly full and meaty though markedly less expansive and funny than those of Wycherley’s characters in The Plain Dealer, and this first impression is confirmed by the play, which I found rather dull and slow to get started.

The Plot

Valentine Legend is a young wastrel aristocrat who’s spent all his money and is heavily in debt. His father won’t pay off his debts unless he signs over his rights to the family estate to his younger brother, Ben, who’s been an officer at sea for some years. (Money – note how money is the prime driving force of the play, and is the first thing to be carefully explained.) Although Valentine is skint, he is in love with fair Angelica who hasn’t shown much opinion of him either way.

Valentine is chaffed by his long-suffering servant, Jeremy, and then visited by his side-kick / number two / confidante, Scandal, who acts as his foil throughout the play, allowing Valentine to explain his situation at each stage of the plot.

Like all the other Restoration comedies there is also a ridiculously mannered fop. Each one of these has a slight quirk, a distinctive variation on the theme, and the fop in this play, Tattle, prides himself on his tact and diplomacy but is, in reality, constantly blabbing and giving things away.

Debt collectors come calling, who Valentine’s man, Jeremy, manages to put off for another day, then an officer called Trapland, also come to collect debts, who they treat to a glass of sack. Mrs Frail visits and there are crude double entendres at her expense.

Act 2 scene 1 Clever Angelica ridicules her uncle Foresight’s absurd superstitious beliefs in astrology etc and makes lewd suggestions about his and the silly old Nurse’s midnight rituals. She exits.

Valentine’s father Sir Sampson arrives and he turns out to be nearly as much of a pedantic superstitious astrologer as Foresight, a bombastic, swaggering old bombast. Enter Valentine who tries to explain about his inheritance but the conversation gets diverted into a discussion of Valentine’s parentage and then of his servant Jeremy. Legend warns that Valentine’s younger brother, Ben, is due to arrive tonight or tomorrow at which point he plans to sign over his inheritance to him.

Mrs Frail and the second Mrs Foresight are sisters. They return from swanning around town. They bitch at each other then swear to be pinkie friends. Mrs Frail is worried about her prospects. She announces she’s setting her cap at Legend’s younger son, Ben, due any minute back from sea. Mrs Foresight’s step-daughter, Miss Prue, is slated to be Ben’s wife, but she has recently become enamoured of the silly fop, Tattle, something Mrs Frail wants to encourage so as to leave Ben for herself.

A little scene where Tattle has to teach the very innocent unworldly Miss Prue how to behave like a London flirt, which is almost enjoyable because it’s almost sweet.

Act 3 In front of Angelica and Valentine, Tattle proves himself the soul of indiscretion, by overtelling several gossipy stories, showing off and implicating various posh women. He is, in other words, an epitome of Indiscretion as Foresight is of the mad old astrologer, and continually regretting having said too much:

TATTLE:  Gadso, the heat of my story carried me beyond my discretion, as the heat of the lady’s passion hurried her beyond her reputation.  But I hope you don’t know whom I mean… Pox on’t, now could I bite off my tongue.

Ben finally arrives and turns out to be a roister-doister sailor, not that interested in matrimony, a girl in every port etc. His dad leaves him alone with Miss Prue but his blunt ways quickly alienate her and they end up insulting each other. Just as Mrs Foresight and Mrs Frail come along, which falls pat into their plan, as Mrs Frail fancies Ben for herself, insofar as he is heir to Sir Samson’s estate. This sequence is rounded out by Ben and his sailors singing a song and having a dance.

For his part, Scandal embarks on a plan to persuade Foresight that he is unwell, coming down with something, in order to get him out of the way so he can make love to Mrs Foresight. She is initially scandalised by Scandal’s boldness, but slowly he talks her round.

I can’t put my finger on it, but all this is boring. It lacks the pizzazz of The Plain Dealer. Valentine just isn’t very interesting, Scandal is boring, Tattle is sort of funny as an over-talkative fop, but none of them are as funny as Novel and Lord Plausible from The Plain Dealer.

Act 4 Valentine pretends to be mad. This means the lawyer Sir Samson has brought – Buckram – considers him unfit to sign the document assigning his portion of the inheritance to Ben. Seeing this and realising Ben will not be rich, Mrs Frail immediately reconsiders her plan of marrying Ben, and takes the opportunity to have a fierce argument with him – making him think she’s gone mad.

In the same scene Scandal talks aside to Mrs Foresight and seems to be saying that they spent the previous night together, something Mrs Foresight rejects or denies. Maybe I’m in the wrong mood, but I didn’t find any of this funny. It seemed laboured and contrived.

Mrs Foresight conceives the plan of presenting Mrs Frail as Angelica to Valentine when he’s mad, getting him to sign the marriage papers and tumbling them into bed together, then they’ll be married. Scandal gets wind of this scheme and he and Valentine agree it will be amusing to egg them on.

Then Angelica herself arrives and Valentine drops his madness in order to talk to her straight. Unfortunately, she was inclining towards him precisely because she thought he had gone mad – for unrequited love for her! When Valentine explains that, on the contrary, his madness is a scheme designed to get his father to drop the plan of handing his portion to brother Ben – i.e. it is an entirely mercenary plan and nothing to do with love – Angelica reverts to being standoffish and aloof.

ANGELICA: How! I thought your love of me had caused this transport in your soul; which, it seems, you only counterfeited, for mercenary ends and sordid interest.

I think a lot of my dislike of this play is down to the character of Angelica: there are strong female leads playing more or less the same role in all the other comedies I’ve read – for example Florinda and Hellena in The Rover or Alithea in The Country Wife – but they had fire and vim; Angelica just comes over as irritatingly non-committal and contrary.

JEREMY: What, is the lady gone again, sir? I hope you understood one another before she went?
VALENTINE: Understood!  She is harder to be understood than a piece of Egyptian antiquity or an Irish manuscript: you may pore till you spoil your eyes and not improve your knowledge.

Act 5 Angelica – improbably – makes up to Sir Sampson, an old man in his 50s. She wants to marry him, now, and he gets very over-excited at the idea, tells her to get a lawyer and a priest.

Enter Jeremy who is encouraging Tattle in his mad scheme to disguise himself as Valentine and woo Angelica.

Enter Miss Prue whose father has told her she no longer has to marry Ben – since he renounced his inheritance and says he prefers to go back to sea – and so she now wants to marry Mr Tattle, who she had such a frank exchange of flirting with back at the end of Act 2. Clearly, she is now an embarrassment to Tattle, who tries to put her off, saying no man of fashion is consistent to a woman for 2 days in a row! Fie, madam!

Enter Mr Foresight (who of course has foreseen none of these complex twists and turns). His daughter Miss Prue complains that she needs a man, she wants a man, but Foresight says poo, nonsense and tells her Nurse to take her home.

At which point Ben arrives and tells the assembled company (Scandal, Foresight, Mrs Foresight) that his father (Sir Sampson) has gone mad. Howso? Because he’s preparing to marry Angelica (who is Foresight’s niece). So now Valentine is mad, Sir Sampson is mad, this news prompts Mrs Foresight to go mad, and Foresight says he’ll go mad if Mrs F does. So this conceit or theme of madness has turned out to be the play’s guiding one. And, of course, Scandal sees his friend Valentine’s plan to win Angelica by feigning madness, going badly wrong.

Enter Sir Sampson and Angelica fawning over each other and their lawyer Buckram. Sampson confirms it to everyone, asks Foresight to give his niece away at the forthcoming wedding. Scandal runs off to tell his friend Valentine about this abrupt turn of events. Ben advises his father to be wary but Sir Sampson takes advice very badly and blusters and huffs that he will disinherit him, and asks the lawyer to be sure Ben will inherit nothing, at which there are bad words between Ben and the lawyer.

Sir Sampson’s bombastic turn of phrase and his irritable readiness to disinherit both his sons is another major thread in the play.

Enter Mr Tattle and Mrs Frail who have calamitous news – they are married by mistake! Tattle thought he was marrying Angelica, and Mrs Frail thought she was marrying Valentine, and so both are undone! This is sort of funny, especially the way they are rude and dismissive of each other,

TATTLE: Gad, I never liked anybody less in my life. Poor woman! Gad, I’m sorry for her too, for I have no reason to hate her neither; but I believe I shall lead her a damned sort of a life…
MRS. FRAIL: Nay, for my part I always despised Mr. Tattle of all things; nothing but his being my husband could have made me like him less.

The happy twist It probably has a technical name, but in every one of these Restoration comedies the leading man and the leading woman resist each other, scorn and mock each other right up till three minutes before the end, when they suddenly undergo a miraculous reversal of attitudes and suddenly realise how much they love each other.

And so it is here that, when Sir Sampson calls on Valentine to sign away his inheritance, Valentine prepares to do so and when his friend Scandal tries to stop him, Valentine makes a noble speech about how he only ever wanted the money in order to make Angelica happy. Aaaah.

SCANDAL: ’Sdeath, you are not mad indeed, to ruin yourself?
VALENTINE: I have been disappointed of my only hope, and he that loses hope may part with anything. I never valued fortune but as it was subservient to my pleasure, and my only pleasure was to please this lady. I have made many vain attempts, and find at last that nothing but my ruin can effect it; which, for that reason, I will sign to – give me the paper.
ANGELICA: Generous Valentine!  [Aside.]

Angelica happens to have the bond in question in her hand and promptly tears it up in front of everyone and declares her love for Valentine. Turns out her heart was always his all along – she was just pretending to be haughty and aloof! He goes down on his knees to her – it’s a deal!

Angelica takes the opportunity to tell old Sir Sampson he must reform, become a better father, relent his ‘unforgiving nature’ – confirming my sense that that was one of the themes of the play. Infuriated, Sir Sampson curses Foresight and his stupid belief in astrology and storms out, at which point Tattle (who, remember, has married Mrs Frail by mistake) has a funny line:

TATTLE: If the gentleman is in disorder for want of a wife, I can spare him mine.

The musicians have arrived who were to serenade Sir Sampson’s wedding. Scandal tells ’em to play on to celebrate Valentine and Angelica. And it’s Angelica who has the last word.

Many critics, and most feminist critics, berate Restoration comedy for its alleged misogyny. So it is worth pointing that the last word of this long play is given to a woman, who uses it to criticise men and their vain expectations and self-serving rhetoric:

’Tis an unreasonable accusation that you lay upon our sex: you tax us with injustice, only to cover your own want of merit. You would all have the reward of love, but few have the constancy to stay till it becomes your due. Men are generally hypocrites and infidels: they pretend to worship, but have neither zeal nor faith. How few, like Valentine, would persevere even to martyrdom, and sacrifice their interest to their constancy! In admiring me, you misplace the novelty.

The miracle to-day is, that we find
A lover true; not that a woman’s kind.

Thoughts

I found this play the most dry and dusty, contrived and unsatisfying of the ones I’ve sampled so far. I smiled once or twice, but I just didn’t find the vast expense of verbiage expended on Foresight’s belief in astrology or Sir Sampson’s bombastic bad temper or Miss Prue’s childish innocence or Tattle’s inability to keep a secret, made them that funny.

Probably on stage Love For Love comes to life much more, and I could see the comic aims and intentions of all these humorous characters and contrived situations – but I found it quite a dry and laboured read.

In his introduction to the Penguin edition, Gamini Salgado makes several points about the play and its position late in the history of Restoration comedy. By the time it was performed in 1695, the early merry days of King Charles II were long gone (his brother James had been deposed in favour of a foreign, Protestant king with a completely different set of values, in 1688) with the result that Valentine comes over as a lot less of the heartless libertine than the classic hero of Restoration comedy, and Scandal also is a lot milder in his support of his friend. And I think that’s one of the things I disliked, they both had less energy than previous male pairs.

This is related to the fact that the target audience was now wider than it had been for Etheredge or Wycherley – the earlier plays were mostly performed at the Drury Lane theatre which was favoured by royal patronage and attended by aristocrats, whereas Love For Love was performed at a new theatre in Lincolns Inn Fields for a broader, more middle class audience.

Somehow Valentine’s subterfuges – pretending for a page or two at the start to become a poet, pretending later on to be mad – feel silly and superficial. They lack the sustained bite of Manly’s misanthropy in The Plain Dealer or the snappy repartee of Dorimant and Medley throughout The Man of Mode. This, Salgado suggests, was partly a response to a broader, less arrogant audience, and to a general softening of the times.

Is there a connection with the fact that Money is most to the fore in this plot, in the sense that the key driver of the story is which of his sons Sir Sampson is going to leave his estate to? Does the softening of the aristocratic arrogance of earlier comedies, and the new emphasis on money (and the prominence of the sailor son) indicate that Britain had become a much more mercantile and bourgeois society by the 1690s than it had been in the 1660s?

When I read the Wikipedia article about The Way of The World, the answer seems to be a resounding yes:

In 1700, the world of London theatre-going had changed significantly from the days of, for example, The Country Wife. Charles II was no longer on the throne, and the jubilant court that revelled in its licentiousness and opulence had been replaced by the far more dour and utilitarian Dutch-inspired court of William of Orange. His wife, Mary II, was, long before her death, a retiring person who did not appear much in public. William himself was a military king who was reported to be hostile to drama. The political instabilities that had been beneath the surface of many Restoration comedies were still present, but with a different side seeming victorious.

One of the features of a Restoration comedy is the opposition of the witty and courtly (and Cavalier) rake and the dull-witted man of business or the country bumpkin, who is understood to be not only unsophisticated but often (as, for instance, in the very popular plays of Aphra Behn in the 1670s) either Puritan or another form of dissenter. Until 1685, the courtly and Cavalier side was in power and Restoration comedies belittled the bland and foolish losers of the Restoration. However, by 1700, the other side was ascendant…

The 1688 revolution which overthrew James II created a new set of social codes primarily amongst the bourgeoisie. The new capitalist system meant an increasing emphasis on property and property law. (The Way of the World Wikipedia article)

All of which maybe explains why Love For Love lacks the extreme aristocratic attitude of the earlier plays, and is more suffused by the language of money and contracts.


Related links

Reviews of other Restoration plays

The Double Dealer by William Congreve (1693)

‘I will deceive ’em all, and yet secure myself…This double-dealing is a jewel.’
(thoughts of the Double Dealer himself, the villainous Jack Maskwell)

After the smash hit success of his first play, The Old Bachelor, Congreve quickly followed up with his second play, The Double Dealer, performed later the same year (1693).

It is an experimental play, quite a bold move for a young man of 23. What makes it experimental is that the action is set almost entirely in just one place, namely A gallery in the Lord Touchwood’s house, with chambers adjoining.

In the dedication to the printed version of the play, Congreve explicitly says he set out to observe Aristotle’s three unities, unity of time and place and subject matter, to produce what he describes as ‘a true and regular comedy’.

The so-called unities derive from Aristotle’s work The Art of Poetry or Poetics, written around 335 BC. In this text Aristotle analysed the successful plays of ancient Greece to see what they had in common and deduced some common features they shared, that:

  • most of them concern just one subject uncluttered by sub-plots or digressions
  • they all take place in one location
  • and they all tale place in the space of at most a day, often often in ‘real time’ i.e. over the same amount of time that the play takes to perform and watch i.e. about three hours.

In Aristotle’s book these three ‘unities’ are the results of an empirical analysis of the plays that had been written up to his time. In the hands of later critics and theorists they were turned into ‘rules’ which good drama must obey, especially in France and especially in the 17th century.

And it was from contemporary French writers that Congreve took the idea of the unities and, indeed, some of these French critics (le Bossu, Rapin and Dacier) are mentioned in the play itself – albeit the reference is given to the pretentious bubblebrain Lady Froth and so played for laughs. (I wonder whether this is because the idea was seen as frenchified and pretentious…)

Anyway, in the dedicatory letter to the printed edition, Congreve is explicit about his wish to fulfil them, saying he ‘was resolved to preserve the three unities of the drama’. The Double Dealer is a playwright’s experiment at using Aristotle’s three unities in the composition of a Restoration comedy.

We’ve mentioned how The Double Dealer fulfils unities of time and place (almost all set in the long gallery at Lord Touchwood’s house, and taking place on just one evening) – but the unity of subject matter?

The classic Greek plays were extremely sparse and pure. Restoration comedy, by contrast, made a virtue of building up a labyrinth of complex plots and sub-plots, with the characters themselves hatching schemes, putting on disguises, and carrying out endless cons and scams. So you’d have thought that unity of subject was a non-starter for a playwright working in the genre Congreve was engaged in, yet that is not his opinion.

I made the plot as strong as I could because it was single, and I made it single because I would avoid confusion, and was resolved to preserve the three unities of the drama.

Is it single? Maybe he’s referring to the way everything in the plot stems from just one event, the planned marriage – the next day – of Mellefont and Cynthia, and the way the play then proceeds to engender numerous plots (and counter-plots) they all spring, at root, from that one theme.

Well, so much for the theory he expounds in the preface – how much does it work in practice?

CAST

Men
Maskwell, a villain; pretended friend to Mellefont, gallant to Lady Touchwood, and in love with Cynthia
Lord Touchwood, uncle to Mellefort
Mellefont, promised to, and in love with Cynthia
Careless, his friend
Lord Froth, a solemn coxcomb
Brisk, a pert coxcomb
Sir Paul Plyant, an uxorious, foolish old knight; brother to Lady Touchwood, and father to Cynthia

Women
Lady Touchwood, in love with Mellefont
Cynthia, daughter to Sir Paul by a former wife, promised to Mellefont
Lady Froth, a great coquette; pretender to poetry, wit, and learning
Lady Plyant, insolent to her husband, and easy to any pretender

Music

As with The Old Bachelor, the incidental music and settings of songs were written by Henry Purcell.

NB Scene divisions The Penguin paperback edition of the four plays of William Congreve is very light on scene division, dividing acts into 2 or 3 scenes at most, based on a change of location.

By contrast, the Project Gutenberg online edition – which is itself a facsimile of the edition edited by critic G.S. Street at the very end of the 19th century – indicates the start of a new scene every time the personnel on stage change i.e. when anyone exits or enters. Since people are continually coming and going in Restoration comedies, this means there can be as many as 25 ‘scenes’ in each act.

