Sir John Vanbrugh Essay - Critical Essays


Sir John Vanbrugh’s The Relapse and The Provok’d Wife are important in theatrical history because they were among the main targets of Jeremy Collier ’s famous attack on contemporary theater, A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage. Vanbrugh drew Collier’s fire not only because of his treatment of adultery but also because of his satire on the clergy, which appears both in the plays and in their prefatory material. Collier accused Vanbrugh of both moral and artistic irresponsibility, humorlessly condemning Vanbrugh’s presentation of flawed characters. Vanbrugh argues in his response, A Short Vindication of “The Relapse” and “The Provok’d Wife,” that Collier understands neither the nature nor the function of satire but wrongly assumes that to present behavior onstage is to recommend it. Nevertheless, Collier does offer some valid criticism of The Relapse: The blank verse is indeed poor, the plot is improbable, and the play’s awkward structure does obscure its focus.

Collier’s attack is important, however, not so much because he provided literary insight into the plays but because his attitude reflected the shift in public taste away from Restoration comedy and Vanbrugh’s more realistic comedy toward sentimental comedy. Gradually, Vanbrugh’s audience came to share Collier’s disapproval of the character types, dialogue, and plots that were typical of Restoration comedy and to demand a more morally self-conscious theater.

The Relapse

Although The Provok’d Wife was the first play that Vanbrugh wrote, the first of his comedies to be produced was The Relapse. Written in six weeks as part response, part sequel, to Colley Cibber’s Love’s Last Shift (pr. 1696), The Relapse was an immediate popular and critical success. The play was performed by the Drury Lane Company, the same company that had presented Love’s Last Shift; the original cast included John Verbruggen (as Loveless), Susanna Verbruggen (as Berinthia), George Powell (as Worthy), and, in a “breeches part,” Mary Kent as Young Fashion. The choice role of Lord Foppington went to Cibber, who had acted as well as created Lord Foppington’s original, Sir Novelty Fashion. Although Vanbrugh adopted Cibber’s double-plot structure, he retained only the main characters from the original play. Young Fashion and Lord Foppington (in Cibber, Sir Novelty Fashion) appear in Love’s Last Shift, but Young Fashion’s personality and the relationship between the brothers bear very little resemblance to those of the corresponding characters in The Relapse.

In writing The Relapse, Vanbrugh explored the comic and psychological possibilities suggested by the sudden reformation of the rake Loveless at the end of Love’s Last Shift. The Relapse does not ridicule the idea that a rake can reject vice because of the influence of a virtuous woman—indeed, The Relapse itself presents such a rapid reformation in the rake Worthy. Rather, Vanbrugh’s play explores the extent to which one’s attempt to be virtuous, however sincere, can withstand temptation. Further, in The Relapse, the moral complexity of the situation is deepened, for Amanda, too, experiences real temptation and undergoes a genuine moral struggle.

Like most English comedies, The Relapse presents not one but two plots: Scenes focusing on the concerns of Loveless and Amanda alternate with scenes centering on Lord Foppington and Young Fashion. These two plots are very tenuously connected by a single visit from Lord Foppington to Loveless and Amanda. Because each plot seems to be afforded equal emphasis and development, readers have not always accepted Vanbrugh’s assertion in A Short Vindication of “The Relapse” and “The Provok’d Wife” that the Loveless-Amanda plot is the central concern of the play.

The Relapse opens with the reformed Loveless expounding in irregular blank verse his contentment with his wife and his quiet, virtuous life in the country. Although Amanda is pleased by her husband’s dedication to virtue, she is apprehensive at his insistence that he is capable of withstanding any temptation the city may offer during their forthcoming visit. Her fears deepen after they arrive in London, when Loveless confesses his attraction to a young woman he noticed at the playhouse. Although Loveless’s strong sexual appetite is typical of the rake-hero of Restoration comedy, his pride in his chastity (however short-lived) and his verse panegyric to virtue certainly are not.

