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Plays

The Beaux' Stratagem

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

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

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

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

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

The Beggar's Opera

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Gay’s ‘ballad opera’ set in eighteenth-century London’s underworld is at once a vigorous satire on the moral and financial corruption of a fast-growing commercial society, and a groundbreaking piece of theatre. Combining spoken dialogue with popular songs, The Beggar’s Opera is in effect the first musical. Witty, barbed and fast-moving, the play was a theatrical sensation when it opened in 1728 at the Theatre Royal, London, with the romance between the feisty innocent Polly and the rogue Macheath seizing the popular imagination.

Polly Peachum, daughter of a fence and a thief-taker, has secretly married the notorious highwayman Macheath. Horrified at their daughter throwing herself a way on such a man, Mr and Mrs Peachum plot to extricate Polly from the marriage, as well as to profit by it, by turning in their son-in-law, collecting the reward for doing so, and seeing him hanged. The besotted Polly helps Macheath escape, but he is betrayed by a group of whores and taken to Newgate prison, where he is once again helped to escape, this time by Lucy Lockit, daughter of the prison-keeper, who is pregnant by and betrothed to him. Through their eternal love triangle, Gay explores the pleasures and dangers of romantic and social aspiration, while the double-dealing Mr Peachum embodies the ruthless self-interest of his age and the fine line between respectability and criminality.

Coram Boy

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Helen Edmundson's stage adaptation of Jamila Gavin's Whitbread Award-winning children's novel, Coram Boy (published in 2000), is a Dickensian tale of philanthropy, foundling children, and families both divided and, ultimately, reunited. It was first performed, with music composed by Adrian Sutton, in the Olivier auditorium of the National Theatre, London, on 15 November 2005 (previews from 2 November).

In 18th-century Gloucestershire, the evil Otis Gardner preys on unmarried mothers, promising to take their babies (and their money) to Thomas Coram's hospital for foundling children. Instead, he buries the babies and pockets the loot. But Otis's downfall is set in train when his half-witted son Meshak falls in love with a young girl, Melissa, and rescues the unwanted son she has had with a disgraced aristocrat. The child is brought up in Coram's hospital, and proves to have inherited the startling musical gifts of his father – gifts that ultimately bring about his father's redemption and a heartbreaking family reunion.

The National Theatre premiere was directed by Melly Still and designed by Ti Green and Melly Still. It was performed by Jack Tarlton, Justine Mitchell, Nicholas Tizzard, Abby Ford, Anna Madeley, Paul Ritter, Ruth Gemmell, Inika Leigh Wright, Adam Shipway, Rebecca Johnson, Kelly Williams, Eve Matheson, Katherine Manners, Sophie Bould, William Scott-Masson, Bertie Carvel, Sharon Maharaj, Akiya Henry, Chetna Pandya and Stuart McLoughlin.

It was revived at the National Theatre from November 2006 to February 2007.

The play opened on Broadway at the Imperial Theater on 2 May 2007, with previews from 16 April 2007, directed by Melly Still.

Double Falsehood or the Distressed Lovers

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

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

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

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

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

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

The Game of Love and Chance

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Pierre Marivaux's play The Game of Love and Chance (Le Jeu de l'amour et du hasard) is an 18th-century French comedy of manners in the Commedia dell'arte tradition, based on the simplest of plot devices, the exchanging places of master and valet, mistress and maidservant. It was first performed on 23 January 1730 by the Comédie Italienne.

This translation by Stephen Mulrine was published by Nick Hern Books in its Drama Classics series in 2007.

In the play, a young woman, Silvia, is visited by her betrothed, Dorante, whom she does not know. To get a better idea of the type of person he is, she trades places with her servant, Lisette, and disguises herself. However, unbeknownst to her, her fiancé has the same idea and trades places with his valet, Arlequin. The 'game' pits the two false servants against the two false masters, and in the end, the couples fall in love with their appropriate counterpart.

The Heresy of Love

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Helen Edmundson's play The Heresy of Love is based on the extraordinary life of Sor (Sister) Juana Inés de la Cruz, a poet, nun and major literary figure of Mexico. The play was commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company and first performed in the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, on 2 February 2012.

