Richard Steele Essay - Critical Essays

Richard Steele Drama Analysis

Of Sir Richard Steele’s four plays, The Funeral and The Tender Husband are at once the most humorous and the least sentimental. The Funeral, Steele’s most original play, was written in part to relieve him of the reputation he had made as a pious drone through his essay The Christian Hero. Even these sprightly pieces, however, reveal Steele’s concern with curing the corruption of the London stage. He shunned the licentiousness that had been rampant but gave each piece enough wit, zest, and characterization to make it popular for many years to come. It is as the author of The Lying Lover and The Conscious Lovers that Steele’s reputation as a founder of the sentimental comedy rests. The earlier play was not a stage success, and it is clearly the weakest of Steele’s dramatic efforts. The Conscious Lovers was both a success and a major influence. An analysis of The Tender Husband and The Conscious Lovers allows representation of what M. E. Hare called Steele’s “purely amusing and his didactic veins.”

The Tender Husband

The Tender Husband presents Biddy Tipkin, a young girl whose guardian uncle has arranged her marriage to a country cousin, one Humphry Gubbin. Biddy, whose head is filled with the excesses of the airy romances she reads so voraciously, has let herself imagine something far more exotic and impassioned than this dry arrangement. For his part, Humphry does not want to be forced into anything. When the two meet, they pledge to be friendly enemies; they will not have each other, but they will cooperate toward each other’s freedom.

Before the audience is introduced to this pair, it learns that Captain Jack Clerimont is seeking his financial ease through a careful marriage. His older brother, Clerimont Senior, has heard of Biddy and helps set a plot in motion that will give Jack a chance at that prize. Everything Jack hears about Biddy’s wealth is translated into a positive personal attribute in his playful formulations. Apprised of her fortune of ten thousand pounds, Jack responds: “Such a statute, such a blooming countenance, so easy a shape!” The play’s humor, and part of its meaning, derives from interchanges of this sort. By making Jack a good-natured rogue, Steele softens the cynicism in this conventional equation of love and money.

With the wily lawyer Samuel Pounce as helpful (and bribed) intermediary, Jack is given the opportunity to meet and to woo Biddy. He imitates the manner and language of romance literature, quickly winning her heart. He has already convinced himself that he is rescuing her from the hard fate her uncle has in mind. Biddy, because she wants to be, is an easy conquest. Pounce, by distracting Biddy’s stern Aunt Barsheba with talk of the stock market (her true passion), makes Jack’s path as smooth as can be.

In a later scene, Jack, disguised as the artist hired by Barsheba to paint her niece’s portrait, completes his courtship of Biddy while warning her of how her romantic notions will have to be adjusted to reality. By this time, Steele has modulated Jack’s intentions so that his cynical first motive has changed into something far more acceptable; he has discovered a genuine affection for the girl. No longer simply deceiving her for her money, he has been transformed from Restoration rake into earnest suitor.

Wrapped around the Humphry-Biddy-Jack plot is another, more sinister one. Clerimont Senior has been using his soon-to-be-cast-off mistress, Lucy Fainlove, in a most despicable manner. He has had her disguise herself as a man, not only to pass unsuspected before Mrs. Clerimont but also to put that lady in a compromising position so that her husband can “discover” the infidelity that he assumes to be the consequence of the fashionable liberty she desires and he seems to grant. Although his scheme works, he gains little by it. Because he is softened by his wife’s tears and somewhat sorry for his deceit, Clerimont Senior becomes Steele’s way of suggesting that even a man of generous heart can be temporarily led astray by social fashions that magnify vice by encouraging human frailties. His wife, too, has allowed herself to be victimized. Her love of appearances and affectations provided her, for a while at least, with more pain than pleasure.

Everyone ends up reconciled and happy with the final state of affairs. Jack gets Biddy, the older Clerimonts passionately patch things up, and Lucy Fainlove captures Humphry, who is quite pleased with himself. Lucy turns out to be the sister of lawyer Pounce, a neat twist that allows Steele to link the two plots together.

If The Tender Husband (an ironic title) says anything, it says that people will behave as these people do. It also suggests that those most concerned with forms and appearances are most easily deceived. Steele, like William Congreve in The Way of the World (pr. 1700), advocates marriages based on love rather than on parental arrangements, but he (again like Congreve) recognizes the importance of financial security. Jack begins by seeking a fortune; Biddy begins by longing for a romantic dream. Each ends up at a humane, caring, yet practical middle ground.

In many ways, The Tender Husband is like much of the Restoration comedy that predates it. Clerimont Senior is the familiar libertine type, though his reformation precludes either a significant victory or any kind of punishment. The far more appealing Jack is still not a paragon of virtue, as the true sentimental hero must be. The tone of the play, however, is far less cynical and the satire is far more gentle than that to which audiences had been accustomed. It is easy to feel sympathy for Jack, for Biddy, and even for Humphry, who is a very special version of the stock country bumpkin and a clear model for Oliver...

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