Whereas in Restoration comedy, the wife who contemplates adultery typically concerns herself only with pragmatic considerations and is an object of derisive laughter, Amanda undergoes a real moral struggle and elicits the audience’s sympathy and admiration. Unaware that her cousin is the object of her husband’s desire, she confesses to Berinthia her contrary emotional responses to Lord Foppington’s and Worthy’s unsuccessful attempts to seduce her. In response to Berinthia’s inquiry whether she will remain chaste should Loveless again betray her, Amanda predicts that, despite her consequent loss of love for him, she will retain her virtue. Amanda vehemently rejects Berinthia’s suggestion that she avenge herself on a straying Loveless by cuckolding him, innocently dismissing Berinthia’s wholly serious suggestion as mere wit. In the scenes in which Berinthia—not, as in Restoration comedy, a potential lover—tries to persuade Amanda to allow herself to be seduced, Berinthia’s cynicism concerning love and marriage becomes evident. Berinthia’s wit and her cynical and exploitative conception of human relationships align her with the characters of Restoration comedy, just as Amanda’s implicit faith in her husband and often vocalized dedication to virtue anticipate the qualities of the heroine of sentimental comedy.

Eager to conceal the affair she wishes to have with Loveless, Berinthia agrees to Worthy’s scheme to distract Amanda by entangling her in an affair with Worthy. Aware that Amanda will be more receptive to Worthy’s attentions if she feels abused and betrayed by Loveless, Berinthia offers to confirm Amanda’s suspicions concerning Loveless’s fidelity by enabling Amanda to observe him meeting his mistress. In addition to informing Amanda of Loveless’s betrayal, Berinthia also repeatedly tells her of Worthy’s devotion.

Amanda’s convictions are put to the test when she sees Loveless meet his mistress (whom she never recognizes as Berinthia) for a rendezvous. Although she knows that Loveless truly cares for her, that he only “runs after something for variety,” Amanda is so deeply disturbed at finding him relapsed into rakehood that she momentarily considers duplicating his sin. Immediately, however, Amanda rejects such moral relativism, declaring in a lengthy verse speech that her husband’s fall would in no way excuse her own. Though her love for him has died, her love for virtue is unaltered. Thus, despite Amanda’s intense attraction to him, Worthy’s advances fail utterly. Resisting his attempts to seduce her at first with words and later with force, she insists that the only proof of Worthy’s love that she will accept is his not tempting her virtue. Amanda leaves the awed Worthy alone onstage to confess the profundity of his admiration and love for Amanda and for virtue. As Loveless once had, he now dedicates himself to virtue, though he realistically prefaces his announcement of his reformation with “How long this influence may last, heaven knows.”

This last section of the Loveless-Amanda plot, like the first, is written entirely in blank verse, perhaps to emphasize the high seriousness of the ideas. Nevertheless, the conclusion of this plot is at best partial, for several serious problems remain unresolved: Loveless has not reformed, and there is no suggestion that he will reform or that Amanda’s love for him will be rekindled; even at the moment of his repentance, Worthy admits the fragility of his love for virtue; and Amanda’s only reward for her chastity is her not being raped by Worthy. Worthy’s attempted rape of Amanda, like Loveless’s mock-rape of the softly protesting Berinthia, is also significant in that in these scenes, passion is presented onstage in an overtly physical rather than in a detached, intellectualized manner, as was the case in Restoration comedy.

Like the Loveless-Amanda plot, the Lord Foppington-Young Fashion plot also employs and adapts the elements of Restoration comedy. The humor in this plot, unlike that of the other, comes largely from farce, though Lord Foppington also provides humor of wit. Having expended his small inheritance, Young Fashion unsuccessfully appeals for money to his wealthy, wasteful, and selfish brother, Lord Foppington, and ultimately relieves his financial distress by stealing his brother’s bride, Miss Hoyden. Although Young Fashion shares the Restoration rake-hero’s refined tastes and insight into human nature, he has a more fully developed conscience than does the rake, for he gives his brother several opportunities to avert being duped by exercising even minimal generosity.

Young Fashion’s brother, Lord Foppington, is unquestionably the wittier of the pair, but it is clearly not he with whom the audience is intended to sympathize. In Lord Foppington, Vanbrugh transforms the intellectually deficient, self-deluded fop of Restoration comedy into a heartless yet self-aware egotist. Unlike his predecessors, Lord Foppington is not a fop because he lacks sufficient wit to establish proper values. An intelligent but unscrupulous man, he deliberately adopts contemptible values and displays ludicrous behavior because he knows that those who do so prosper most in society. Cruelly selfish, he advises his brother to become a highwayman and thus obtain relief from his problems through theft or hanging. Lord Foppington’s awareness of and indifference to the consequences of his distorted priorities provide a novel and serious undercurrent to the traditional fop scenes. