George Etherege Essay - Critical Essays

Etherege, George (Drama Criticism)

Introduction

George Etherege 1636-1692?

English playwright and poet.

Etherege has been credited as a principal founder of the comedy of manners tradition in English drama. This dramatic genre represents the satirical exploitation of the manners and fashions of the aristocratic class on the stage for the aristocracy's own amusement. Critics have acknowledged Etherege as an accomplished writer of wit, speculating that his comedic voice was shaped by his experiences as a young traveler in France, where he likely witnessed the pioneering social comedy of Molière as well as the ostentatious display of Parisian court fashion and manners. Based on these experiences, Etherege wrote comedies in which he affectionately yet incisively parodied Carolinian attitudes toward a vast array of ideological concerns, including sexuality, naturalism, fashion, and social class. Despite achieving celebrity as a playwright during his lifetime, popular interest in Etherege and his comedies declined significantly in succeeding centuries, to the point that his plays are rarely performed for modern audiences.

Biographical Information

Etherege was likely born in London in 1636, to Captain George Etherege and Mary Powney. Little is known about his formative years, other than the fact that his father, who was a royalist during the Civil War, fled to France in 1644 and died in exile six years later. Placed in the care of his grandfather, Etherege was apprenticed to attorney George Gosnold of Beaconsfield in 1654. Five years later, he was admitted to Clements Inn to study law, during which time he was involved in a lawsuit between his uncle and grandfather over a disputed inheritance. Literary scholars have noted that Etherege exhibited neither the aptitude nor the inclination to study law; instead, he began writing poems and bawdy verse that earned him some notoriety in academic and courtly circles. Scholars have discovered little evidence to indicate the substance of Etherege's activities as a young man, but some have argued that he traveled to Flanders and France at this time and became highly influenced by French comedy and manners. Also during this period, Etherege became acquainted with Charles Sackville, Lord Buckhurst, later the Earl of Dorset, who would become a close friend and patron. Back in London by 1664, Etherege became an instant celebrity when his Comical Revenge; or, Love in a Tub debuted to widespread popular acclaim at the Duke's playhouse. Apparently taking advantage of his newfound fame, Etherege embraced a lifestyle of drinking, gambling, and seducing women, earning the nicknames “gentle George” and “easy Etherege” for his devotion to free living. He also became acquainted with a group of court wits known as the “merry gang,” which included Buckhurst, Sir Charles Sedley and John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester. Rochester in particular shared Etherege's libertine proclivities and the two became fast friends. In fact, many scholars contend that the rake Dorimant in The Man of Mode; or, Sir Fopling Flutter (1676) was modeled on Rochester and his real-life antics. In 1668 Etherege's She Would If She Could premiered at the Duke's playhouse. Based on Samuel Pepys's eyewitness account, the audience was disappointed with the play, and Etherege himself placed the blame for the play's failure on the actors' uninspired performances. The failure of the play did not affect Etherege's court preferment; in fact, he was granted gentleman status and assigned as a secretary to the Turkish ambassador, Daniel Harvey. Etherege followed Harvey on a diplomatic mission to Constantinople in late 1668, and after some three years there, he made his way to Paris and then back to London. In London Etherege resumed his life of dissolution, occasionally circulating poems and songs but more often pursuing libertine activities with his “merry gang.” By 1676 Etherege had written his third and final play, The Man of Mode, which was staged at the Dorset Garden Theatre. That same year, Etherege and other members of the “merry gang” were involved in a fracas with a watchman at Epsom, which left a man dead. In the years that followed, Etherege was knighted and he married a rich widow named Mary Arnold. Some biographers have posited that Etherege married Arnold for her fortune in order to pay off his gambling debts and to purchase the knighthood. Based on Etherege's own letters, the union was not happy, and when he was appointed by James II as ambassador to Ratisbon, Germany, in 1685, Arnold did not join him at his new post. By all accounts, Etherege missed his life of ease at the English court. He despised living in conservative, provincial Germany, and he became embroiled in several gambling and sex scandals. Nevertheless, he remained at his post in Ratisbon until he learned of James II's ouster in the Glorious Revolution in late 1688. The following year, Etherege joined James and the exiled court in Paris, where it is believed that he died in 1691 or 1692.