In a convent in seventeenth-century Mexico, Sister Juana strives to reconcile her love for God with her desire for a life of the mind. Her gift for writing plays and poems is celebrated by the Court, but her success creates alarm within the Church. Persecuted by a zealous archbishop, Sister Juana’s world threatens to crumble around her as everything she holds dear is jeopardised by dangerous ambitions and illicit desires. The play places Juana’s faith at the centre of the story and provokes questions about orthodox belief systems and the silencing of women within the Church.

In an author's note in the published edition of the play, Edmundson writes, 'I decided early on that I wanted to try to write about [Sister Juana] rather as a seventeenth-century Spanish playwright might have done. The context and high drama of her story seemed to invite this. So I have luxuriated in intrigues and rivalries, in disguised identities and mischievous servants. I have made full use of the bold and sudden contrast of the comic and the dramatic, characteristic of the period, and enjoyed forging a rhythmic and heightened language.'

The RSC production was directed by Nancy Meckler and designed by Katrina Lindsay. The cast was Teresa Banham, Geoffrey Beavers, Matthew Flynn, Raymond Coulthard, Dona Croll, Marty Cruickshank, Laura Darrall, Catherine Hamilton, Diana Kent, Youssef Kerkour, Catherin McCormack, Ian Midlane, Sarah Ovens, Daniel Stewart and Simon Thorp.

The play was revived in a new production at Shakespeare's Globe, London, in July 2015, directed by John Dove and directed by Michael Taylor.

The Last Witch

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Rona Munro's The Last Witch tells the story of the last woman to be executed for witchcraft in the British Isles. It is based on the historical account of Janet Horne, the alleged witch of Dornoch in the Scottish Highlands, who was executed in 1727.

The play was commissioned by Edinburgh International Festival and co-produced by the Festival and the Traverse Theatre Company. It opened at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, on 23 August 2009.

The play's action takes place in Dornoch, northern Scotland, in 1727. In the claustrophobic heat of summer, a woman’s apparent ability to manipulate the power of land and sea stirs suspicion. Janet Horne can cure beasts, call the wind and charm fish out of the sea. Or can she? Men hold all the power in this society and any woman with an independent mind is cruelly shamed. Horne’s refusal to deny the charge of witchcraft puts her in dangerous opposition to the new sheriff, Captain David Ross. Her defiance threatens not only her own life but also that of her daughter Helen.

Munro depicts the wildness of the Scottish highlands and the grinding poverty that accompanies life in such an unforgiving landscape. The play also walks a line of ambiguity between whether Janet actually practised witchcraft or if she was merely the victim of trenchant misogyny.

The Edinburgh premiere was directed by Dominic Hill and designed by Naomi Wilkinson. It was performed by Kathryn Howden (as Janet Horne), Hannah Donaldson, George Anton, Vicki Liddelle, Neil McKinven, Andy Clark, Ryan Fletcher and Simon Smith.

Queen Anne

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Helen Edmundson's play Queen Anne tells the story of one of England’s little-known sovereigns, her friendship with Sarah Churchill and the birth of the free press in England at the turn of the 18th century. It was commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company and premiered at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, on 20 November 2015.

The play opens with a song satirising current political events, penned by a group of satirists whose influence grows throughout the play. Princess Anne has been plagued by ill health all her life and, despite seventeen pregnancies, has produced no heirs with her husband, Prince George of Denmark. The Union of King William III and Anne’s sister Queen Mary was also childless, leaving Anne in succession for the throne. With the death of King William in 1702, Anne becomes Queen. England is at war and in a Grand Alliance with the protestant nations against the Catholic Spanish and French sovereigns to prevent ‘The Pretender’ King Louis’ dominance in Europe. As Anne grieves for her recently deceased father and the loss of what will be her final pregnancy, her close advisors seek to influence her from all corners. Sarah Churchill, her intimate friend since childhood, is granted key positions in the Royal Household and seeks to advise and manipulate Anne to further her own political agenda and career, and that of her husband, the Duke of Marlborough. Lord Chancellor Goldolphin, together with Sarah’s husband Marlborough (trusted Commander-in-Chief of the allied forces), exert pressure to their own ends. Anne begins to understand her power as she becomes increasingly involved and informed in political matters. Sarah pushes the Whig agenda that supports her husband’s wars, but Anne is drawn to advisors who share her religious views and support a strong monarchy. As a result, her friendship with Sarah starts to unravel and Anne begins to find new allies. Sarah fears she is being replaced in Anne’s affection by a new member of the royal household, Abigail Hill, adding personal tension to the political difference between them. As tensions rise, Godolphin is dismissed by Anne and Sarah turns to the ruthless, increasingly bold satirists for help. Prince George dies. Despite a string of notable victories won by the Duke of Marlborough including at Blenheim, Anne uncovers his betrayal and suspends him from his position. Sarah and the Duke of Marlborough are dismissed from court and retreat to Europe and Anne brokers peace, finding her voice as Queen.

