The Relapse Essay - Further Critical Evaluation of the Work

Sir John Vanbrugh

Further Critical Evaluation of the Work

Although the earthiness and witty cynicism of Vanbrugh’s play provide a healthy correction to Colley Cibber’s sentimental tendencies, Vanbrugh lacked Cibber’s sense of dramatic form. He may have been more accurate than Cibber in depicting human nature, but he was less adept at fashioning a well-constructed play. This is particularly odd because Vanbrugh eventually became one of England’s greatest architects, the builder of Blenheim Palace for the Duke of Marlborough and the designer of the Haymarket Theatre, which he managed for two years. He was well aware of the indifferent plotting of his play, however, because he apologized for it in the “Prologue” where he attributed the play’s lack of “plot or wit” to the haste of its composition: “It was got, conceived, and born in six weeks space.”

If Vanbrugh was weak in plot and dialogue, his characters were nevertheless compelling creations and very popular with actors. Even Colley Cibber, whose work was the object of Vanbrugh’s satire, admitted that Vanbrugh’s lines were easier to memorize than those of any other playwright. Vanbrugh gave actors a great deal to do in the sense that action in his plays is broad and suggestive; even if the language is not rich in wit, it often has a dramatically effective force. In the opening scene, Amanda fears that if Loveless goes to town, he will be unfaithful. She expresses this in a series of direct statements ending with a bathetic conclusion:

I know the weak defence of natureI know you are a man—and I—a wife.

Vanbrugh is one of those writers of Restoration Comedy who fed the arguments of its moralistic enemies. His husbands are corrupt sensualists, and because of Vanbrugh’s crude dramaturgy there is little to redeem them in their wit. When they seduce, they do so with their bodies, not a bon mot. Loveless actually carries Berinthia off stage. The humor is salacious and broad. Her response is to cry “I’m ravished”—in a soft voice. One can easily understand the enthusiasm of Vanbrugh’s audiences, and one can also appreciate the opportunities for farcical acting that his plays provide.