To begin with I summarised the play just in paragraphs addressing the main plot or character developments. But in Act 4, I switched to using Street’s notation, copying his ‘scene’ numbers, even when they indicated that a character was alone onstage for only a couple of sentences.

I did it as an experiment to see if it makes my text more or less readable. I think it makes it slightly more disjointed and maybe harder to read. On the other hand, it means the reader (you) gets definitive information about who is on stage, or leaving or entering, at every moment of the play.

Which layout do you prefer?

Act 1

Introduces the location – A gallery in the Lord Touchwood’s house, with chambers adjoining – key characters and the set-up. A formal dinner is taking place.

Male characters Mellefont is the male lead. His sidekick is Careless. There is a shallow fop who fails to see how crude and tactless he is, named Brisk. Lord Touchwood, whose home they’re in, is Mellefont’s uncle. Mellefont is engaged to the daughter of Sir Paul Plyant, who is a guest at the dinner. They are scheduled to be married the following morning. Other male guests include the pert coxcomb Brisk and the solemn coxcomb, Lord Froth (‘But there is nothing more unbecoming a man of quality than to laugh; ’tis such a vulgar expression of the passion; everybody can laugh…when I laugh, I always laugh alone.’) And also there is a fellow rake on Mellefont and Careless’s level, Jack Maskwell.

Female characters The ladies attending the dinner are Lord Touchwood’s wife, who has a secret passion for Mellefont. Cynthia, the daughter of Sir Paul Plyant who is engaged to Mellefont. Sir Paul’s wife and Cynthia’s mother, the lascivious Lady Plyant, and the solemn coxcomb Lord Froth’s wife, the pretentious Lady Froth.

The play opens with Mellefont following Careless out into the gallery. Dinner is over. The menfolk are in one room, presumably the dining room, while the women have retired to another room at the end of the gallery for tea and gossip.

Careless is fed up of the men’s guzzling and senseless words and so was going to pay the women a visit. Mellefont catches up with him and says he has something important to tell him but at exactly that moment they are interrupted by Brisk who has also followed Careless from the dining room and now makes a display if thinking himself a grand and clever fellow, using elaborate metaphors which he then points out – which the other two put up with, and the audience laugh at, till he’s dispatched back to the dining room.

It’s very important to all these plays that the lead characters are established as being on an upper plane of wit and sophistication. They all use the same technique to establish this which is to include at least one pretentious, high-falutin and idiotic fop to show how not to do it – how wit and style easily degenerate into clever-clever mannerisms and pretentious speech which at the same time fails to understand what is going on. In a way it’s a most important dynamic than the more obvious one of that between the sexes. Through this simple device the audience is invited to identify with the two clever lead figures (it’s always two, the minimum number which allows dialogue) and to share in their mocking scorn of the stupid fop figure.

The plays are designed to make the audience feel superior and clever.

Mellefont reveals that Lady Touchwood came to his bedroom and made an advance to him, which he rejected, since when she has taken a furious hatred of him and is doing everything she can to undermine his reputation with Sir Paul, his prospective father-in-law. Therefore Mellefont asks Careless if he will woo Lady Plyant to take up her time and ensure she isn’t influenced against the marriage by wicked Lady Touchwood. Lord and Lady Froth will be too busy admiring each other and the idiot Brisk. Mellefont will keep an eye on his uncle, Lord Touchwood, and Jack Maskwell has promised to keep a watch on Lady Touchwood.

But as his name, and the cast list, indicate, Maskwell is ‘a villain’ working directly against Mellefont’s interests, who is prepared to egg on Lady Touchwood’s malice, because he himself is in love with Mellefont’s fiancee, Cynthia. Though Mellefont thinks he is a trusted friend, Careless quickly explains that he (Careless) doesn’t like him (Maskwell) and suspects him of conspiring with his Aunt, Lady Touchwood.

So, in just the first few minutes of the play, Congreve has established all the characters, their relationships, the baddies’ scheme against him and his counter-plan. It reminds me of the game of strategy, Risk. You feel some kind of process flow diagram is required to capture not only the relationships, but the flows of energy, of ‘hate’ and ‘love’ and the elaborate scheming.

The other menfolk join Mellefont and Careless in the gallery, Sir Paul and Lord Touchwood drunk and reel off to see the women, leaving Brisk and Lord Froth to display their pretentiousness and folly to the two male leads e.g. Lord Froth goes to plays solely not to laugh at them and thus mock the authors. Which Careless says is idiotic, and they then debate what is meant by wit. Then go off to join the ladies

Enter Lady Touchwood and Maskwell, in effect The Conspirators. She is livid with him. He is sly. It becomes clear that, on the rebound from Mellefont’s rejection, hot and indignant, she allowed Maskwell to sleep with her, or:

MASKWELL: I pressed the yielding minute, and was blest.

Thus – as Lady Touchwood sees it – degrading her and betraying his patron, Lord Touchwood, her husband, who has sponsored Maskwell’s rise.

At his words Lady Touchwood quickly flares up into a fury, pacing up and down, and Maskwell keeps having to wait for her to calm down. Maskwell shrewdly sees that what lies at the root of her fury is her ongoing unrequited passion for Mellefont. She loves him and hates him at the same time. Maskwell vows to help her by breaking off Mellefont’s match with Cynthia to which she greedily agrees.

Maskwell tells her he has a Cunning Plan. Lady Touchwood must persuade Lady Pliant that Mellefont is secretly in love with her. Do this, and more of the plan will follow… They exeunt.

Act 2

Lady Froth (dim) and Cynthia (Mellefont’s clever fiancée). Froth is comically pretentious and patronising.

LADY FROTH: For sure my Lord Froth … wants nothing but a blue ribbon and a star to make him shine, the very phosphorus of our hemisphere. Do you understand those two hard words? If you don’t, I’ll explain ’em to you.
CYNTHIA: Yes, yes, madam, I’m not so ignorant. —At least I won’t own it, to be troubled with your instructions.  [Aside.]

In this scene Lord and Lady Froth get ample room to display their nauseatingly self-satisfied love for each other, they praise Brisk for his infinite wit, and generally preen and show off to each other. Lady Froth writes, poems and plays, she has even now completed an epic poem titled The Syllabub, a play on words given that her husband’s name is Froth.

These scenes powerfully convey the sense that ‘we’ – the Truly Tasteful – are adrift in a sea of fools.

They push off, leaving the stage to the two young lovers, Mellefont and Cynthia, who proceed to demonstrate that they are intelligent, level headed and, above all, equal in the cut and thrust of witty conversation. They compare marriage to a game of bowls, or a game at cards.

Into this civilised conversation intrude Lord and Lady Plyant, the former hopping mad because he thinks Mellefont is using Cynthia as a pretext (‘a stalking horse’) to seduce his wife, Lady P. Both are outraged and insist on taking Cynthia away from this snake in the grass. Mellefont instantly detects the malign hand of Lady Touchwood.

Leaving Lady Plyant and Mellefont alone. The comedy in this scene comes from the way Lady Plyant starts out outraged and scandalised at what they’ve been told of Mellefont fancying her, but then slowly dwells on the weakness of the flesh, and of course she is attractive, very attractive, and so, well, nature must take its course:

LADY PLYANT: I know love is powerful, and nobody can help his passion. ’Tis not your fault; nor, I swear, it is not mine. How can I help it, if I have charms? And how can you help it, if you are made a captive?

Lady Plyant becomes increasingly confused about her own attitude, then, as other characters approach, flees.

Mellefont soliloquises that this complication – the red herring that Mellefont fancies Lady Plyant – is his aunt’s doing sure enough – yet it is a relatively simple ruse, ‘a trifling design’. Surely there is more behind. A suspicion which echoes Maskwell’s earlier explanation to Lady Touchwood that he has ‘a stronger plot’.

Enter Maskwell. He feigns hearty friendship with Mellefont and proceeds to tell him most of the truth i.e. Lady Touchwood is conspiring against her marriage and has asked him, Maskwell, to be her tool, to conspire to cancel the marriage, in reward for which he, Maskwell, will receive Cynthia.

Mellefont is innocently grateful to ‘his friend’ and asks for details but Maskwell says people are coming. Return in an hour and he will explain everything. Mellefont exits.

Maskwell delivers a soliloquy, much like one of Iago’s soliloquies, explaining his ideology i.e. all’s fair in love and war, and lying and cheating appear the same to the external viewer as truth and honesty.

MASKWELL: Treachery?  What treachery?  Love cancels all the bonds of friendship, and sets men right upon their first foundations.

Most of the poems and songs in these plays are conventional jingles, but he delivers a quatrain which has genuine psychological power:

Why will mankind be fools, and be deceived,
And why are friends’ and lovers’ oaths believed,
When each, who searches strictly his own mind,
May so much fraud and power of baseness find?

Act 3

Lord and Lady Touchwood during which the Lord finds Lady all too quick to believe bad things of Mellefont and wanting to call the marriage off. He suspects her. She moves to overcome this doubt by going on to say that Mellefont made a pass at her too, only a few days ago, it was probably nothing… and so cunningly infuriating Lord Touchwood till he vows to strip Mellefont naked and throw him out in the street. She pushes him into a side room.

Enter Maskwell and he and Lady Touchwell continue with their conspiracy i.e. they must continue to work on Lord Touchwood and not let his anger to Mellefont cool. Maskwell tells her to tell Lord Touchwood that he (Maskwell) is a good friend to Mellefont, but tried to restrain his passion for Lady T, and vowed he would tell Lord T next time Mellefont told him he was about to make another pass at her. Lady Touchwell agrees, but in an aside Maskwell tells the audience this manoeuvre will also allow Maskwell to cheat Lady Touchwood – the person he’s talking to at that moment. What a bad man!

Lady Touchwood departs to continue playing on Lord Touchwood’s anger at Mellefont. They arrange to meet back up at 8pm that night.

Maskwell has a soliloquy in which he thinks aloud how difficult it is to keep up a pretence of passion for Lady Touchwood who now bores him. He makes the cynically unpleasant point that pretending passion is easy enough in the build-up sex, ‘before fruition’ – but afterwards much harder.

Along comes Mellefont and Maskwell outlines a cunning plan to him. He explains that Lady Touchwood – as payment for Maskwell fouling up the marriage of Mellefont and Cynthia – has offered him, Maskwell, her body. He is to go to her apartment at 8pm to ravish her. Now – how about Mellefont comes along a little after and catches them about to have sex? Maskwell will run out a back passage, leaving Mellefont to confront Lady Touchwood with her attempted adultery. She will have to comply with his wishes, and they will be to cease and desist putting obstacles in the way of his marriage to Cynthia.

Mellefont overflows with gratitude to Maskwell, promises to rendezvous with him at 7.45 tonight, Maskwell exits.

Careless joins Mellefont and tells him how his wooing of Lady Plyant is going i.e. he’s struggling, she goes on and on about her virtue, and they both laugh and what a hen-pecked husband she has made out of Lord Plyant.

At which point Lord and Lady Plyant enter. It becomes clearer than ever that Lady P really henpecks, badgers and humiliates her husband in public. A boy brings a letter. He goes to give it to Sir Paul but Lady P insists she receives it. Just one of the ways in which the normal hierarchy of male authority is undermined in their marriage.

While she opens the letter, Sir Paul laments to Careless that he has a fine estate, town houses and so on, but no heir. Surely that is easy to remedy, says Careless. No, alas, replies Sir Paul, his wife will only let him touch her once a year, if then. In fact they go on to describe the way Sir Paul lets himself be swaddled in blankets like a baby before bed-time to render him utterly incapable of movement, let alone seduction.

Presumably this is meant to be comic, and the audience is meant to fall about at Sir Paul’s pathetic figure, but it comes across on the page as rather sad. The comic patter continues to its logical conclusion, which is Lord Plyant wishing Careless could help him to achieve a male heir. Well, says Careless, I may be able to help you out there…

Enter Lord Froth and Cynthia. Lord Froth is the fool who has a downer on anyone laughing, such a vulgar habit! Cynthia humours the old fool.

Boy enters with another note, Sir Paul tries to interrupt Lady Plyant but she is deep in conversation with Careless, who says aside to Lord Plyant that he is managing the matter they talked of – i.e. Sir Paul thinks Careless is somehow wrangling Lady P into having sex with her husband, whereas we realise Careless is chatting her up to at least give her the impression he wants to have sex with her. Or does he want to have sex with her? And is Sir Paul in fact, genuinely encouraging Careless to do so?

Exit Sir Paul. Enter Brisk and Lady Froth. She, if you remember, fancies herself as a writer, so they enter discussing the merits of scenes in her epic poem, a passage designed to expose their ignorance and lack of taste so the audience can laugh at them. They join with Lord Froth in ridiculing some acquaintances, Lady Whiffler, Mr Sneer and Sir Laurence Loud.

In an aside Cynthia says she has realised there’s no-one so stupid as can’t find even stupider people to mock and condemn. She often makes remarks like this, choric comments on the action.

A chair has arrived in which apparently is conveyed Lady Froth’s daughter. It is indicative of her vain pretensions that she has named her daughter Sapho (after the ancient Greek poet) and very publicly claims she can’t be without seeing her every two hours or so. For some reason, giving children pretentious names reminded me of Posy Simmonds’s cartoon strip, Posy, mocking middle class pretensions. Three hundred years separate the two. Nothing really changes.

Act 4

Mellefont and Cynthia. I find them an attractive couple. Neither is cheating or deceiving the other. They speak as complete equals without recourse to all the insults common in Restoration comedy. They contemplate running off and marrying for love, damn the fact that she’s an heiress (aha). Then she says no, but to prove his devotion, she is counting on Mellefont bringing Lady Touchwood to heel.

They exit and give way to Careless and Lady Plyant. If you remember, Mellefont asked his friend Careless to seduce Lady Plyant so as to prevent her listening to and becoming part of Lady Touchwood’s campaign to derail Mellefont’s marriage. This scene is designed to show Lady Plyant’s wordy self-regard, which is quite funny, but the real comedy lies in Careless adopting and exaggerating the rhetoric of a devoted lover, interspersed with exasperated asides to the audience complaining about how difficult it is to keep up this charade.

Finally, after reams of loverly doggerel, Lady Plyant breaks and weeps at his loverly devotion – at which point Careless tells the audience he’s struggling not to burst out laughing. At which point Sir Paul appears with his daughter, Cynthia. Careless quickly hands Lady Plyant a love letter and scarpers.

Now, you may remember that Lady Plyant had caused a great fuss when she accused Mellefont of making a pass at her. Now she changes her tune. Now she declares it was an honest mistake on her part, she believes Mellefont is honourable, and when her husband pushes her on the subject, says she believes so because Mr Careless has told her so. Smart Cynthia immediately see her (step)-mother is in love with Careless, and has changed to her (Cynthia’s) side i.e. supporting the marriage of Cynthia and Mellefont – because Careless has asked her to.

Now Lady Plyant asks for that letter which Sir Paul received in the last act. She wants to read Careless’s love letter under pretence of reading Sir Paul’s. As you might expect it is full of lovey expressions but when she goes to return Sir Paul’s letter to him, she gives him Careless’s love letter by mistake!

Brisk arrives to say there’s music and dancing in the hall and can they please release Cynthia to go dance and also, could Sir Paul send Careless to the dancing if he meets him. Sir Paul promises and exits.

Brisk, by himself, soliloquises, telling us he is love with Lady Froth and fussing and fretting about what to say to her.

Enter Lady Froth for a ridiculous comic scene in which they both declare their love yet mock each other, incapable of taking themselves or the situation seriously. They embrace and at that precise moment her husband, Lord Froth, enters.

Scene VII Thinking quickly, Lady Froth converts the embrace into practicing the country dancing which even now is taking place in the main hall. Lord Froth is momentarily jealous then realises they are dancing and relaxes. A bit. Still suspicious.

The scene contains a particularly crude piece of double entendre. Embroidering on her excuse, Lady Froth asks her husband if he will practice dancing with her.

LADY FROTH: Shall you and I do our close dance, to show Mr. Brisk?
LORD FROTH: No, my dear, do it with him.
LADY FROTH: I’ll do it with him, my lord, when you are out of the way.

You can well imagine the arch way an actress can deliver that line to the audience which roars with laughter, 330 years ago, as today. They all exit.

Scene VIII Enter Lady Plyant and Careless. Now we see the denouement of the mistaken letter gag. Lady P just has time to tell Careless she’s given her husband Careless’s love letter before…

Scene IX he enters, reading the letter which makes it perfectly plain Careless is scheduled to rendezvous with his wife that night and plough her. He is incensed and very bitter that he has spent three years being swaddled up every night, while his wife is all the time arranging for him to become a cuckold.

Scene X However, Careless has had time to come up with a cunning plan and Lady Plyant now enters, asks her husband if he has read this outrageous letter, and turns the tables by asking whether he – Sir Paul – was complicit in this scheme to debauch her? Eh? Eh? And Sir Paul is so hen-pecked that she brilliantly succeeds in persuading him that she is the wronged party, insists she will ask for a divorce. Because of course, Sir Paul did ask Careless to melt his wife, so he feels somehow responsible.

There’s a little exchange which makes it clear that, as punishment, not only will Sir Paul be utterly swaddled again tonight, as usual, but his right hand which is usually kept free so he can… will also be bound in cloths. So he can what? Pee, presumably, Surely. Lady Plyant storms impressively out.

Scene XI Enter Careless. The audience now sees Careless spinning elaborate excuses. He says he tried to talk Lady Plyant into being more amenable to her husband, then pretended to be in love with her and her, then went to the lengths of writing her a love letter. He promises to report back if it has any effect, but laments that she is a tower of chastity! This is an impressive story and Sir Paul falls for it, rejoicing in his wife’s virtue.

Scene XII Mellefont and Maskwell. It’s 7.45pm. Maskwell tells Mellefont to sneak into Lady Touchwood’s chambers so as to be ready to leap out apparently catching her in the act of being unfaithful with Maskwell, thus putting himself in a position to make her stop trying to undermine Mellefont’s marriage. Got it?

Scene XIII Maskwell soliloquises, explaining that he has an ‘after game’ to manipulate the situation further.

