1700-1749

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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.

A Bold Stroke for a Wife

Aurora Metro Books
Type: Text

Though critics and literary historians have always had to admit that Susanna Centlivre’s comedies were extremely popular, they have tended to devote themselves to a search for evidence in them of supposed deficiencies of ‘the female pen,’ and to pay as much attention to the playwright’s marriages and amorous liaisons than to the plays themselves. Only in recent years has Centlivre come to be recognized quite straightforwardly as one of the most brilliant playwrights of her time. A Bold Stroke for a Wife is perhaps the finest example of Centlivre’s masterful plotting of comic intrigue. The soldier Fainwell and Anne Lovely are in love, but their path to the altar is blocked by her guardians, each of whom has a different view of what sort of husband would make the right match. Fainwell resorts to disguises of social types. The play thus provides a wide range of opportunity for Centlivre to satirize Tory respectability, religious propriety and capitalist speculative greed—and to give voice to tolerance: ‘tis liberty of choice that sweetens life.’ Yet in the end it is Centlivre’s comic muse that gives enduring life to the play as one of the most entertaining of eighteenth-century comedies.

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 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.