Major Works

While most commentators have censured Etherege's insubstantial plots and lack of dramatic action in his comedies, they nearly all have acknowledged the brilliance of his brisk and witty dialogue. It is this element, critics have contended, which invigorates his characters and creates humorous scenes which resonated with Carolinian audiences. Because of their lack of technical sophistication, Etherege's plays have often been viewed as prototypes of the later, more refined Restoration comedies of William Wycherley, William Congreve, and John Vanbrugh. In The Comical Revenge, critics have mainly focused on the comic sequences featuring Sir Frederick Frollick. They have posited that Frollick is the embryonic representation of a character type known as the Restoration rake, or a libertine aristocrat with a sharp wit who subscribes to free living, drinking, gambling, and pursuing women for romantic trysts. In She Would If She Could, critics have maintained, Etherege initiated a more complex exploration of sexual politics between his characters, especially Courtall and Lady Cockwood. They have argued that Courtall represents Etherege's ideal libertine of easy morals and fine wit who defies social convention, whereas Lady Cockwood embodies the playwright's disdain for those who succumb to sensual, naturalistic impulses but who hide behind social pretense to manipulate and seduce others. According to most commentators, Etherege achieved artistic maturity in The Man of Mode, a comedy which deftly combines witty dialogue, superbly drawn characters, and Etherege's trademark social satire. Critics have regarded Dorimant, the central character, as the consummate Restoration rake, still given to liberal excess, but also exhibiting a worldly cynicism that suggests a more complex perception of the character than the farcical, one-dimensional Sir Frederick Frollick. The significance of Sir Fopling Flutter as the foil to Dorimant has not been lost on critics: he is the epitome of the vain, superficial man of mode, who is wholly involved in his affectation of courtly manners and fashion. In fact, Sir Fopling initiated the popular stage convention of the foppish imitator of flamboyant French courtly manners who is oblivious to the mocking ridicule of the other characters.

Critical Reception

During his lifetime, Etherege's comedies met with general approbation by his peers and audiences, and he was eulogized in numerous contemporary poems and pamphlets. A generation later, the comedies were disdained as vulgar products of a licentious and immoral age. Writing about The Man of Mode in 1711, Sir Richard Steele asserted: “This whole celebrated piece is a perfect contradiction to good manners, good sense, and common honesty.” Throughout the remainder of the eighteenth century and well into the nineteenth, Etherege and his comedies remained in a state of general neglect. In the late nineteenth century, commentators began to reexamine Etherege as a leading innovator in the English comedy of manners, but they still generally dismissed his works as superficial showpieces intended merely to appease the degenerate tastes of Carolinian theatergoers. Etherege's literary reputation suffered another blow when L. C. Knights wrote an essay in 1937 condemning Restoration comedies as “trivial, gross, and dull,” written by dramatists with a “miserably limited set of attitudes.” Knights's essay ignited a critical controversy in which literary scholars set out to restore the reputation of Restoration drama. Many mid- to late-twentieth-century literary scholars have applied a sophisticated, new level of critical analysis to Etherege's comedies. They have maintained that the subtexts of the comedies reveal a complex form of social satire which addressed the most controversial cultural and ethical issues of the Restoration period, including naturalism, skepticism, and libertinism. More recently, commentators have taken this analysis a step further, examining Etherege's comedies as highly charged ideological documents which subvert conventional morality and reveal the cultural dislocation of the aristocratic class in Restoration England. Despite these recent interpretations of Etherege's works, modern scholars nevertheless remain divided in their opinion of the level of his literary achievement. To some, the playwright has been redeemed as a brilliant satirist of the ideological turbulence of the Restoration period; to others, he remains an unsophisticated dramatist who merely intended to amuse and delight his peers by lampooning their court manners on the stage.

Principal Works

The Comical Revenge; or, Love in a Tub 1664

She Would If She Could 1668

The Man of Mode; or, Sir Fopling Flutter 1676

The Works of Sir George Etherege: Containing His Plays and Poems 1704

The Works of Sir George Etherege: Plays and Poems [edited by A. Wilson Verity] 1888

The Dramatic Works of Sir George Etherege. 2 vols. [edited by H. F. B. Brett-Smith] 1927

The Plays of Sir George Etherege [edited by Michael Cordner] 1982

The Letterbook of Sir George Etherege [edited by Sybil Rosenfeld] (letters) 1928

The Poems of Sir...

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Criticism: General Studies

SOURCE: Brown, Laura. “Dramatic Social Satire.” In English Dramatic Form, 1660-1760: An Essay in Generic History, pp. 28-65. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1981.

[In the essay below, Brown explores the evolution of social satire in Etherege's plays, finding little criticism of social standards in his two early comedies and a more outspoken approach in The Man of Mode.]

George Etherege's drama … falls into two main periods, a single work, The Man of Mode, constituting the second. And again, those two periods exemplify the course of generic evolution that we have been tracing in this chapter. Etherege's first plays (The Comical Revenge,...

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Criticism: The Comical Revenge (1664)

Arthur R. Huseboe (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: Huseboe, Arthur R. “The Comical Revenge; or, Love in a Tub (1664).” In Sir George Etherege, pp. 51-66. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1987.

[In the following essay, Huseboe analyzes the structure and major themes of The Comical Revenge, particularly noting Sir Frederick Frollick's significance as a unifying element in the play.]

“A NEW TONE AND ATTITUDE”

What was there in George Etherege's first play to make it the most popular comedy to be performed since the restoration of the London stage in 1660? Was it the novelty of his portraying lifelike people in contemporary London settings, as has been frequently suggested,...

(The entire section is 6951 words.)