Scene XIV Enter Lord Touchwood. Maskwell plays him, playing up to what Lady Touchwood told her husband, namely that Maskwell knew about Mellefont’s wish to ravish Lady Touchwood, but tried to stop him. Maskwell plays the loyal friend who doesn’t want to betray his best friend, but… says he had hoped it was a one-off indiscretion, but now finds Mellefont resolved in his villainy. Prove it! says Lord Touchwood. And now we see why Maskwell has arranged for Mellefont to be in Lady Touchwood’s chambers. Maskwell tells him to meet him 15 minutes hence outside Lady Touchwood’s chamber and he will give the lord the proof he requires. Touchwood agrees and they part.

Scene XV Mellefont hiding, wishes Lord Touchwood were her to see his wife debauched by Maskwell.

Scene XVI Enter Lady Touchwood saying Maskwell is late. She is expecting simply to have sex with him.

Scene XVII Enter Maskwell apologising for being late. They start to kiss, at which moment Mellefont leaps out from behind an arras, Lady Touchwood screams, Maskwell runs out the back door.

Scene XVIII It takes Lady Touchwood a while to calm down during which she and Mellefont converse in a relatively high-flown tragic register, he recommending her to Christian penitence, she talking about hell and damnation. All a bit damned serious, what. Finally they reach the stage Mellefont wants, which is for Lady Touchwood to repent and say she will put no more barriers in the way of Mellefont’s marriage to Cynthia.

Scene XIX Maskwell softly lets Lord Touchwood in through the door.

Scene XX Lady Touchwood sees Lord Touchwood in hiding. Suddenly she realises she can switch the situation to her own advantage. Suddenly she starts struggling with Mellefont and begging him not to ravish her. He thinks she’s gone mad until Lord Touchwood leaps out of hiding and runs towards him with his sword raised.

Lady Touchwood virtuously holds her husband back, claiming Mellefont knows not what he does. Mellefont realises he has destroyed his own case, and becomes almost delirious. [This all feels a lot more like a tragedy than a comedy.] When Touchwood’s back is turned Lady T grins at Mellefont and makes the horn symbol behind her own husband’s back. God, she has totally totally triumphed and Mellefont is driven to paroxysms of frustration as they exeunt.

Scene XXI Mellefont soliloquises with an intensity which recalls Hamlet.

Oh, I could curse my stars, fate, and chance; all causes and accidents of fortune in this life!

Even at this nadir of his fortunes he believes Maskwell is his friend and they had a good plan and it’s just bad luck that it went wrong.

Act 5

Scene I Lady Touchwood is blessing her good fortune that her husband happened to enter the chamber at that moment, Maskwell enthusiastically agreeing, although we know it was his doing.

Scene II Lord Touchwood approaching, Lady T exits. Maskwell has a brief soliloquy saying he will manage Touchwood.

Scene III Seeing Touchwood in earshot Maskwell delivers a fake-honest monologue in which he berates himself for being false to his friend in order to be virtuous and help Lord Touchwood. In case I haven’t emphasises this, remember that Maskwell owes his place in the world, i.e. position and money, to Touchwood’s support.

It works perfectly. Persuaded of his saintly virtue, Touchwood comes forward and declares that he will blast Mellefont from the family, and put Maskwell in his place. Maskwell feigns being overcome and then says there is one last thing to make his happiness complete… Cynthia’s hand in marriage? says Touchwood. He will arrange it with Sir Paul. He exits.

Scene IV Maskwell alone realises a) his scheme has totally succeeded but b) if either Mellefont or Lady Touchwood hear about his betrothal to Cynthia they will both immediately realise he’s been gulling them and will unite against him. He must be cunning. He must mix a lot of truth with his lies. The best deceits are the almost true ones.

No mask like open truth to cover lies,
As to go naked is the best disguise.

Scene V Enter Mellefont and Maskwell makes haste to tell him the complete truth, that Lord Touchwood has appointed Maskwell his heir and affianced him to Cynthia, but claims he wants none of it, and says he has a cunning plan. They go off to find Cynthia.

Scene VI Cut to the scene in which Lord Touchwood tells Lady Touchwood his plan i.e. to make Maskwell his heir and marry him to Cynthia. Lady Touchwood is appalled, specially when Lord T tells her Maskwell himself told him how in love with Cynthia he is. Lady T is furious. The rat!

Scene VII Lady Touchwood alone soliloquises. O villain! This isn’t at all funny, it has real tragic force:

What, have I been bawd to his designs, his property only, a baiting place?  Now I see what made him false to Mellefont.  Shame and distraction!  I cannot bear it, oh! what woman can bear to be a property?  To be kindled to a flame, only to light him to another’s arms; oh! that I were fire indeed that I might burn the vile traitor.

Scene VIII Enter Sir Paul. Lady Touchwood with Lady MacBeth hauteur calls him a fool and a cuckold which feeble Sir Paul takes to be a joke. He wants to find his wife to discuss the revolution in events i.e. Touchwood disinheriting Mellefont and replacing him with Maskwell. Lady T tells him that if he allows for the cancellation of the marriage and raising of Maskwell, she will tear his eyes out! He thinks she’s mad and goes off to find his wife to discuss the fate of their daughter (Cynthia).

Scene IX Maskwell reveals his cunning plan to Cynthia and Mellefont which is to arrange to borrow Lord Touchwood’s coach and six and elope with Cynthia, and the family chaplain to marry them. Or at least tell Touchwood that’s the only way he can gain Cynthia. He assures Mellefont he’s not actually going to do it – though of course he is.

Maskwell tells Mellefont that he, Mellefont, will dress up as the chaplain so the whole thing will be under his control. Both he and Cynthia are bamboozled by the complexity of the double bluff of the plan (as was I) but Mellefont agrees to meet in my lady’s dressing chamber. Mellefont exits.

Scene X Maskwell tells Cynthia he’s had second thoughts, He’ll meet her in the chaplain’s chamber on the corner of the gallery. She agrees but says you must tell Mellefont. Of course I will, says Maskwell, lying. She exits.

Scene XI Maskwell soliloquises the deep down the deceived want to be deceived. He told them exactly what the plan is yet neither of them smelt a rat. Now to recruit the chaplain or, as they seem to have been called in the aristocratic cant of the day, the ‘Levite’, in this case a Mr Saygrace.

Scene XII He knocks on the door of Mr Saygrace who opens it. There is some comedy about the chaplain’s garrulity but Maskwell now explains the plot. He has paid Saygrace to provide a clerical suit but sewn up the sleeves. They’ll now send the suit to Mellefont’s rooms. While he struggles to get into it Cynthia will arrive back, the room will be kept dark and Cynthia will be persuaded that Saygrace is really Mellefont. And so will accompany Maskwell down to the carriage and so be carried away and married against her will.

Saygrace is a small but perfectly formed example of the claim that Congreve gives every one of his characters distinctive speech patterns, e.g:

MASKWELL: Have you stitched the gown sleeve, that Mellefont may be puzzled, and waste time in putting it on?
SAYGRACE: I have: the gown will not be indued without perplexity.

Scene XIII Maskwell is with Lord Touchwood who tells him something has triggered Lady Touchwood and she has gone mad with rage, something about him, Maskwell. Damn, Maskwell had feared just this possibility – she’s realised how he has used her. Lord Touchwood is irked that his wife is disobeying him and wishes Maskwell’s marriage could be signed and sealed this evening. This falls perfectly into Maskwell’s wishes and he tells Lord Touchwood he has a cunning plan…

Scene XIV Enter Careless and Cynthia. Careless has seen and overheard just enough to realise Maskwell is concocting some wicked plan.

Scene XV Enter Mellefont, joining Careless and Cynthia. Careless tells him Maskwell is a villain and intends to betray him. Mellefont refuses to believe it. They all see Saygrace leaving his room with a bundle under his arm and the two men follow him.

Scene XVI Leaving Cynthia to encounter Lord Touchwood. Touchwood is musing to himself, surprised that Maskwell had such an intricate plan already worked out, and had arranged it with the chaplain. When she overhears the word chaplain, Cynthia really realises something is wrong. She begins to tell Lord Touchwood that here is betrayal but at that moment they hear the voices of Maskwell and Lady Touchwood from a nearby room.

Scene XVII Touchwood and Cynthia hide and witness the following scene: Lady Touchwood is so outraged by Maskwell’s betrayal she is holding a dagger and prepares to strike. But his impassive confident smile disarms her, she drops it and starts weeping, saying she never could resist him. Lord Touchwood is stupefied.

Lady Touchwood tells him why she was so angry – because she heard he was to marry Cynthia. Maskwell asks her how could he, who had enjoyed bliss in her arms, possibly choose any other woman? Listening to this Lord Touchwood splutters and chokes with anger.

Maskwell now tells Lady Touchwood that the entire plan has been to please her and prove faithful to her. How so? Well, explains Maskwell, he has told Mellefont to meet them in my lady’s dressing chamber. Well, Lady Touchwood should be there disguised as Cynthia, and accompany him down the stairs. When he realises it is her not Cynthia, he will be in her power and she can force him to love her. And if he won’t, she can stab him in the heart – and Maskwell gives her the dagger! He tells her to run and change. She is amazed at the cunning of his villainy and runs off.

Scene XVIII Maskwell soliloquises, overheard by Cynthia and Touchwood. He congratulates himself on his quick thinking and hopes out loud that Cynthia is ready at the meeting place. (She’s not; she’s still hidden onstage overhearing everything along with Lord Touchwood.) And exits.

Scene XIX Cynthia and Touchwood emerge from their hiding place. Touchwood is beside himself with rage and mortification. His wife the adulterer and Maskwell the villain! He vows to forgive Mellefont and to humiliate the baddies. Let’s round up the entire cast, he says, and bring them back here. Exeunt.

Scene XX A funny scene in which dim Sir Paul explains everything is topsy-turvy to Lord Froth who’s been having a nap. What’s topsy-turvy asks Froth, my wife? No no, says Sir Paul, she’s in the garden with Brisk. Doing what? Laying their heads together? What? Writing poetry, my lord, making couplets. WHAT? So it’s a little bit of comic relief between the tragic outbursts and the final scene.

Scene XXI Enter Lady Froth and Brisk, greeting her husband and unwittingly continuing the rude double entendres when she says she has been lying on her back in the garden studying the stars. Has she now?

Scene XXII Enter Lady Plyant, Cynthia and Careless i.e. almost the entire cast is assembled. Careless is explaining to Lady Plyant about the conspiracy they have discovered, she says Oh my Lord are all men so fickle and Careless gallantly replies, ‘Madam, you have charms to fix inconstancy’, to which she blushes.

Scene XXIII At that moment there is a loud shriek and Lady Touchwood comes running onstage pursued by her husband dressed as a curate. They struggle, she breaks free and runs away.

LORD TOUCHWOOD: Go, and thy own infamy pursue thee.

Scene XXIV Enter Mellefont dragging Maskwell. He accuses him to his face, contemns him, but Maskwell (like Iago) says nothing. Touchwood orders his servants to seize him. This is all very tragic and Shakespearian. Congreve brings off a nice little bit of comic repartee right at the end of the play, for the assembled fops and fools are of course astonished by what they’re witnessing.

BRISK: This is all very surprising, let me perish.
LADY FROTH: You know I told you Saturn looked a little more angry than usual.

That made me laugh out loud. But the whole thing suddenly ends. Lord Touchwood says, Mellefont I forgive you, and tells everyone to be merry.

LORD TOUCHWOOD: We’ll think of punishment at leisure, but let me hasten to do justice in rewarding virtue and wronged innocence. Nephew, I hope I have your pardon, and Cynthia’s.
MELLEFONT: We are your lordship’s creatures.
LORD TOUCHWOOD: And be each other’s comfort. Let me join your hands. Unwearied nights, and wishing days attend you both; mutual love, lasting health, and circling joys, tread round each happy year of your long lives.

Well, yes, but mainly No, no they can’t because the tone has become intense and serious and a few cheerful words cannot undo the generally dark tendency of the previous few hours.


Aspects of The Double Dealer

The Plot

I can see why the play was not a success, but it’s not, I think, from the ‘experimental’ unity-of-place aspects. Instead it’s the plot. It feels like everything has been sacrificed to the fiendishly complex set of interlocking schemes, which continually escalate in invention and complexity until, as Lord Touchwood says:

I am confounded when I look back, and want a clue to guide me through the various mazes of unheard-of treachery.

It feels like so much energy went into mapping out these plots and stratagems that none was left over for the comedy. Comedy comes in numerous forms, but 1. the play has no dominating comic figure such as the great Widow Blackacre in William Wycherley’s The Plain Dealer or the awesome Lord Foppington in John Vanbrugh’s play The Relapse. And 2. there are surprisingly few comic situations. Instead the core situations are often quite serious, and the comically dim characters – weak-willed Sir Paul Plyant and his bossy wife, and the absurdly pretentious Lady Froth and her giggling husband Lord Froth, plus the idiot fop Brisk – are simply wheeled on at regular intervals to plaster over the more serious foundations.

In other words, the comedy doesn’t very often arise from the plot or situations, but feels bolted on, almost as an afterthought.

Tragedy not comedy

The other really obvious element which undermines its enjoyment as a comedy is that quite a lot of it deals with genuine, extreme and tragic emotions, which are expressed in extreme tragic rhetoric. When Lady Touchwood goes to stab Maskless she is in real emotional agony:

LADY TOUCH: Ha! Do you mock my rage? Then this shall punish your fond, rash contempt. [Goes to strike.]

When Lord Touchwood realises a) how Maskwell has played him but even worse b) how his wife has been unfaithful to him with one man and is planning to do it again with another, he is in real torment.

LORD TOUCHWOOD: Astonishment binds up my rage!  Villainy upon villainy!  Heavens, what a long track of dark deceit has this discovered!  I am confounded when I look back, and want a clue to guide me through the various mazes of unheard-of treachery.  My wife!  Damnation!  My hell!

Maskwell has more in common with a tragic villain such as Iago than a comic character like Lord Foppington, and he sets the tone which, despite various comic interludes, ends up feeling really quite dark and intense.

Tragic register

Extreme words and expressions predominate.

Hell Almost from the start Hell is invoked, Mellefont describes the hell in Lady Touchwood’s imagination (‘hell is not more busy than her brain, nor contains more devils than that imagination); it is a frequent ejaculation (‘Hell and damnation!’, ‘Confusion and hell!’, ‘Hell and the devil!’, ‘Hell and amazement!’

Villain I associate the word ‘villain’ with Hamlet:

O villain, villain, smiling, damned villain!
My tables,–meet it is I set it down,
That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain;

The word villain occurs 11 times in all of Hamlet, but 26 times in The Double Dealer.

Devil 16 times.

But it’s the way this tragic vocabulary is combined into firebreathingly earnest speeches:

LADY TOUCHWOOD: Death, do you dally with my passion?  Insolent devil!  But have a care,—provoke me not; for, by the eternal fire, you shall not ’scape my vengeance.  Calm villain!  How unconcerned he stands, confessing treachery and ingratitude!  Is there a vice more black?  Oh, I have excuses thousands for my faults; fire in my temper, passions in my soul, apt to ev’ry provocation, oppressed at once with love, and with despair.  But a sedate, a thinking villain, whose black blood runs temperately bad, what excuse can clear?

Violence

Right at the start Mellefont tells Careless that, provoked, Lady Touchwood made a run for his sword to do him or herself an injury. Later Lady Touchwood threatens to stab Maskwell. Maskwell gives her back the dagger so she can stab Mellefont. Lord Touchwood has to be restrained from drawing his sword and stabbing Mellefont when he thinks the latter has deflowered his wife, threatening to write the word ‘villain’ in his face with the tip of his sword!

Divorces not marriages

Comedies generally end in marriages, and this one sort of does, but the over-riding impression is of the catastrophic collapse of Lord Touchwood’s marriage, which dominates everything else, and finds echoes in Brisk’s adultery with Lady Froth and Lady Plyant’s verging on the edge of adultery with Careless.

Normally in these plays, one marriage at most is adulterated and its failure is outnumbered by two or so happy new marriages at the end. In this play the almost certain adultery of three marriages just outweighs the supposedly happy marriage which concludes it.

Incest

In fact, now I come to review the play, the theme of incest is almost more prevalent than marriage.

1. Mellefont is Lord Touchwood’s nephew. That means that, when Touchwood is led to believe Mellefont has been sleeping with Lady Touchwood it meant he was having sex with his own aunt – which was, in those times, considered incest – a crime she makes the most of when she play acts that Mellefont is ravishing her for the benefit of Lord Touchwood who has just entered the room:

LADY TOUCHWOOD: I’ll grow to the ground, be buried quick beneath it, e’er I’ll be consenting to so damned a sin as incest! unnatural incest!

2. Cynthia is Sir Paul Plyant’s daughter. Her mother died and Sir Paul remarried, so the current Lady Plyant is Cynthia’s step-mother. In other words, early in the play when Lady Plyant is led to believe that Mellefont wants to sleep with her, she stretches a point to claim that sleeping with your fiancée’s step-mother is incest:

LADY PLYANT: Oh, the impiety of it… and the unparalleled wickedness! O merciful Father! How could you think to reverse nature so, to make the daughter the means of procuring the mother?
MELLEFONT: The daughter to procure the mother!
LADY PLYANT: Ay, for though I am not Cynthia’s own mother, I am her father’s wife, and that’s near enough to make it incest.

Sir Paul Plyant and Lady Touchwood are brother and sister, tying the family relationships even tighter together. This sense of the characters forming a close-knit circle is a kind of geneological counterpart to the unity of place. It is a kind of unity of family which helps to make the play feel claustrophobic, as if it is all taking place within one family. It isn’t, but sometimes it feels as if it is.

Hamlet

Lord Touchwood is Mellefont’s Uncle. The accusation of incest keeps recurring. The keyword ‘villain’ is repeated. That, along with the frequent drawing of swords, reminds me more than ever of Hamlet. As does the unity of place – the claustrophobic castle at Elsinor and the claustrophobic gallery of Lord Touchwood’s house. And as does the frequent hiding in order to hear characters make key confessions – as Polonius hides behind an arras or Hamlet comes across Claudius praying, and as Touchwood sees the scene where Lady Touchwood pretends to be ravished, or Cynthia and Touchwood hide and finally discover the truth about Lady T and Maskwell.

