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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.

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.

Augustan drama designates the Neoclassical drama of the mid 17th century in France and of a slightly later period in England. In France it is represented by the great works of Corneille, Racine, and Molière, and in England by the plays of John Dryden, William Congreve, Joseph Addison, and others. The original Augustan Age was the Golden Age of Latin literature, so called from the Emperor Augustus, in whose reign (27 BC – 14 AD) Horace, Ovid, Virgil, Livy, Propertius, etc., flourished.

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