The RSC production was directed by Natalie Abrahami and designed by Hannah Clark. The cast was Daisy Ashford, Jonathan Broadbent, Robert Cavanah (as John Churchill), Jonathan Christie, Emma Cunniffe (as Queen Anne), Daniel Easton, Michael Fenton Stevens, Richard Hope, Natascha McElhone (as Sarah Churchill), Hywel Morgan, Beth Park, Carl Prekopp, Jenny Rainsford, Elliott Ross, Anna Tierney, Tom Turner and Ragevan Vasan.

The Recruiting Officer

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

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

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

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

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

The Servant of Two Masters

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Carlo Goldoni’s The Servant of Two Masters (Il servitore di due padroni) is a classic Italian comedy in the Commedia dell'Arte tradition, focussing on the attempts of the resourceful and ever-hungry Truffaldino to serve two different masters without either of them finding out.

It was written in 1745 at the request of actor Antonio Sacco, one of the great Truffaldinos in history, and first performed in Milan as a 'scenario' in which only the lovers’ dialogues were fully scripted. Later it moved into the Teatro San Samuele, Venice, for the season 1745-46. A full version was eventually published in 1753.

This translation by Stephen Mulrine was published by Nick Hern Books in 2012.

The play begins in the Venetian house of Pantalone, where a party is underway to celebrate the engagement of Clarice, daughter of Pantalone, to Silvio, son of Doctor Lombardi. As the wedding agreement is being signed, the hilarious and confused Truffaldino enters to announce the arrival of his master, Federigo Rasponi of Turin.

This news comes as an amazing surprise to all, since Federigo is believed to have been killed in a duel with Florindo, his sister Beatrice’s lover. The problem arises from the fact that Federigo had originally been promised Clarice’s hand in marriage. The truth, however, is the supposed Federigo is actually Beatrice in disguise, come from Turin to claim the dowry owed by Pantalone to her brother, if he were alive.

To Clarice’s horror, her father feels obliged to honour his commitment to the supposed Federigo. Clarice refuses to comply, while Silvio, spurred on by his pontificating father, strives to maintain his claim to Clarice’s hand. The wedding, however, is cancelled. Brighella, the innkeeper, recognises Beatrice, despite her disguise, but promises to keep her identity a secret and becomes her accomplice in her mission. Here Truffaldino meets the housemaid, Smeraldina, and falls in love with her.

Later, on the street, the servant Truffaldino is approached by Florindo who, having recently escaped from Turin after killing Federigo, is seeking a servant himself. Truffaldino accepts Florindo’s offer, determining that if he is clever he can serve two masters and easily double his income. From the hotel Florindo sends Truffaldino to check for his mail. Beatrice (disguised as Federigo), who is also at the hotel, sends him to check her mail as well. As fate would have it, Truffaldino mixes up the letters and gives Beatrice’s letters to Florindo, who as a result learns that his lover is in Venice and sets out in search of her.

Back at Pantalone’s house, Beatrice, still in disguise as Federigo, reveals her secret to the distraught Clarice. Pantalone sees the two shake hands and takes it to mean that they have agreed to wed and sets out to tell Doctor Lombardi.

Eventually, through a series of comic mishaps and mix-ups, Beatrice and Florindo come to believe that the other is dead. Beatrice, grief-stricken, abandons her disguise and flees the house. Having discovered Beatrice’s true identity, Pantalone tells Lombardi that the marriage between Silvio and Clarice is still possible since Federigo is actually a woman! Fate again intervenes and brings the suicidal Beatrice and Florindo together in a chance encounter. Overjoyed, they plan to return together to Turin and buy Florindo’s freedom.

In the end, all of the couples are set to be happily married. Florindo asks Pantalone for permission for his servant, Truffaldino, to marry Clarice’s maid, Smeraldino. Clarice says that this is impossible, because Smeraldino is promised to Beatrice’s servant. Truffaldino, in order to marry Smeraldino, confesses that he is, indeed, a servant to two masters.