Not the plot – the mood are sometimes cognate.

A family alliance

In fact in his introduction to the Penguin edition, Eric Rump points out that the marriage of Mellefont and Cynthia will not only unite two families but save them. It is made plain that Sir Paul Plyant has no male heir, only a daughter (Cynthia) and the way his second wife treats him, is unlikely to have any more children, while it is equally clear that Lord Touchwood, though blessed with properties, has no heir at all which is why he has adopted his nephew Mellefont as heir.

In other words, without the marriage, both families will go extinct. So there’s more than just money and a pretty woman riding on the marriage. There is the survival of two lineages, which explains Lord Touchwood’s outburst when Cynthia casually says she has vowed never to marry if she can’t marry Mellefont:

SIR PAUL: Never to marry! Heavens forbid! must I neither have sons nor grandsons? Must the family of the Plyants be utterly extinct for want of issue male? O impiety!

In which case:

All were ruined, all my hopes lost. My heart would break, and my estate would be left to the wide world.

A plight which will, presumably, have carried more weight and been more readily understandable to its original audience 330 years ago.

Soliloquies

And that brings me to another of the ways the play was experimental which is the large number of soliloquies it contains. In other Restoration comedies plenty of characters give little asides directly to the audience, but this is different. An ‘aside’ is almost always comic, whereas a soliloquy or dramatic monologue is almost always serious and, in this play, often very serious, Machiavellian and wicked.

The widespread use of soliloquy is another way in which the play feels like it’s using the language, the tone and techniques more associated with tragedy than comedy.

In fact the extensive use of soliloquy was singled out by commentators on the play for criticism, and Congreve goes to some lengths to defend it in the dedicatory epistle. He argues that a man alone talking to himself is generally a bad sign in life, but that a man thinking – weighing the pros and cons of an action – cannot be conveyed any other way onstage except through the medium of words. The audience cannot sit and watch a man doing nothing but think silently for 3 or 4 minutes. Therefore soliloquy must be allowed, or as Congreve drolly puts it, the playwright is ‘forced to make use of the expedient of speech, no other better way being yet invented for the communication of thought’.

And he makes the additional point about soliloquy that it tends to depict a character who’s contemplating criminal or anti-social activity. If a character is in love or anxious or afraid, they can easily share these feelings with a confidant – and hence most of the lead characters in Restoration comedy come accompanied by a confidant and a lot of the text consists of lead and confidant sharing thoughts, analysing the situation and so on.

But if a character is contemplating a crime, or a scheme whereby he or she plans to deceive some or all of the other characters, then by its very nature the character has to keep their thoughts to themselves.

Thus the surprising ubiquity of soliloquy in The Double Dealer is not a wilful experiment, it reflects the fact that two of the central characters – Maskwell and Lady Touchwood – spend a great deal of time devising schemes and then evaluating their schemes. It reflects the high proportion of ‘villainy’ in the text.

And pondering all this has made me understand better why soliloquy is more often found in tragedy – where wicked characters such as Iago or Macbeth are scheming – than in comedy – where the mere fact that you have characters joking about themselves or others requires dialogue.

So the mere existence of soliloquies in a play is a good indication of its fundamentally tragic nature. And the number of soliloquies in this play indicate that beneath all the (often very funny) comic scenes, lurks a fundamentally serious plot structure.

The happy couple

A final peculiarity is that the (often deeply buried) motor of the plot is the planned marriage of Mellefont and Cynthia which Maskwell’s malignancy is devoted to spiking. And yet the happy couple are very rarely on stage alone together, only two or three times and each one relatively brief.

In other words, the central relationship the whole narrative is meant to be about, is only very thinly sketched in. Eric Rump describes it as having a certain ‘autumnal feeling’ about it. And this is another reason why it pales into insignificance compared to the twin infidelities of Lady Touchwood and her towering tragic rages, which carry vastly more dramatic weight.

I can see why it ‘failed’. It’s a tragedy masquerading as a comedy. There are quite a few really funny scenes and moments in it – Brisk and Lady Froth converting a passionate embrace into a dancing lesson springs to mind, Careless brilliantly explaining away the love letter to his wife which was enraging Sir Paul, and Brisk’s nonchalant comment right at the end – but there are also howling rages, threats of murder and violence, references to incest, and it ends with a woman running howling offstage, an honourable marriage in ruins, and a Machiavellian villain dragged off virtually in chains.

And I can see why Congreve was cross that it failed and defends himself at more than usual length in the dedicatory epistle to the printed version. He had put a lot of effort into it. He was trying to do something new. He was hurt that carping critics attacked almost every aspect of his play.

Anyway, once bitten… In his third play he returned to a purity of comic tone and to the trusted comic techniques, which helped make it one of his best.


Metaphors

Having noticed Congreve’s stylish use of metaphors in The Old Bachelor, I was alert for them in this play, such as Careless’s casual military metaphor:

CARELESS: So you have manned your works; but I wish you may not have the weakest guard where the enemy is strongest.

Describing Maskwell’s faithlessness uses metaphors of gardening:

CARELESS: His affection to you, you have confessed, is grounded upon his interest, that you have transplanted; and should it take root in my lady, I don’t see what you can expect from the fruit.

This ability to choose an appropriate metaphor and then to extend it gracefully, is a sign of wit, and a sign of fools is that their analogies or metaphors are graceless or inappropriate. Here is Lady Plyant mixing her metaphors with laughable effect (and being complimented on it by her doting husband):

LADY PLYANT: Have I behaved myself with all the decorum and nicety befitting the person of Sir Paul’s wife?  Have I preserved my honour as it were in a snow-house for these three years past? Have I been white and unsullied even by Sir Paul himself?
SIR PAUL: Nay, she has been an invincible wife, even to me; that’s the truth on’t.
LADY PLYANT: Have I, I say, preserved myself like a fair sheet of paper for you to make a blot upon?
SIR PAUL: And she shall make a simile with any woman in England.

Whereas cognoscenti like Mellefont and Maskwell are masters of the extended metaphor:

MELLEFONT: Maskwell, welcome, thy presence is a view of land, appearing to my shipwrecked hopes. The witch has raised the storm, and her ministers have done their work: you see the vessels are parted.
MASKWELL: I know it. I met Sir Paul towing away Cynthia.  Come, trouble not your head; I’ll join you together ere to-morrow morning, or drown between you in the attempt.
MELLEFONT: There’s comfort in a hand stretched out to one that’s sinking

Useful phrases

When Lady Touchwood picks up a suggestion of Maskwell’s and adds an improvement, Maskwell says admiringly:

Excellent! Your ladyship has a most improving fancy.

‘You have a most improving fancy.’ I’d love to say that to someone in real life.

Radio production


Related links

Reviews of Restoration plays

The Old Bachelor by William Congreve (1693)

BELLMORE: Come, come, leave business to idlers and wisdom to fools; they have need of ’em.  Wit be my faculty, and pleasure my occupation; and let Father Time shake his glass.

In his lengthy reply to the stinging criticisms of the contemporary stage contained in the polemical pamphlet, A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage written by the bishop and theologian Jeremy Collier, William Congreve tells us that he wrote his first play, The Old Bachelor, while recovering from ‘a fit of sickness’ aged just 19! It’s an astonishing achievement for one so young.

A few years later, in 1692, young William arrived in London and showed The Old Bachelor to the leading literary figure of the day, John Dryden who, with typical generosity, declared he had never seen such a good first play in his life, but that it needed a bit of work cutting down to length and re-ordering some of the scenes.

Once revised, The Old Bachelor was promptly accepted by the only theatre company then performing in London, the United Company, and opened in March 1693. It was a smash-hit and had an extraordinary run of fourteen nights, which was getting on for a record for a Restoration comedy; some new plays ran for the bare minimum of three nights!

If you think about it, these incredibly short runs tell you everything about the size of the audience for these plays. It was minuscule. Was it even in the thousands? And this puts in context the many prologues and epilogues to the plays. Often the playwright and the actors knew key members of the audience personally, and so were directly addressing known individuals in the prologues and epilogues.

The Old Bachelor‘s success was in part attributed to the skilful performances of veteran performers Thomas Betterton and Anne Bracegirdle in the roles of Heartwell and Araminta, respectively.

I was startled to learn in a footnote that the music for the play was composed by Henry Purcell.

Cast list

I find the cast lists of these plays not only useful, but sometimes amusing – the comic names and descriptions – in their own right:

MEN
Heartwell, a surly old bachelor, pretending to slight women, secretly in love with Silvia
Bellmour, in love with Belinda
Vainlove, capricious in his love; in love with Araminta
Sharper
Sir Joseph Wittol
Captain Bluffe
Fondlewife, a banker
Setter, a pimp
Tribulation Spintext, a Puritan preacher (who never actually appears in the play)
Mr Gavot, musician to Araminta
Servant to Fondlewife.

WOMEN.
Araminta, in love with Vainlove
Belinda, her cousin, an affected lady, in love with Bellmour
Lætitia, wife to Fondlewife
Sylvia, Vainlove’s forsaken mistress
Lucy, maid to Sylvia
Betty, maid to Belinda

It’s all set in London. As I’ve read more of the plays, I’ve realised that Aphra Behn’s setting her most successful play, The Rover, in Italy, is by far the exception not the rule of Restoration comedy. Almost all the comedies are set in the same city and the same time as the audience. They are completely contemporary.

Act 1

Bellmour and Vainlove are two weary rakes. Vainlove likes seducing women but is easily bored and actively dislikes it if they come on to him. He goes to show Bellmour but gives him the wrong one by mistake, it is a letter from Vainlove’s recently spurned lover, Sylvia, reproving him for abandoning her. It then comes out that Bellmour slept with her, apparently in disguise so she didn’t realise who he was! But she sincerely loves Vainlove and he has dumped her.

Next Vainlove gives Bellmour the letter he’d intended to show him, a love letter from Laetitia, the wife of the comic character Fondlewife – he paid her a few polite compliments and now she’s sent him a damn love letter telling him her husband will be out of town on business and to come and see her in disguise. He asks Bellmour to do him a favour and do it for him – but Laetitia’s lovely says Bellmour – yes, but I hate being forced into an affair, complains Vainlove. They discuss getting Vainlove’s tailor, Settler, to provide a disguise for Bellmour. They briefly discuss the feeble character of the husband, Fondlewife, then Vainlove leaves ‘on business’.

Bellmour complains that he is already in love with one woman, has a dozen or so mistresses, and now Vainlove is suggesting he take on his beloved, God it’s an exhausting business, being a libertine! He says this in the form of a soliloquy, alone onstage, at which point enter Sharper, whose role is to provide comic asides, and start with a good line:

SHARPER:  I’m sorry to see this, Ned.  Once a man comes to his soliloquies, I give him for gone.

Enter Heartwell who they both mock for being a grumpy old misanthropist who doesn’t believe in love. Heartwell in turn mocks Bellmour and Vainlove for expending so much energy in the pursuit of women, and has a particularly cynical speech about how, when you’ve finally gone through all this faradiddle in order to get married, your baby will end up looking like half the aristocracy of England because your wife will have been unfaithful with them all. Visitors coo and tickle the baby and say:

‘Ay, the boy takes after his mother’s relations,’ when the devil and she knows ’tis a little compound of the whole body of nobility.

Heartwell leaves ‘on business’ and Bellmour spots two stock comic characters, Sir Joseph Wittol, a foolish knight, and his companion, the cowardly bully, Captain Bluffe, who he points out to Sharper. Bellmour explains that the night before he came across Wittol being set upon by footpads and freed him, though Wittol ran off without identifying his rescuer.

Act 2 scene 1

Sharper follows Sir Joseph to the location where he was mugged the night before, then pretends to be his mysterious rescuer but says that, alas, he lost a hundred pounds in the affray, and starts trying to dun Sir Joseph for it. This blustering old fool is trying to find a way out, when his sidekick and defender turns up, the swaggering blustering bully Captain Bluffe, and there is a richly comic scene of Sharper egging both men on to silly heights of boasting and braggartry, Bluffe in particular being scandalised that his heroic escapades in the recent wars don’t seem to have been reported in the news gazettes!

Act 2 scene 2

Araminta, in love with Vainlove, squabbles with her cousin Belinda, who affects to despise men –

BELINDA: Oh, you have raved, talked idly, and all in commendation of that filthy, awkward, two-legged creature man.

But is secretly in love with Bellmour. Araminta says Belinda dreamed of Bellmour last night, called out his name and embraced her (Araminta) as if she was him. Stuff and nonsense, cries Belinda, and calls her servant to prepare her things to go out, but at that moment a servant announces that Bellmour and Vainlove are visiting. After some indecision, Belinda decides to stay after all, in order to protect her cousin’s reputation, of course – though her cousin teases her it’s solely to see Bellmour.

Prolonged repartee during which all sides wittily cap each other’s allusions and barbs, with generalised sententiae about love and devotion. Araminta emerges as the quickest-witted of them – all of these plays feature one strong, determined and clever woman. There is a passage of particularly barbed banter between Bellmour who extravagantly paints his devotion and Belinda who scorns him. In fact when he asks her what she can do for her, she says shut up, which leads to a comic sequence where Bellmour continues his conversation in sign language until Belinda is so exasperated she lets him speak again.

Their musician, Mr Gavot, performs a song Araminta has written. This happens in most of the plays. Did Restoration aristocrats write songs this glibly and easily for their lady loves or is it purely a theatrical convention?

Act 3 scene 1

Sylvia is the woman Vainlove has jilted, and Lucy is her maid who, as so often, impertinently tells her boss the true state of affairs, namely that Vainlove will never love her again. Sylvia is consumed with envy for her love rival, Araminta, but Lucy says she has a Plan to fix that – send Vainlove a cloying letter as if from Araminta – a woman’s enthusiasm always puts Vainlove off.

LUCY: Contrive a kind letter as from her, ’twould disgust his nicety, and take away his stomach.

Meanwhile, here comes Heartwell – Lucy encourages Sylvia to make the best of a bad job and hook him. Soon she’ll be old. She needs to get a husband before she can.

Vainlove and Bellmour have tailed Heartwell to Sylvia’s house. They watch as the ageing foo hesitates whether to in or not and commit himself to the snare of womanhood. He does, as Bellmour and Vainlove stifle their mirth. Then Vainlove’s tailor, Setter, arrives: he has prepared a full set of clothes which allow Bellmour to masquerade as the earnest Puritan preacher Spintext.

Bellmour tells Setter to meet him with the costume later and exits. Setter launches into a comically high-minded speech about the relative merits of a manservant and a pimp. Lucy comes upon him and, as so often, a lead male character’s manservant is in love with a lead woman’s maidservant, their working class love affair echoing their betters’ affair but more crudely.

Congreve gives this kind of set scene an extra spin by having Lucy put on a face mask before talking to Setter and, given that his soliloquy was already laughably pretentious, the couple then launch into a parody of highfalutin’ tragedy, complete with what were obviously obscure and archaic words to convey their eminence and lofty sentiments. Lucy extracts from Setter that his master will be in Covent Garden later, then manages to get away without being covered in slobbery kisses.

Wittoll and Bluffe enter. Bluffe is cross that Sir Joseph has given Sharper £100, and works himself up into a fury of vengeance, declaring that if only Sharper were here, he would take his revenge and… at that precise moment Sharper and Bellmour appear onstage and Bluffe performs a comic blustering retreat. Sharper quickly detects how angry they are with him but also what cowards they are – and so takes to kicking Wittoll and beating Bluffe who swears he will have vengeance, but not now, not here, it’s too public and various other excuses.

Sharper and Bellmour exeunt laughing.

Act 3 Scene 2 Silvia’s lodgings

Enter Heartwell, the ageing anti-love exponent, the old bachelor of the title, and Sylvia, Vainlove’s jilted lover. Heartwell has laid on a dance, music and the performance of a song to impress Silvia. He then jangles his purse full of gold coins at her. His wooing of her is done in the higher, more poetic style the play occasionally drops into. Heartwell combines high-flown rhetoric with emotional clumsiness, for example offering to buy Sylvia outright. But when she beings to talk about marriage, he is suddenly very reluctant to marry her – because he thinks marriage is a fool’s estate – suggesting instead that she become his licensed mistress. Which makes Sylvia cry that she doesn’t want to live as a whore and burst into tears.

But when he finally leaves, after grabbing a few kisses, Sylvia turns to the audience and says:

SILVIA:  Ha, ha, ha, an old fox trapped –

Suggesting that everything she said in their scene together, all the sighs and tears, were a ploy, a trap to get him to marry her, to get her hands on his money. (Money is never far from the surface of these plays; they reveal what a major role it plays in human relationships.)

Sylvia’s servant Lucy enters and says she’s contrived a letter to Vainlove as if from Amarinta which will wreck their love.

Act 4 scene 1

Bellmour dressed up as the Puritan Spintext:

BELLMOUR: I wonder why all our young fellows should glory in an opinion of atheism, when they may be so much more conveniently lewd under the coverlet of religion.

Exits. Enter Fondlewife who, in a soliloquy, reveals he is jealous of his beautiful young wife, Laetitia. Then a scene in which he suspects her of adultery and she, in comic asides, reveals she is frightened he knows her true intent i.e. to be unfaithful with Vainlove, whilst to Fondlewife’s face playing the aggrieved wife. They both use baby talk which makes the scene more funny. Finally, she manages, with umpteen kisses, to pack him off on the overnight journey he’s taking on ‘business’.

It is an important fact that Fondlewife has arranged for a chaplain or preacher to be with her and instruct her while he is away. This is the content of the letter she had sent to Vainlove and which he showed Bellmour right at the start of the play i.e. ‘my husband is going away for the night, come in the disguise of a preacher.’

Vainlove and Sharper. They read the letter they’ve been sent, as from Amarinta, but in fact by Lucy. She has done her work well, correctly predicting that by making Amarinta come on strong, puts Vainlove off her:

VAINLOVE: I hate to be crammed. By heaven, there’s not a woman will give a man the pleasure of a chase: my sport is always balked or cut short. I stumble over the game I would pursue. ’Tis dull and unnatural to have a hare run full in the hounds’ mouth, and would distaste the keenest hunter. I would have overtaken, not have met, my game.

So they plan to meet Amarinta at Covent Garden that evening, but Vainlove will now spurn her. (Sharper thinks he’s a fool.)

Act 4 Scene 2

Bellmour, in disguise as Spintext the preacher, is shown into Mrs Fondlewife i.e. Laetitia’s rooms. No sooner has the servant left before he throws off his disguise and reveals himself to Laetitia who feigns shock and surprise, mainly because she was expecting Vainlove. But the scene is devoted to showing Bellmour’s formidable seduction technique as he slowly wins her round and by the end, by pretending to have a fainting fit, he gets her to agree he can lie on her bed to recover, and they exeunt into her bedroom.

Act 4 scene 3 St James’s Park

Setting for the afternoon rambles of the layabout aristocracy. Enter Belinda and Amarinta. It is much more obvious that Belinda is meant to be pretentious and affected and tells Amarinta how she took it upon herself to correct the manners of a country family up in town for the first time.

They put on masks as Sir Joseph Wittoll and the boasting soldier Captain Bluffe approach and there is some comic banter before the ladies spy Vainlove approaching, and tell the two buffoons to bugger off, although Sir Joseph realises Amarinta is heiress to a vast fortune and tells us in an aside he’d like to marry her.

The point of the scene is for Amarinta and Vainlove to be left alone, so he can act cold and in a roundabout way berate her for the letter she sent him. But since she didn’t send him the letter, she has no idea what is going on and quickly becomes angry, storming off.

Act 4 scene 4 Fondlewife’s house

Bellmour and Laetitia have had sex and emerge from the bedroom to hear Fondlewife’s voice coming up the stairs. Bellmour gathers up the preacher costume and Laetitia bundles him into the bedroom before opening the door to Fondlewife and Sir Joseph.

In this farcical scene, Fondlewife announces that he needs to go into the bedroom to collect the papers he forgot to take for his ‘business’ and Laetitia desperately tries to think up pretexts to stop him, at one point bundling into Sir John when Fondlewife’s back is turned and claiming the old bodger tried to molest her; which Fondlewife believes and pushes Sir John out the door with vivid Biblical imprecations.

But Fondlewife is still determined to enter the bedroom (where Bellmour is hiding) and so Laetitia suddenly has a brainwave and tells her husband the preacher came round and was giving her lessons in piety but had an attack of stomach ache and is lying on the bed. Fondlewife buys this, tiptoes into the bedroom, sees the form of Bellmour on the bed, gets his papers and tiptoes out, telling Laetitia they must get the maid to look after the poor preacher when… he sees the book. A book on the floor. The book Bellmour brought with him. And is it a book of devotion and piety? No. Fondlewife picks it up and realises that it is a French novel, The Innocent Adultery! No priest would carry this. Bellmour is busted!

Angrily, Fondlewife calls for the unknown man to come out of the bedroom, while Laetitia pleads she has no idea who he is or what he was doing there, wretched please which Fondlewife now brusquely dismisses.

But this scene turns into a further demonstration of Bellmour’s mastery as he manages to outface the situation. He comes out of the bedroom and confronts Fondlewife, declaring he is a whoremaster who pinched Spintext’s costume, then pretended to have colic in order to lie on her bed and was about to call her in when Fondlewife appeared – so he never got as far as seducing Laetitia.

Bellmour exudes confidence. Laetitia talks babytalk to Fondlewife. The latter softens. She faints. He believes her. Thus gullible husbands.

Act 5 scene 1 The street

Bellmour meets up with Setter and tells him the disguise worked a treat. Then they both see Heartwell arriving at Silvia’s house. Setter exits and Bellmour chats up Lucy, Silvia’s maid, with a kiss (seems like she’s one his many conquests) and some money, and asks her to keep up the pretence that he is a preacher, so he can marry the silly couple.

Enter Vainlove, Sharper and Setter. Setter tells them that the letter which upset Vainlove, the letter pretending to come from Amarinta, was in fact concocted by vengeful Silvia. This clears the way for Vainlove to be back in love with Amarinta!

The final scenes get confusing. Bellmour in the guise of the preacher falsely marries Heartwell and Silvia, then takes her aside, reveals his true identity and promises he will find her a better husband. He pops back into the street and tells Setter and Sharper to keep their eyes peeled for a replacement husband then exits. At this point Sir John and Captain Bluffe come along.

Setter and Sharper then have a whole series of machinations, some of which happen in whispers, or offstage, in some of which they pretend information to dupe Sir John and the Captain, and also Heartwell who Sharper appears to torment by dragging him towards his own house, promising him a fine young wench who’s up for a shag… until Heartwell realises it’s the wife he’s just married that Sharper is talking about. I got lost in the maze. I read this passage a couple of times and still didn’t understand the ins and outs. Partly because they don’t clearly state what they’re planning to do, they disappear into corners to mutter with the people they’re gulling…the schemes they’re cooking up only become clear as they emerge in the final scene.

In the penultimate passage, Bellmour and Belinda, Vainlove and Amarinta, are invited to Heartwell’s house. Somehow Sharper has got Silvia out of the house and conspired to convince Heartwell that his wife of half an hour is already off whoring. The four leads tease Heartwell about his stupidity in marrying and his cuckolded state: Belinda in particular emerges as sharp tongued and witty.

As Eric Rump points out in his introduction to the Penguin edition, this tormenting of Heartwell amounts to bullying and triggers him to give a speech which echoes Shylock’s in The Merchant of Venice:

HEARTWELL: How have I deserved this of you? any of ye?  Sir, have I impaired the honour of your house, promised your sister marriage, and whored her?  Wherein have I injured you?  Did I bring a physician to your father when he lay expiring, and endeavour to prolong his life, and you one and twenty?  Madam, have I had an opportunity with you and baulked it?  Did you ever offer me the favour that I refused it?

At moments like this does the comedy topple into something much more serious, into something momentarily closer to tragedy? Is it that much more serious precisely because it emerges from comedy, rather than one of the era’s over-wrought tragedies?

Eric Rump points out that the role of Heartwell – the Old Bachelor of the title – was taken by Thomas Betterton, the ‘Laurence Olivier of his day’, who also played tragic leads and so would have given the role more depth and seriousness than a purely comic actor. However you judge the effect, it is extremely impressive of Congreve to have touched this deeper nerve when he was barely into his twenties.

Anyway, our boys and girls goad Heartwell into declaring he will do anything to be rid of his married state, which is what they’re conspiring for all along – and we, the audience, know that he is not in fact married at all, since the ceremony was carried out by Bellmour in disguise.

On the last three pages the elaborate scam is revealed. Sharper and Settle have married Sir John and Captain Bluffe to two women they thought were Amarinta and Belinda – except they aren’t. The real Amarinta and Belinda now take their masks off to reveal themselves – to the two braggart soldiers’ shock and surprise – and when they turn to the women they have married – they reveal themselves as Silvia and Lucy.

SIR JOHN: Pray, madam, who are you?  For I find you and I are like to be better acquainted.
SILVIA: The worst of me is, that I am your wife—

So Lucy is married to Captain Bluffe – who announces he will no more to the wars – Silvia is married to the insufferable Sir John, but does at least acquire a title. And Heartwell breathes a huge sigh of relief to realise he isn’t married after all.

And Bellmour – with the abrupt reversal in attitude for which these plays are notorious – declares he is happy to acquire the fetters of marriage with acid-tongued Belinda. It only remains for Vainlove to marry Amarinta and all the loose ends are tied up but Bellmour notices Vainlove, given his contrary psychology, showing signs of reluctance to marry her and so announces that he and Belinda will get married first the next morning, to set an example to Vainlove and Araminta.

Then there’s the traditional music and dancing.


Animal imagery

There’s a lot of animal imagery. Vainlove is referred to as an ass, Bellmour an ape and a wolf in sheep’s clothing, Heartwell an old fox, Sir John a lion, women as hares to be hunted or partridges to be covered, cuckolded men are like stags with horns. The references add colourful imagery to the endless truisms about love and marriage and adultery.

Maybe they link to Belinda’s comment about ‘filthy, awkward, two-legged creature man’, but I don’t see that there’s anything very deep going on here. All the Restoration comedies are based on a worldview which sees human beings as amoral animals devoted to quenching animal drives, lust being topmost, but also drunkenness and gluttony, and using their God-given minds not to seek a devout and spiritual life, but to concoct fantastically complicated schemes for their own debauchery.

SIR JOSEPH: Nay, Gad, I’ll pick up; I’m resolved to make a night on’t… Adslidikins, bully, we’ll wallow in wine and women. Why, this same Madeira wine has made me as light as a grasshopper.

Quite often, reading these plays, you can sympathise with Bishop Collier and his characterisation of the plays as deliberately encouraging lust, avarice, greed, gluttony, jealousy, anger and sometimes violence.

VAINLOVE: Why did you not find me out, to tell me this before, sot?
SETTER: Sir, I was pimping for Mr. Bellmour.
SHARP: You were well employed.

More noticeable is Congreve’s way with extended metaphors, or with a metaphor which allows him to bring in colourful imagery. Thus at the very opening Bellmour has a little speech which in four clauses contains four images from the game of bowls:

BELLMOUR: Business is the rub of life, perverts our aim, casts off the bias, and leaves us wide and short of the intended mark.

This is so contrived I wonder if the actor paused and waited for a ripple of applause from the audience at the author’s cleverness.

At the start of Act Five, Bellmour bumps into Setter who asks him how things went in the plot to have sex with Laetitia, and both of them jokily use an extended naval metaphor to describe the result:

SETTER: Joy of your return, sir. Have you made a good voyage? or have you brought your own lading back?
BELLMOUR: No, I have brought nothing but ballast back – made a delicious voyage, Setter; and might have rode at anchor in the port till this time, but the enemy surprised us – I would unrig.

So Bellmour has unloaded his cargo.

Misandry

Woke modern critics attack the Restoration comedies for their misogyny e.g. Sharper describing Araminta as:

a delicious melon, pure and consenting ripe, and only waits thy cutting up.

But it seems to me that all the characters, regardless of gender, age or class, manipulate and denigrate each other on the basis of an utterly heartless and cynical worldview. And for every dismissive generalisation the men make about women, the women make one about men, and the aristocrats make about their servants, and the servants make about their stupid masters.

  • BELINDA:  Oh, you have raved, talked idly, and all in commendation of that filthy, awkward, two-legged creature man.
  • LUCY: Man was by nature woman’s cully made:
  • HEARTWELL: Lying, child, is indeed the art of love, and men are generally masters in it
  • ARAMINTA to VAINLOVE: Thou hadst all the treachery and malice of thy sex

The plays may contain umpteen libels against women, but the biggest indictment is how the men talk and behave and Belinda has a vivid little speech about how, in the end, disappointing men are, after all the impressive wooing, once you actually marry them.

BELINDA:Thou art so troublesome a lover, there’s hopes thou’lt make a more than ordinary quiet husband.
BELLMOUR: Is that a maxim among ye?
BELINDA: Yes: you fluttering men of the mode have made marriage a mere French dish… You are so curious in the preparation, that is, your courtship, one would think you meant a noble entertainment – but when we come to feed, ’tis all froth, and poor, but in show.  Nay, often, only remains, which have been I know not how many times warmed for other company, and at last served up cold to the wife.

The exhausted libertine

I think it’s Dorimant in The Man of Mode that critics point out sounds tired – or is it Belvile in The Rover? The point is that many of the plays start with the leading male character sounding exhausted.

Now, the critics I read appear to take this at face value as an indictment of the libertine lifestyle as a whole, as if the plays are observational documentaries. But something in Bellmour’s final words in this play made me realise there’s a simpler and less moralising interpretation.

Structurally, all the plays end with the lead characters marrying and many critics have pointed out the complete lack of psychological verisimilitude involved in witty, cynical characters who’ve spent four acts slagging off marriage as an institution for stubborn fools – suddenly decide marriage is a wonderful state and enter into it with boundless enthusiasm.

Seen from this perspective, the trope of the tired libertine makes more sense. It stands to reason that, in preparation for this last act about-face, hints should be dropped right from the start that the lead libertine is actually quite tired of his life of endless seduction and is, in fact, teetering on the brink of abandoning it.

And therefore that the male lead’s expression of these thoughts and feelings have little or no moral or psychological content, but are a structural necessity of the form, as formulaic as most other aspects of the plays.

In fact, almost all these Restoration comedies can be reinterpreted as the final acts in the libertine’s long career. They’re all plays about Life Changes and Conversions.


Related links

Reviews of other Restoration plays

The Country Wife by William Wycherley (1675)

“It is a good representation of the age in which that Comedy was written, at which time love and wenching were the business of life, and the gallant manner of pursuing women was the best recommendation at Court.”
(Richard Steele commenting on a revival of The Country Wife in 1709)

Coming fresh from reading George Etherege’s The Man of Mode, The Country Wife immediately struck me as more wordy and less funny. I liked Dorimant and Medley in The Man of Mode, they had quick, funny repartee.  Horner, the lead character in The Country Wife, and his two aristocratic sidekicks, Harcourt and Dorilant, don’t have dialogue so much as speeches which try to outdo each other in their studied cynicism, which I found rather wearing:

HARCOURT: Mistresses are like books. If you pore upon them too much, they doze you, and make you unfit for company; but if used discreetly, you are the fitter for conversation by ’em.
DORILANT: A mistress should be like a little country retreat near the town; not to dwell in constantly, but only for a night and away, to taste the town the better when a man returns.

At moments like this the play feels almost like sitting through a corporate presentation where successive members of the Board line up to bombard you with repetitive endorsements of the company’s achievements, except in this case each character is trying to outdo the previous one’s cynicism about women or marriage.

Maybe each actor took it in turns to make his cynical speech, did a little bow to indicate when it ended then waited for the audience to applaud his breath-taking cynicism, before the next actor stepped forward to cap it.

HARCOURT: Most men are the contraries to that they would seem. Your bully, you see, is a coward with a long sword; the little humbly-fawning physician, with his ebony cane, is he that destroys men.
DORILANT: The usurer, a poor rogue, possessed of mouldy bonds and mortgages; and we they call spendthrifts, are only wealthy, who lay out his money upon daily new purchases of pleasure.
HORNER: Ay, your arrantest cheat is your trustee or executor; your jealous man, the greatest cuckold; your churchman the greatest atheist; and your noisy pert rogue of a wit, the greatest fop, dullest ass, and worst company.

Pause, applause.

The plot

Brief plot summary

Harry Horner pretends to be impotent so as to sleep with more women. His friends Harcourt and Dorilant ridicule the idiotic fop, Sparkish, and Harcourt falls in love with Sparkish‘s intelligent and honourable fiancée, Alithea. Meanwhile, quick-tempered, miserly Pinchwife has married a simple country woman and brings her up to London where he hopes to keep her away from all corrupting influences by locking her up in her bedroom whenever he goes out. But nonetheless she quickly catches the corrupt manners of the times, and also falls in love with Horner.

More detailed plot summary

Three plotlines are entwined. Libertine Harry Horner has paid a doctor to declare he’s had an operation which has made him impotent, a eunuch, and to publicise the fact. When respectable women visit he abuses them in a misanthropic way, indicating he is past ‘the chase’.

And so he uses the cover of impotence to chat up aristocratic women, well, one aristocratic woman, Lady Fidget, whose husband – Sir Jasper Fidget – is cheerfully convinced Horner presents no threat. Horner progresses from this first conquest, by steady steps, to being admitted into the personal chambers and changing rooms of a number of posh women. In Act 4 Sir Jasper even encourages his wife to go into a locked room with Horner – from which they emerge laden with double entendres about him taking her from behind – and thinks none the worse of it. Horner‘s doctor looks onto this scene from a hiding place in disbelief.

Horner has a gang of two libertine friends, Frank Harcourt and Dick Dorilant. They enjoy mocking a fourth man, a would-be libertine who is incredibly dim and slow, Sparkish. Sparkish is scheduled to marry his lady love, Alithea, the next day, but Harcourt falls in love with her and proceeds to woo her in a series of different contexts and scenes.

The running gag is that Sparkish is so convinced that his friends (Horner, Harcourt and Dorilant) love and respect him as ‘one of them’ that he lets Harcourt say all kinds of things to Alithea right in front of him, convinced it is all just harmless rakeish joshing – a level of idiocy which convinces Alithea that Sparkish is too stupid to marry.

In Act 3 Harcourt dresses up as a chaplain to perform the marriage of Alithea and Sparkish during which he plans to steal Alithea away. Alithea spots the deception but dim Sparkish believes Harcourt‘s absurd story that he is his own twin brother.

The third plotline concerns another semi-rake, Pinchwife (who is Sparkish‘s brother) who has been away to the country and there married a wonderfully beautiful wife – Margery – who is utterly ignorant of the cynical worldly ways of the big city. Pinchwife brings Margery up to London but makes a whole series of classic errors, for example introducing her to Horner, Harcourt and Dorilant, letting her go to the theatre and so on, so that she slowly catches on to Big City ways and, by Act 4, has fallen in love with Horner who saw her at the theatre (despite Pinchwife‘s best efforts to keep her hid, in fact despite the numerous times he locks her into her bedroom whenever he goes out).

In Act 5 there is quite a funny scene where three aristocratic ladies ask Horner to make up a four for cards, and proceed to reveal their feminine secrets, before it finally emerges that Horner is sleeping with all three of them! They vow to form a sisterhood to keep it secret, but then Mrs Pinchwife arrives and threatens to reveal everything.

At which point Sir Jasper arrives and there is a mini crisis. For the first time, Jasper dimly begins to suspect that Horner has been faking impotence all this time – before Alithea and Harcourt and Sparkish arrive and convince him that, yes, Horner really is incapable of love.

Eventually everything is sorted out. With the help of the doctor, Horner maintains his reputation for impotence – and his three noble lovers. Sparkish realises he has been done out of Alithea who, realising he is an imbecile, has married Harcourt. And Mrs Pinchwife is reluctantly persuaded to abandon her schoolgirl crush on Horner, go back to Pinchwife and both of them go and rusticate in the country.

That’s the end of the plot which is signalled by the arrival of the maskers and singing and dancing.

Abuse

There are some fine comic moments – the scenes where:

  • Harcourt woos Alithea right in front of Sparkish who insists it’s all just harmless joshing is so preposterous, it’s funny
  • So convinced is he of Horner’s impotence, that Lord Jasper virtually forces his wife to go into a locked chamber with Horner to ostensibly discuss ‘china’. It becomes clear from the context that they have made this not only an ad hoc code word for sex, but, apparently, for semen, for the ‘load’ which a woman receives during sex. They emerge from the locked room to find another of Horner’s mistresses has just arrived who, when she hears what has been going on, also demands to be taken into the locked room to discuss ‘china’, while Horner humorously pleads that he has used up his current supply but will be full again by the evening. I can’t see any way this refers to anything other than his semen, and this explains why the ‘china’ scene became the most notorious of any restoration comedy, and was seized on by religious critics of these plays as the ultimate in sordid smut.
  • It is a broad comic revelation moment when the three women playing cards – Lady Fidget, Mrs Fidget and Mrs Squeamish – all realise Horner has been sleeping with them. Even funnier when they go on, in a sisterly way, to say ‘Oh well, such is life, but we’d better make  pact to hide it from the world’. At moments like this you realise the plays revel in upturning all ‘moral standards’ about sex, and showing people as hypocrites who are only interested in keeping up appearances.

These are some of the more striking, extreme and funny situations. But nonetheless, I still felt the overall style was very wordy – that Wycherley’s characters made short speeches at each other rather than engaging in dialogue.

And, apart from feeling lectured and harangued throughout, I also felt the text sometimes descended into sheer abuse.

Bullying For a start when the three caballeros, Horner, Harcourt and Dorilant gang up on the idiot fop, Sparkish, it really does feel like ganging up. It reminds me of bullying at school. They insult him to his face, at length, and Harcourt makes a joke of making love (i.e. chatting up) Sparkish’s wife, Alithea, right in front of him, but which poor Sparkish insists is just ordinary banter between such such gallants, such beaux as him and his best friends – an attitude Alithea justly describes as ‘invincible stupidity’.

But my point is, the audience is encouraged to laugh at Sparkish’s stupidity and gullibility as much as the characters on stage. I found all the scenes with Sparkish in, too close to bullying and/or taking the mickey out of a rather slow person to be truly funny.

Woman-hating Loath though I am to admit it, this play began to make me see the point of the feminist critics who talk about the ‘misogyny’ of Restoration culture. You can argue a lot against it – that the characters’ attitude is often one of general misanthropy, that the women make as sweeping generalisations and criticism of men (‘Men in love be fools’) as the men do of women, that everyone takes the mickey out of the older generation (‘grave Matrons and old rigid Husbands’), of husbands (100% of husbands exist to be cuckolded and ridiculed) and wives (exist to be seduced), of their servants (exist to be insulted). Everyone despises and ridicules the country, and so on.

Nonetheless, by half-way through this play I began to feel a bit sick of the sweeping, insulting generalisations the men are continually making about women.

  • HORNER: Well, a Pox on love and wenching. Women serve but to keep a Man from better Company.
  • PINCHWIFE: Well, there is no being too hard for Women at their own weapon, lying,
  • HORNER: Indeed, Madam, the time was I only hated virtuous Women, but now I hate the other too.
  • HORNER: Ay, Women are as apt to tell before the intrigue as Men after it, and so show themselves the vainer Sex.
  • PINCHWIFE: Why should Women have more invention in love than men? It can only be because they have more desires, more soliciting passions, more lust, and more of the Devil.
  • PINCHWIFE: Come let me lock you up in your chamber till I come back. And be sure you come not within three strides of the window when I am gone. (Exit Mrs. Pinchwife. Pinchwife locks the door.) If we do not cheat women, they’ll cheat us.
  • PINCHWIFE: Our sisters and daughters, like usurers’ money, are safest when put out; but our wives, like their writings, never safe, but in our closets under lock and key.

Cutting and pasting them out like this does bring out the fact that the two most misogynist characters are singled out for that quality i.e. it is not universal across all the male characters. That Horner makes many speeches belittling women in his disguise as a eunuch, and Pinchwife is intended to be an extreme character, a miserly, paranoid fool (a ‘stingy country coxcomb’).

Whereas other characters, such as jovial Sir Jasper or affable Harcourt, have much more balanced and reasonable opinions about women, and quite a few of the female characters give as good as they get.

  • SQUEAMISH: That Men of parts should take up with and spend fortunes in keeping little Playhouse Creatures, foh!
  • LADY FIDGET: All Men of honour desire to come to the test. But indeed, generally you Men report such things of yourselves, one does not know how or whom to believe.

Still. I found the sustained atmosphere of women-denigrating negative and unpleasant.

SPARKISH: Come, she and you must go dine with me. Dinner’s ready, come. But where’s my Wife? Where is she?
PINCHWIFE: Making you a Cuckold, ’tis that they all do as soon as they can.

Threats Once or twice characters descend from insults into blunt threats of violence. These may come off onstage, they may have a kind of wild humour to them when acted – but reading them cold just felt horrible.

PINCHWIFE to his wife: Write as I bid you, or I will write “Whore” with this knife in your Face… I will stab out those eyes that cause my mischief. (Holds up the knife)

Now, Pinchwife is intended to be an angry, paranoid, foolish character in a play which is itself made out of exaggerations and stereotypes. Pinchwife’s ill-tempered threats to draw his sword at the drop of a hat, against men or women or anyone who asperses his honour are a conscious comic motif. But still…

Much more than in the Behn or the Etherege plays, I felt the characters were like robots going through cleverly constructed motions, like pieces of Swiss clockwork. Each scene is cleverly constructed, but the characters in it felt as if they had little or nothing to do with robots of the same name appearing in other scenes. There is little in the way of character no psychological depth, nothing resembling character development. Each avatar is more like a bundle of mechanical responses to mechanically assembled and highly contrived situations.

I vaguely thought I liked Restoration comedy till I came to reread these plays and realised how dry, how mechanical and contrived, how regularly unpleasant, and above all what very hard work they are to read.


Related links

Other Restoration plays

Reviews of other plays

The Rover, or The Banished Cavaliers by Aphra Behn (1677)

‘I know not what thou mean’st, but I’ll make one at any Mischief where a Woman’s concerned’
(Willmore, the Rover of the title)

Aphra Behn (1640-89) is generally considered the first professional woman writer in English literature. She wrote poems, essays and prose narratives but in her own day was best known as the author of some 18 plays, indeed she was second only to the poet laureate John Dryden in terms of theatrical productivity. The Rover is by common consent the most polished and entertaining of her plays.

In fact The Rover comes in two parts, each a self-contained five-act Restoration comedy. Part two contains some though not all of the same characters and so is a sequel, though it was never as popular as the original. Both were heavily plagiarised from a similarly two-part, ten-act play, Thomaso, or The Wanderer, written by the Royalist exile and companion of Charles II, Thomas Killigrew. Thomaso was never performed onstage but was published in 1663-4. Behn comprehensively rewrote it, turning its turgid style and long wordy speeches into brisk comic dialogue.

The argument

The Project Gutenberg online edition is prefaced by a prose summary of the plot. Here it is with my additions and comments:

During the exile of Charles II a band of cavaliers, prominent amongst whom are Willmore (the Rover), Belvile, Frederick, and Ned Blunt, find themselves at Naples in carnival time. Belvile, who at a siege at Pamplona (in Spain) has rescued a certain Florinda and her brother Don Pedro, now loves the lady, and the tender feeling is reciprocated. Florinda’s father, however, designs her for the elderly Vincentio, whilst her brother would have her marry his friend Antonio, son to the Viceroy.

Belville, Fred and Blunt greet Willmore who has just arrived by boat in Naples in company of ‘the Prince’ (the implication being the exiled Charles II). Florinda, her sister Hellena (who is intended for the veil i.e. to become a nun), their cousin Valeria, and their duenna Callis surreptitiously visit the carnival, all in masquerade, and there encounter the cavaliers. Florinda flirts with Belvile and arranges to meet him that night at her garden-gate. Willmore is bewitched by the ready wit of Hellena who is pretending to be a gypsy.

Meanwhile a picture of Angelica Bianca, a famous courtesan, is publicly exposed, guarded by bravos. Antonio and Pedro dispute who shall give the 1,000 crowns she demands for her ‘favours’, and draw swords. After a short fray Willmore, who has boldly pulled down the picture, is admitted to the house, and declares his love, together with his complete inability to pay the price she requires. Angelica, none the less, falling in love at first sight, yields to him.

Hellena and Florinda appear in the street below, the latter mocking Hellena for so suddenly and completely falling in love with the man she briefly met earlier (Willmore). Belvile and pals arrive, knock at Angelica’s door and get Willmore sent out to them. Wilmore makes it plain he has slept with Angelica. Hellena, eavesdropping, hears all this from a hiding place and is heart-broken, but when she confronts him Willmore outfaces the situation and resumes his ardent courtship of her, which is detected by the jealous Angelica, who has followed him vizarded.

In the same scene Florinda in disguise had approached and talked to Belvile, trying to seduce him, but found him loyal to the women he’s in love with which, she realises, is her. She gets him to promise to meet her in ‘the garden’ that evening and leaves a pledge with her which he realises, once she’s gone, is a little picture of his beloved.

A comic interlude in which simple honest Essex gentleman Ned Blunt is enticed back to her house by a very willing whore, Lucetta, who lures him up to her bedroom, where she hops into bed and asks him to strip off, which he promptly does. But as he stumbles towards her a) the lights go out b) the bed moves (a piece of comic mechanism) and c) Ned tumbles through a trapdoor down into a sewer – leaving Lucetta and her pimp Philippo to count the gold they find in Blunt’s clothes. The scene cuts to New Blunt emerging from the mouth of the sewer, very smelly and very sorry.

Florinda that night goes to the garden gate to meet Belvile, but encounters Willmore who is drunk and tries to ravish her. Her cries attract Belvile and Fred, who interrupt drunk Willmore, but then immediately her brother, Don Pedro, and the servants. Florinda just has time to tell Belvile to come back and loiter under her bedroom window later, before she escapes back into the house where she pretends to be fast asleep. Don Pedro and servants beat off Willmore et al who run away.

Willmore has to endure the reproaches of Belvile, who is furious with him for assaulting his beloved. They have wandered to the front of Angelica’s house, where they hide as Antonio approaches and makes as about to enter the house. Because he still feels linked to Angelica Willmore staggers forward and attacks Antonio with his sword, wounding him, before reeling offstage. Belvile goes to Antonio‘s aid just as officers run up and arrest him, conveying him by Antonio’s orders to the Viceroy’s palace.

Antonio comes to Belvile in his cell, with his arm in a sling, and they make friends, Antonio asks Belvile to wear a mask (vizard) and impersonate him in a duel he has to fight with Florinda‘s brother, Don Pedro. Florinda intervenes to part them and Don Pedro gallantly assigns his sister to him thinking he is Antonio(Florinda refuses to be bullied but then Belvile pulls up his mask and reveals to her it is him.) But just as things are panning out well, Willmore staggers up and knocks Belvile’s mask off, Don Pedro realises it is he, and drags Florinda away.

Belvile is even more furious with Willmore and when he won’t stop talking, draws his sword and chases him offstage.

Angelica next comes in hot pursuit of Willmore. She accuses him of faithlessness, he gets bored and wants to hasten off to an appointment with the ‘gypsy’. They are interrupted by the ‘gypsy’ – in reality, Hellena, who arrives dressed as a boy. She tells a tale of the Rover’s amour with another dame and so rouses the jealous courtesan to fury, with Willmore intervening and beginning to suspect this young lad is Hellena. These scenes are getting confusing. Willmore makes excuses and leaves Angelica lamenting that all her beauty cannot hold such a treacherous man.

Florinda, meanwhile, who has escaped from her brother, running into an open house to evade detection, finds herself in Ned Blunt’s apartments. Blunt is sitting half-clad in a very angry mood, reflecting on having been stripped and duped by the whore Lucetta. Florinda throws herself on his mercy but he vows to use and abuse her:

Cruel, yes, I will kiss and beat thee all over; kiss, and see thee all over; thou shalt lie with me too, not that I care for the Injoyment, but to let you see I have ta’en deliberated Malice to thee, and will be revenged on one Whore for the Sins of another; I will smile and deceive thee, flatter thee, and beat thee, kiss and swear, and lye to thee, imbrace thee and rob thee, as she did me, fawn on thee, and strip thee stark naked, then hang thee out at my Window by the Heels, with a Paper of scurvey Verses fasten’d to thy Breast, in praise of damnable Women

Enter Fred who begins to believe Florinda‘s protestations, especially when she mentions Belvile and how he will thank them if they are kind to her. Hmm. Blunt‘s determination on revenge is mollified by the present of a diamond ring, but at this moment a servant announces his friends and Don Pedro are arriving, so they lock Florinda away.

Belvile had told him Don Pedro that Blunt was a fool and would be a good source of amusement. Now, despite his protestations, they break down the door to his rooms and, sure enough, all have a good laugh at Blunt’s expense. But he insists he’s going to have the last laugh and take it out on another Italian whore. But when he shows them the diamond ring Florinda gave him, Belvile immediately recognises it as the love token he gave Florinda much earlier in the play. However, the rest of the company are determined to ‘enjoy’ her as much as Blunt, and in fact draw straws in the shape of drawing their swords to find out whose is longest. Ironically, it is Don Pedro‘s who is promptly sent into the room where Florinda is hiding in order to ravish her – his own sister! Florinda comes running out pursued by Don Pedro, but she is in disguise and he doesn’t recognise her.

A servant arrives and tells Don Pedro his sister is not safe at home – as he thought – but has run off dressed as a page. He makes his excuses and leaves. The moment he’s gone Belvile acknowledges Florinda, they leap into each other’s arms, Willmore says, so this is the woman you’ve been pining for all along’, Fred begs her pardon. A boy is sent out to fetch a priest and Florinda and Belvile go into the other room to be married.

They leave Willmore to protect the pass in case anyone arrives to interrupt the ceremony but who arrives is Angelica in disguise. Willmore totally gives himself away by excitedly hoping it is his ‘gypsy’ i.e. Hellena. Infuriated, Angelica puts a pistol to his chest and is about to shoot him dead. She follows him round the stage as he outdoes himself with a stream of justifications of the cynical debaucher’s attitude.

To everyone’s surprise Antonio walks in, still wearing the sling from where Willmore wounded him last night and takes the pistol off Angelica. But when he realises the man she was threatening is his attacker from last night, he himself threatens Willmore. At which moment Don Pedro enters and overhears Angelica and Antonio declaring their love. Antonio! The man he intended to marry his sister, Florinda!

Also Don Pedro is angry because he challenged Antonio to a duel and Antonio sent a deputy, an impersonator in disguise, who turned out to be Belvile, his own rival. Don Pedro is angry with him and say, as soon as his arm has recovered, he’ll challenge him to another duel. He leaves and Pedro says he is so angry with the man whose cause he tried to promote, he is in a mood to give his sister to Belvile.

Funny you should say that, says Willmore – they are in the other room and have just got married. At which point they emerge and Pedro gives Belvile and his sister his heartiest congratulations. They exit and Willmore is about to follow them when he is accosted by Hellena. There follows a really long dialogue of wits, and he finds he is attracted to her wit and intelligence. He discovers he is ready to marry her. In a comic moment he asks if he may know her name.

The rest of the cast re-enter and Pedro is initially furious that his other sister is being ravished away, the one intended for a nunnery but, in another comic moment, bold Hellena asks the cast whether she should throw in her lot with Heaven or with the Captain:

Hellena: Let most Voices carry it, for Heaven or the Captain?
All cry: a Captain, a Captain.
Hellena: Look ye, Sir – ’tis a clear Case.

Enter Ned Blunt looking ludicrous in a badly fitting Spanish outfit, to give everyone a laugh.

Then enter a group of mummers passing by to the masquerade, who are invited in to play music and dance, thus rounding the play out with music and gaiety.

And the very last lines are to Willmore, the rover himself, as he leads Hellena into the adjoining room to be married.

Willmore: Have you no trembling at the near approach [of marriage]?
Hellena: No more than you have in an Engagement or a Tempest.
Willmore: Egad, thou’rt a brave Girl, and I admire thy Love and Courage.

Lead on, no other Dangers they can dread,
Who venture in the Storms o’ th’ Marriage-Bed.

And thus this convoluted series of shenanigans comes to an end. It is obviously designed to amuse a sophisticated London theatre audience, a large part of which would be precisely the kind of amoral aristocrats the play depicts, so they would enjoy seeing their lifestyle depicted on stage – while others would enjoy moralising about them.

The gossip instinct

It struck me the play is a kind of concatenation of gossip in the sense that

  1. the characters on stage spend almost all their time gossiping about each others affairs’
  2. they spend a lot of time pondering and reflecting and – in effect – gossiping about their own affairs
  3. and this complicated spectacle prompts members of the audience, or readers, to gossip about the gossip – to approve or disapprove of Willmore, to opine that Florinda is too hard or too soft etc

You know the magazines you get at supermarket checkouts which are stuffed full of stories about the stars of TV soaps or presenters of Good Morning Britain or Loose Women, the endless supply of tittle tattle about celebrities going out, getting married, getting pregnant, being unfaithful, splitting up with their partners, getting back together with their partners? Well – it’s like them.

The academics who introduce plays and texts like this are paid to write about them in terms of ‘gender representation’ and ‘female agency’ and ‘women’s empowerment’ and Restoration ‘misogyny’ and the handy cover-all term, ‘The Patriarchy’ (all these terms can be found in the Oxford World Classics introduction to The Rover).

I don’t deny that these are real things, are valid ideas, interpretations, and worth exploring – although the solid wall of feminist interpretation laid over everything like carpet felt, does often get very monotonous, monoglot and wearing.

But I’m suggesting something much simpler and more obvious. These plays – Restoration plays – full of theatrical artifice, 18th century language and elaborate games as they may well be – also appeal to the basic human instinct for Gossiping. They cater to the same love of judging and moralising about other people’s (‘ooh that Willmore!’) as the endless celebrity tittle-tattle which fills the Daily Mail.

Comedy

Also, it is easier to moralise and judge than to write about humour. It is notoriously difficult to write about comedy – to convey in a flat essay the thousand and one things which make an audience smile or laugh, from ironic asides, tone of voice, sarcasm, pratfalls, bathos, grotesque characters, comic mistakes, comic business with props, gags with punchlines and so on.

Much easier to grandly state that a narrative ‘subverts’ 18th century ‘gender stereotypes’ – any schoolgirl can write that kind of thing these days, it’s taught at GCSE and A-level and at university: anybody writing like that is just faithfully parroting what their teachers taught them degree level. Much harder to pinpoint just why The Rover is the brightest and funniest of Behn’s plays.

For example, when Hellena points out that aged Don Vincenzio may increase Florinda’s ‘Bags but not her family‘ I take it as a sly dig at his probable impotence, to be said with a knowing leer to the audience to trigger a fnah fnah laugh. Or, in the same speech, Hellena vividly pictures the scene as her young sister is forced, night after night, to accompany the aged Don Vincencio to his bed. After she has performed the disgusting task of undressing him…

That Honour being past, the Giant stretches it self, yawns and sighs a Belch or two as loud as a Musket, throws himself into Bed, and expects you in his foul Sheets, and e’er you can get your self undrest, calls you with a Snore or two – And are not these fine Blessings to a young Lady?

What middle-aged wife would not recognise this unflattering portrait of her husband? It reminds me of the jokes about unromantic age which fill the TV series Last of The Summer Wine

Clichés and conventions

Italy It is set in Italy. The wickedest reprobates and comic plots are always Italian (cf Shakespeare comedies with their endless Antonios). In fact, there are multiple reasons for its foreign locatio:

– The nations of Europe (and of Britain) were freely stereotyped. Italy was thought to have very devious and sophisticated people – suiting both comedies or tragedies that depended on plot devices like deception and treachery

– Italians were thought to be more hot-blooded and passionate than the phlegmatic Brits (a belief which runs through the 18th and 19th centuries, underpins countless novels and continues, in some quarters, up to this day) – thus allowing for a degree of sexual passion which might not be believable in Brits

I like their sober grave way, ’tis a kind of legal authoriz’d Fornication, where the Men are not chid for’t, nor the Women despis’d, as amongst our dull English;

– Italians were popularly known for their violence – always quick to grab a sword or dagger – as in Romeo and Juliet

Yes: ’Tis pretty to see these Italian start, swell, and stab at the Word Cuckold,

– The weather is better in Italy – so the people are more often outside – in gardens, streets and so on, bumping into each other and thus providing the potential for countless complicated comic permutations. It never rains in plays like this as, of course, it regularly rains in England, keeping people trapped moodily indoors.

Blunt: What a Dog was I to stay in dull England so long

– Also there was the simple pleasure that it was a foreign country with an exotic language, food, customs etc there was a sort of mental tourism in seeing plays in Italy

Faith I’m glad to meet you again in a warm Climate, where the kind Sun has its god-like Power still over the Wine and Woman.

Spain Same sort of thing –

Belvile: Remember these are Spaniards, a sort of People that know how to revenge an Affront.

But with the difference that Britain had little or no military or geographical interest in Italy, whereas we were at war with Spain for a good deal of the 16th century and were major rivals for imperial territories, for example in the Caribbean. Behn has the whore Lucetta’s pimp Philippo find gold pieces from ‘Old Queen Bess’s reign in Ned Blunt’s waistband and comment:

We have a Quarrel to her ever since Eighty Eight, and may therefore justify the Theft,

I.e. the character is made to say that the Spanish have had a quarrel with the British since 1588, the year of the Spanish Armada, the attempt at an amphibious invasion of England which was designed to overthrow the Protestant queen and impose a Catholic Spanish dictatorship, all blessed by the Pope. The Armada had taken place about 70 years before the play’s production, so the same length of time as separates us from the Second World War, which we still remember and commemorate.

Therefore English writing about Spain often has a more bitter or harder edge, whereas Italy had and still has, fewer negative connotations. So it is a little notable that so many of the actual characters are Spanish. Still, the same hot-blooded, exotic rules apply.

English Also, being set abroad allows some of the characters to ridicule the home audience, the English, which is also humorous.

This is a stranger, I know by his gazing; if he be brisk he’ll venture to follow me; and then, if I understand my Trade, he’s mine: he’s English too, and they say that’s a sort of good natur’d loving People, and have generally so kind an opinion of themselves, that a Woman with any Wit may flatter ’em into any sort of Fool she pleases.

Which might have brought ironic cheers from the London audience.

Young woman struggling to be free A young woman is being forced to marry an old man by her wicked father for the money (Florinda being hustled to marry aging but rich Don Vincentio).

The young couple Whereas the young woman wants to marry a dashing young hero: There is a pair of young lovers – Florinda and Don Belvile.

The confidante The young woman has a comic confidante to provide a running comic commentary on the main action and make cynical asides and jokes. This leaves the heroine free to express only Noble and Dignified sentiments – in this instance the cynical humorous confidante is her sister Hellena.

The two couples In fact, as the play unfolded I realised there are two couples.This, apparently, is a core, stock convention of Restoration comedy –

A particularly appealing feature is the contrast between two pairs of lovers. The ‘gay couple’ are witty and independent, with time to banter and tease their way to choosing a marriage partner. Through them, the complexities of commitment could be explored… The second couple are constant and unexciting. Their path to true love is thwarted by outside forces, usually in the shape of a blocking character – Don Pedro in The Rover… (An Introduction to Restoration Comedy)

Rogue male There is an outstanding, amoral, rakish, predatory male figure – Willmore, the Rover.

Thou know’st I’m no tame Sigher, but a rampant Lion of the Forest.

Haste Things always have to be done in a hurry. This is itself a structural requirement of the theatre where it is difficult to convey the passage of months or years. Instead the action must follow pell-mell. Over and above the difficulty of conveying the passage of time, haste and deadlines also simply create tension, energy, dynamism – sweep the audience up in the action – and, of course, prompt the characters to all kinds of desperate behaviour they might not take. Thus when Don Pedro tells his sister, Florinda, that he wants to organise her marriage to young Antonio we can be confident it will trigger all kinds of desperate behaviour.

Dressing up The masked ball or masquerade or disguise is a key element of comedy from ancient Rome to modern pantomime. The feminist scholars of the play get excited because the masquerade allows characters to ‘subvert the gender roles’ imposed on them by ‘misogynist Restoration society’. But in fact dressing up allows for two really basic elements of comic theatre, namely:

1. Freedom you can get away with saying and doing things in disguise which you wouldn’t think of trying normally:

Will. But why thus disguis’d and muzzl’d?
Belv: Because whatever Extravagances we commit in these Faces, our own may not be oblig’d to answer ’em.

2. Comic misunderstanding – where characters say things to each other which match the outfits and characters they’ve adopted, but are wildly inappropriate to the actual characters we – the audience – know them to be.

3. Serious understanding Having read The Rover carefully it dawns on me that dressing up as someone else is also a way of discovering the real motives and character of the person you have designs on, as in the complex scene where Belvile dresses as Antonio and can sound out Don Pedro’s real character; or where Hellena dresses as a young man in order to assess Willmore‘s relationship with Angelica.

Also – people like dressing up for parties. It makes them feel special excited, in a party mood. Thus characters on stage – which have already been simplified and heightened for the audience’s enjoyment – become twice as simplified and heightened. Comedy squared.

Politics Behn was a devoted Royalist. The play is set in the 1650s and Belvile, Willmore, Frederick and Blunt are all English courtiers in exile from the Roundhead, republican government of the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell.

Gentlemen, you may be free, you have been kept so poor with Parliaments and Protectors, that the little Stock you have is not worth preserving—but I thank my Stars, I have more Grace than to forfeit my Estate by Cavaliering.

There are lots of little indications e.g. when Belvile introduces Blunt to Willmore as one of us’.

Belvile: Yet, Sir, my Friends are Gentlemen, and ought to be esteem’d for their Misfortunes, since they have the Glory to suffer with the best of Men and Kings; ’tis true, he’s a Rover of Fortune, yet a Prince aboard his little wooden World.

Class distinction There is an interesting moment when Colonel Belvile gives a satirical portrait of Ned Blunt, one of their party for sure, but an honest country English gentleman who – it is implied – the more urban, worldly Belvile and Willmore despise.

Willmore: Prithee what Humour is he of…?
Belvile: Why, of an English Elder Brother’s Humour, educated in a Nursery, with a Maid to tend him till Fifteen, and lies with his Grand-mother till he’s of Age; one that knows no Pleasure beyond riding to the next Fair, or going up to London with his right Worshipful Father in Parliament-time; wearing gay Clothes, or making honourable Love to his Lady Mother’s Landry-Maid; gets drunk at a Hunting-Match, and ten to one then gives some Proofs of his Prowess—A pox upon him, he’s our Banker, and has all our Cash about him, and if he fail we are all broke.

As so often, the aristocracy are in reality dependent on the honest bourgeoisie – and despise them for it.

Fred: Oh let him alone for that matter, he’s of a damn’d stingy Quality, that will secure our Stock. I know not in what Danger it were indeed, if the Jilt should pretend she’s in love with him, for ’tis a kind believing Coxcomb;

Blunt: No, Gentlemen, you are Wits; I am a dull Country Rogue, I.

Nobody is surprised when honest Ned Blunt is swindled out of his diamond. He even hails from Essex which, right down to this day, 370 years later, is the butt of jokes.

Blunt: ’Tis a rare Girl, and this one night’s enjoyment with her will be worth all the days I ever past in Essex.—

Contemporary references

Moretta: He knows himself of old, I believe those Breeches and he have been acquainted ever since he was beaten at Worcester.

The Battle of Worcester, 3 September 1651 was the last battle of the Civil War.

Moretta: Oh Madam, we’re undone, a pox upon that rude Fellow, he’s set on to ruin us: we shall never see good days, till all these fighting poor Rogues are sent to the Gallies.

Consignment to galleys was a punishment.

Frederick: It may be she’ll sell him for Peru, the Rogue’s sturdy and would work well in a Mine;

The Spanish had used slave labour in their South American silver mines for over a century.

Blunt: I had rather be in the Inquisition for Judaism, than in this Doublet and Breeches

Tells us something about the power of the Italian Inquisition, and of its attitude to Jews, in the 1660s.


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On The Frontier by W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood (1938)

This is the third and final theatrical collaboration between the poet W.H. Auden and the novelist Christopher Isherwood. Their previous two plays had been written for and performed by the highly political and experimental Group Theatre. They had been encouraged to use a mixture of prose and poetry and to write about ‘political’ subjects.

The Ascent of F6

Their previous work, The Ascent of F6, had been about the rivalry between two colonial powers, Britain and the fictional ‘Ostnia’ for control of a fictional African country called Sudonia. The natives believed whoever got to the top of the big mountain on the border between the two colonies – named F6 by geographers – would rule both. We are introduced to stereotypes of British Establishment types, including a blustering general, a scheming newspaper proprietor, and the Foreign Secretary and then the play follows the team of British mountaineers who set out to climb F6.

Three points: when it comes down to it the play is less about politics and more about the struggle in the mind of the lead character, the charismatic mountaineer Michael Ransom, who worries that if he succeeds he will be turned into a celebrity and even be tempted to use his power over the British public, possibly not for good i.e. be tempted to become the Strong Leader which a craven public is crying out for.

2. We meet two representatives of this craven public in the shape of Mr and Mrs A, who are given verse choruses throughout the action, who read the papers, listen to the radio, grumble about the trains and the weather and their crappy little suburban lives. They pop up in the boxes nearest the stage, are revealed and then disappear using clever lighting and are, generally, the most enjoyable part of the play.

3. The end is awful. Auden & Isherwood eventually tried out three different endings but none of them worked because they didn’t really know what they wanted to say. There’s lots of talk about the mountain being haunted by a ‘Demon’, but in the first version, when Ransom finally reaches the top, the Demon is revealed as being his own smothering, dominating Mother. Whatever this weird ending was trying to say, it was too obscure and psychological in origin to work on the stage.

On The Frontier

Despite these problems, F6 was a surprise success and was even broadcast, live, on a very early version of the new BBC television service on 31 May 1937.

This motivated Auden and Isherwood to try something more commercial, with an eye to getting a proper West End success. They attempted a more serious story and this time the verse – which had been such a highlight of F6 – was rigorously cut back.

On The Frontier reuses the fictional nations of Ostnia and Westland, who share a common border and hate each other. The play has three sets of characters. By far the most enjoyable is Valerian, Captain of Industry, owner of a vast combine which owns and runs most of the town beneath his looming plate glass offices. He is camp and droll, an Oscar Wilde or Noel Coward figure, loftily ironical about the ‘people’s’ pathetic dreams of freedom, but just as dismissive of the ridiculous new ‘leader’ whose risen to the top of the pile in Westland after a recent revolution. He is served by an impeccable butler named Manners, who reminds me of Nestor, butler to Captain Haddock in Tintin.

The main set of characters are two families, the Thorvalds of Westland and the Vrodnys of Ostnia, and the main theatrical innovation or feature of the play is that although these two families lives in houses hundreds of miles apart, in their respective countries, on the stage, in this play, they appear in the same space at the same time. The stage is simply divided in two and we watch the Thorvald family bicker and squabble on their side, and the Vrodnys argue and make up on theirs – at the same time. This allows for all kinds of counterpointing, for example when each family listens on the radio to the announcement of war from their respective leaders, the Leader of Westland and the King of Ostnia.

The main counterpoint is that the young man in the Thorvald household, Eric, is in love with the young woman in the Vrodny household, Anna. Yes, it is Romeo and Juliet. But cheesy though it sounds, I bet this made for quite dramatic stagecraft, for on several occasions the lights go down on their bickering families and the two lovers step into a spotlight to declare their love, and ask why the world is so violent and divided etc etc. Trite sentiments, but even reading it cold on the page you can see that it must have been quite visually dramatic.

And of course you realise this is that the title refers to: the frontier between the two countries runs right down the middle of the stage and between Eric and Anna.

There’s a third group, a chorus of 5 men and 3 women who play different roles to punctuate the main action, for example playing workers hanging round outside a factory at the beginning; or five Englishmen reading out loud from five British different newspapers which each report the mounting international tension in their stylised and biased ways; to soldiers firing from two opposing trenches, once the war gets going.

Because for all the fine talk, and all the stylish one-liners of the urbane Valerian, and despite the Leader (actually a gruff and tired and confused former peasant i.e. not at all a homicidal Hitler or Mussolini) pledging to withdraw his troops and declare a non-aggression pact – despite Eric and Anna pledging their troth in the spotlight – despite everyone’s good intentions, in incident on the border – a bomb explosion in which civilians from both sides are killed – triggers both countries’ latent hatred and contempt of the other, and they go to war.

Inevitably the war drags on and we see the homes of the two families become steadily more shabby and denuded. Not only that, but beloved members of the families are killed off as the conflict drags on.

And, just to rub it in, a plague breaks out which starts devastating both countries. The Thorvald family has included Martha, Dr Thorvald’s unmarried sister, a frustrated spinster who takes out her frustration by hero worshiping The Leader with a zeal which embarrasses the rest of the family. Well, rather inevitably, she‘s the one who develops symptoms of the plague and, once she realises it, breaks out in hysterics –  a classic example of Auden’s psychological theories that frustrated desires breed actual physical disease.

And Valerian, the amusingly cynical industrialist? As the war escalates first his loyal lieutenant, Schwartz, rushes in to tell him he’s leaving the country, emigrating to South America, the army’s collapsed, the war has turned into a civil war. Then he has a page-long prose speech yelling out the window at the rabble beneath, explaining that their ‘revolution’ will be defeated, how he and his ilk own the papers, the radio, and will spread lies and disinformation about their atrocities (this can be read as an upper-class denunciation of all revolutions but some aspects of it seem to refer to the way the Republican side was defeated in the Spanish Civil War).

Then the Storm-trooper Grimm bursts in (a character we’ve met earlier in the play, being strong and silent). Now he has rebelled. Shockingly, he tells Valerian he’s just shot dead the Leader, in his office elsewhere in the same building.

Now we discover he is a man with a grudge. At one stage in its growth Valerian’s conglomerate deliberately undercut all the small high street shops which, as a result, went bankrupt. Grimm’s father kept one. The family was reduced to poverty. His father shot himself. Young boy Grimm made a vow to meet the man who destroyed his family. It’s taken him years to enter the Storm Troopers and rise this far. And now he’s face to face with the man who did it (Valerian) holding a gun. Valerian begs for his life and offers Grimm gold, jewels, cash. It’s an extended scene in which the initiative passes between them because as Valerian talks on Grimm slowly loses his murderous impetus, while Valerian becomes more confident. Eventually Valerian oversteps the mark, passing from speculation about Grimm’s love life, or lack of, to his mother and that’s a bad mistake. Suddenly incensed, Grimm shoots him dead. Oh well.

Anyway, both Eric and Anna die. That’s it. Shame. The pity of war. The futility of conflict. Romeo and Juliet.

The play ends with Eric and Anna rising from their respective deathbeds, drifting back into the central spotlight where we’ve seen them several times before, and delivering the authors’ message, such as it is – classic Auden which invokes very generalised ideas of The City and Justice and Love and Dignity:

Now as we come to our end,
As the tiny separate lives
Fall, fall to their graves
We begin to understand.
A moment, and time will forget
Our failure and our name
But not the common thought
That linked us in a dream.
Open the closing eyes,
Summon the failing breath,
With our last look we bless
The turning maternal earth.
Europe lies in the dark
City and flood and tree;
Thousands have worked and work
To master necessity.
To build the city where
The will of love is done
And brought to its full flower
The dignity of man.
Pardon them their mistakes,
The impatient and wavering will.
They suffer for our sakes,
Honour, honour them all.
Dry their imperfect dust,
The wind blows it back and forth.
They die to make man just
And worthy of the earth.

Thoughts

Difficult to tell whether this would have worked in a theatrical setting. With good lighting, in the presence of an expectant audience, and with good actors speaking the words, maybe. But on the page it remains quite cold, reading like standard Auden fustian. By the time of its first performances (six nights in Cambridge from Monday 14 November 1938, and one night only in London on Sunday 12 February 1939), everyone in England had been traumatised by the Munich Crisis of the previous September and everyone on the Left was upset by the slow grinding failure of the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War (which was declared over on 1 April 1939).

Against this deeply grim political backdrop the two happy-go-lucky public schoolboys’ stab at covering contemporary anxieties just doesn’t feel deep or worked-out enough – the characters are ciphers, the plot is ludicrous. Maybe the characters dropping like flies are doing so, as the concluding chorus puts it, in order ‘to make man just and worthy of the earth’ – but these seem like pretentious lines which the preceding ‘drama’ hasn’t really justified.

Instead the most obvious thing you get from reading this closing passage cold, is its Christian feel. It is, in effect, a prayer asking God to forgive ‘them’ i.e. us.

In a later memoir Isherwood revealed that throughout their collaborations he had the devil of a struggle preventing Auden slipping into Christian attitudes; whenever Isherwood’s back was turned, Auden had the characters flopping down onto their knees and praying about something or other, and the climax of this play seems to be a classic example of this tendency.

It feels like an ambitious school play.

Lastly, the whole cartoon concept of these two stereotypical nations, ‘Westland’ versus ‘Ostnia’, kept reminding me of the warring nations Freedonia and Sylvania in the Marx Brothers movie Duck Soup, an anti-war satire which has aged far better.


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Works from or about the 1930s

The Ascent of F6 by W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood (1936)

Very enjoyable, quite funny at moments, very clever and zips along at speed until the climax which I completely failed to understand.

Act I

A British colony, Sudoland, is troubled, the natives are restless, and our colonial rival, Ostnia, threatens to invade across the border. At  meeting of notables, the Foreign Secretary, Sir James Ransom, explains that there is a legendary mountain, F6, slap-bang on the border between the two colonies. Native tradition has it that a) the mountain is haunted and b) whoever climbs to the top of this mountain will rule over both colonies for a thousand years. Just recently we received a telegram telling us that the Ostnians have sent an expedition to climb the mountain, is on its way now.

The notables Ransom is addressing – General Dellaby-Couch, a fuddy duddy old general; excitable Lady Isabel Welwyn; and cynical newspaper magnate Lord Stagmantle – react with dismay… until Sir James announces that we, the British, are planning a counter-expedition. Who will lead it? Why, his own brother Michael Ransom, one of the world’s leading mountaineers!

But Michael is a completely different kettle of fish from his successful Establishment brother. They appear to have been twins and James was always the brash, confident, favoured one while Michael was slightly smaller, more private.

This explains the opening scene. The curtains rise to reveal Michael at the top of a peak in the Lake District very bitterly and cynically denouncing Dante, who he’s been reading. Michael mocks Dante for his fake high-mindedness, mocking the speech of Ulysses in Dante’s Inferno which mentions ‘Virtue’ and ‘Knowledge’. Michael doesn’t believe in that guff. After a lengthy monologue the voices of his mountaineering mates call him to climb back down with them.

Michael’s cynical, disillusioned attitude explains why, when his brother unexpectedly pays him a visit at the mountaineering hostel (actually a pub, the Lakeland Pub) where he’s hanging out with four of his mountaineering buddies (David Gunn, Teddy Lamp, Ian Shawcross and the Doctor, Tom), and makes him the offer of leading this fully-funded mountaineering expedition to one of the great mountains of the word… Michael turns him down. Michael’s not interested in being anyone’s hero.

Until that is, Sir James plays his trump card, introducing their mother, who walks through the door and asks him to climb the mountain for her. She gives a speech comparing the lives of the two brothers, how he was the smaller, weaker of the twins, but she always loved him best. Michael can’t refuse. He says yes.

Act II

Cut to a monastery on the Great Glacier of F6. Monks are chanting, carrying a funeral coffin. This is where Michael and his team are resting before starting the climb.

There is dissension in the team. Earnest Ian Shawcross is very upset by the way David Gunn is always mucking about and stealing things. Shawcross desperately wants to make sure he gets to the top.

In a strange scene a monk brings in a crystal to the room where the mountaineers are staying. One by one they all go over and look into the crystal and see visions in it, telling the others what they see. Only Michael (who they all jokily refer to as MF) is silent about what he saw.

The Abbot of the monastery enters and has a conversation with Michael. Michael confesses that what he saw in the crystal is the wild adulation which will greet him if he climbs to F6, the first European to do so. It’ll be reported in all the papers, he’ll get home to a hero’s welcome. And he’ll be offered power, people will want him to save the country and save them. He’s terrified by all this and asks the abbot how he can escape it. The Abbott says there is a way to escape: stay in the monastery and renounce his way of life.

This passage brings out what you could call the Christian negativity underpinning the whole play. It comes over in the play’s poor view of human nature, irredeemably corrupted. The Abbott tells Michael: ‘the human will is from the Demon’. From reading even this far you can see why Auden temperamentally could have no truck with communism, which is optimistic, confident that human beings can control their destiny and build a better future.

Michael sees himself as being tempted, like Christ on the mountain, tempted with visions of the adulation he will receive when gets home from the weak and unhappy. Acting on this, when the Abbot has left, Michael asks his comrades to cancel the climb, but they think he’s mad and insist they go on, they’ve come all this way, England expects etc. And so, feeling weak and wretched, he gives in and agrees to the climb going ahead.

In the next scene they’re on a rock ledge and, after various bits of banter, Lamp, the sweet 24-year-old botanist, climbs over the ledge and down a bit to look at some interesting flowers and a sudden avalanche carries him away.

In the next scene the doctor and Ransom are waiting in a tent on a ridge above the previous location for the other two to arrive. They discuss who Ransom is going to choose to make the final ascent with him. Only two men can go. The Doctor reviews MF’s options i.e. who should it be out of Shawcross and Gunn? In a weak moment he asks if he can go, but realises this is foolish, he is by far the oldest of the team and it will require stamina.

Ransom says he’s made his mind up. The other two (Shawcross and Gunn) arrive and Gunn is immediately all fuss and trivial, interested only in the hot chocolate and oatmeal and natters on and even sings a nonsense song… until Shawcross snaps. Shawcross is extremely tense and demands who Ransom has chosen to take to the summit. Is it him? The others try to calm Shawcross, but he is hysterical and demands to know.

Ransom announces he is taking David, the inspired amateur, scrounger, petty thief and irritating joker. Shawcross is distraught. He berates himself as a failure, says he isn’t a man. Ransom tries to explain that: now he recognises his weakness, now he has self knowledge, he is a man. Michael he is sending him back to England to live, to be useful, and not go on this mad cock-and-bull expedition up a bloody mountain precisely because he is a serious man who will do much good. But Shawcross can’t accept it, can’t cope, rising hysteria. Suddenly he breaks free of the others, struggles out of the tent, runs to the precipice and throws himself over the edge.

Scene IV Ransom is supporting Gunn in a blizzard as they struggle towards the summit. Gunn is exhausted, cannot walk, is delirious, has a short speech and dies of exhaustion. Not going well, is it? The extremity of this short scene (barely 2 pages) prompted Auden to write some of the worse verse of the play, sub-Shakespearian bombast.

Scene V I barely understood a word of the final scene. Michael has arrived at the top of the mountain. A veiled figure sites right at the top, is it the legendary Demon of the Mountain? The chorus recites some poetry, then his brother James appears wearing full Foreign Office ceremonial dress.

Michael staggers on stage wearing his mountain climbing gear. Suddenly onto the stage comes a full set of chess pieces. James’s pieces include the General, Lady Welwyn, Lord Stagmantle, Michael’s include Lamp, Shawcross and Gunn.

Mr and Mrs A – two characters who have commented on the action all the way through – ask questions about their miserable lives and the three named characters – then James – answer them in various shades of pompous officialdom.

Then James and Michael play chess with the life-size pieces, without dialogue, occasionally saying ‘Check’. Michael wins and James collapses. Michael appears to have killed him. The General, Lady Welwyn and Lord Stagmantle recite a poem accusing Michael of murdering one of England’s favourite sons, as they jostle each other, leap on each others’ backs and ‘behave in general like the Marx brothers.

A light goes up to illuminate the Abbot at the back of the stage wearing a judge’s wig and bearing the crystal. Monks enter, lift James’s body onto a stretcher and carry him out. Stagmantle and Isabel recite what was to become the most famous poem from the play

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

The Abbott accuses Michael of killing his brother. Michael hysterically points at the veiled figure on the summit of the mountain and says the Demon did it! The Abbott (wearing a judge’s wig, remember) calls his witnesses, and one by one Lamp, Shawcross and Gunn appear, worn and bloody from their deaths, to accuse Michael.

Bewildered Michael ‘appeals to the crystal’ and the Abbott lets him look at it again. Michael looks up and says he didn’t mean it, it’s not his fault. The Abbott tells him it’s too late and says ‘the case is being brought before the Crown’, indicating the veiled figure seated on the summit. A Chorus recites an Auden poem. The Chorus and all the characters cry at Ransom that he must die, die for us, die for England!

Panic-stricken Michael turns to the figure at the top of the mountain as there’s the sound of an avalanche and all the other characters disappear. The figure’s draperies fall away to reveal… Michael’s mother, lovely as a young woman. There follows a cryptic passage of verse alternating between the Chorus and the Mother sort of addressing the meaning of the play and the choice Michael has made.

During this chorus the stage slowly darkens, and then is reillumined by the red light of the rising son. The stage is empty except for the dead body of Ransom on the mountain top.


Thoughts

What was that about? Was it his confused fantasia, was it a stream of consciousness hallucination brought on by his extreme exhaustion? Or the opposite, a ‘realistic’ depiction of a highly modern, self-consciously staged and artificial poetic event?

The first audiences like the play but didn’t understand the ending. Auden and Isherwood revised it not once but twice, with the result that there were three published versions with different endings. Later in life, Isherwood acknowledged that they never did get the ending right. But you can see this is because they didn’t know what they wanted to say.

The first part – the setup taking the mickey out of Establishment types – was easy. The scenes on the mountain, once they’d decided they’d do away with the other mountaineers one by one, almost wrote themselves. But the climax where they had to explain what the play was about? They couldn’t.

Within a year, a critic had suggested that the play dramatised nothing about politics and society but really dramatised Auden’s own personal dilemma: he had become ‘the Voice of a Generation’ and he didn’t want to be. He seemed to be a leader of all these other poets and writers but was, himself, wracked with doubts. He seemed to be leading them along a path (of socially committed poetry) which would lead some to destruction (to betray their talents) and didn’t want the responsibility.

The only way out was to kill the Auden figure amid a welter of Chorus poetry, but unfortunately this personal psychological way out didn’t make for very satisfactory theatre. In fact it doesn’t make sense and invalidates much of the preceding. The heavy symbolism of the Establishment figures, the rivalry with Ostnia and the deaths of his comrades, all these important issues are just waved away.

The strong man and other themes

A recurrent feature of Auden and Isherwood’s writing of the time was anxiety about ‘the truly strong man’ (anxiety about whether they’re being true ‘he-man’ types run through the Letters From Iceland which were written immediately after F6).

Some critics work these up into being a ‘discussion’ of masculinity. In this play you could say Michael Ransom ‘represents’ the conflict in one figure between the idea of doing the Heroic Thing, making a Proud Achievement for the Nation (i.e. climbing F6) – everyone’s stereotype of the Strong Man — but he inside knows that this achievement and giving in to public adulation would be weakness; for him, being truly strong would be to cancel the expedition, not to climb the mountain and to return to a quiet life of anonymity in England.

It’s a sort of interesting issue but I can’t get very worked up about it for three reasons:

  1. it’s obviously such an entirely personal obsession of Auden’s, maybe Isherwood’s too, it feels very close to the other schoolboy obsessions and jokes which pepper their writings
  2. and indeed, from one angle, it feels like a dramatisation of the very common plight of all weedy intellectuals who are in awe of big strong types, the wallflower anxieties of the Rick Moranis character in Ghostbusters
  3. it has been swept away by 80 years of identity and gender politics so as to be barely detectable as an issue

For an up-to-the-minute discussion of masculinity I refer you to the Barbican’s recent enormous exhibition on the subject:

Finally, these issues – a bit like the Christian symbolism which sort of appears, now and then – feel trivial in comparison to the artistic inventiveness of the play – it’s quick and fun, full of special effects, and of dazzling poetry!

Auden’s verse

On one level there’s a plot and there’s some ‘themes’ and ‘ideas’ and ‘issues’ you’re meant to take seriously. Maybe. But on another level, the play amounts to a barrage of Auden’s verse. There’s reams of it. About 30 pages of the 84 pages are in verse, choruses and lyrics. They cover a wide range of subject matter and affects. There are larky lyrics:

The chimney sweepers
Wash their faces and forget to wash the neck;
The lighthouse keepers
Let the lamps go out and leave the ships to wreck;
The prosperous baker
Leaves the rolls in hundreds in the oven to burn;
The undertaker
Pins a small note on the coffin saying, ‘Wait till I return,
I’ve got a date with Love.’

There’s a Chorus which echoes the action in typically elliptical, hieratic verse.

Acts of justice done
Between the setting and the rising sun
In history lie like bones, each one.
Still the dark forest, quiet the deep,
Softly the clock ticks, baby must sleep!
The Pole Star is shining, bright the Great Bear,
Orion is watching, high in the air.

Descriptions of England’s countryside wasted by the Depression.

Let the eye of the traveller consider this country and weep,
For toads croak in the cistern; the aqueduct chokes with leaves:
The highways are out of repair and infested with thieves:
The ragged population are crazy for lack of sleep;
Our chimneys are smokeless; the implements rust in the field
And our tall constructions are felled.

Gossipy descriptions of types of profession and character.

The cat has died at Ivy Dene,
The Crowthers’ pimply son has passed Matric,
St Neots has put up light blue curtains,
Frankie is walking out with Winnie
And Georgie loves himself.

Highly schematic call and response verse reminiscent of T.S. Eliot at his most portentous.

Give me bread   Restore my dead
I am sick   Help me quick
Give me a car   Make me a star
Make me neat   Guide my feet
Make me strong   Teach me where I belong

And Mr and Mrs A with their eternal worrying and complaining:

Mrs A
Give me some money before you go
There are a number of bills we owe
And you can go to the bank today
During your lunch hour.

Mr A
I dare say;
But as it happens I’m overdrawn.

Mrs A
Overdrawn? What on earth have you done
With all the money? Where’s it gone?

Mr A
How does money always go?
Papers, lunches, tube-fares, teas,
Toothpaste, stamps and doctor’s fees,
Our trip to Hove coast a bit, you know?

Theatrical effects

So the play is not enjoyable because of its themes of the public versus the private man, or its garbled treatment of ‘redemption’ but despite them. Despite the garbled plot, the play is packed full of not only a very wide range of types and registers of verse, but this is combined with a load of snappy stage effects.

Central is the idea that the two boxes nearest the stage i.e. not on the stage but set back from all the action, are populated by Mr and Mrs A, a dowdy suburban pair, he with his wretched job as a clerk in a miserable office, she eternally grumbling and complaining.

They appear regularly throughout the play commenting directly or obliquely on the main action (when the newspapers announce Britain is sending an exhibition to climb F6 they spout patriotic pride, when it is announced that Lamb has died they recite a funeral poem). Their appearance is indicated when the lights onstage dim to darkness and lights come up to illuminate their box.

But the box idea is taken further when one of them is populated with a radio which blares out official BBC announcements. And then by the announcer themselves in BBC black tie making announcements which also commentate on the action. Lord Stagworthy even appears in the box to make a pompous radio announcement full of clichés, ‘no more fitting grave for our brave boy etc’.

But this entertaining piece of satire them segues into Mrs A declaiming a relatively serious stretch of verse saying that the dead man (Lamp) is not now subject to age and the slow decay of ideals and mind and body. When the Mother appears she declaims a long passage of Shakespearian blank verse to describe the childhood of the two boys.

There is a secret I have kept so long
My tongue is rusty. What you have said
I knew and have always known. Why do you start?
You are my Michael and I know my own…

This is immediately followed by the stage going to a dead blackout and the voices of a load of newspaper boys hawking the latest editions and shouting their headline.

Evening Moon: Late Night Final!
Young English Climber’s Daredevil Attempt!
The Haunted Mountain: Full Story and Pictures!
Monasteries in Sudoland: Amazing Revelations!

Then lights come up on the Mr & Mrs A stage box to reveal Mrs A who declaims, not in her usual nagging housewife voice, but in a more elevated, ‘poetic’ trance:

I read the papers; there is nothing there
But news of failure and despair:
The savage train-wreck in the dead of night,
The fire in the school, the children caught alight,
The starving actor in the oven lying,
The cashier shot in the grab-raid and left dying,
The young girl slain upon the surgeon’s table,
The poison bottle with the harmless label…

(The sort of thing Auden could rattle off by the yard). Some individual pieces are brilliant and were later published as stand-alone poems (for example the ‘Stop all the clocks’ lyric that became superfamous after Richard Curtis included it in the script of Four Weddings And A Funeral).

But the real point of the play is its imaginative stagecraft – the speed with which it changes scenes and lighting and tone, from naturalistic prose to a whole range of verse, all signalled and highlighted by cunning lighting and sound effects (and the incidental music of Benjamin Britten, impossible to recreate when you silently read the play). Even in a stone cold reading its tremendous energy and inventiveness comes over. it’s a shame Auden and Isherwood couldn’t devise a successful ending to the play but it doesn’t stop the journey through the play to its muddled conclusion from being thrilling and entertaining.


Related links

Works from or about the 1930s

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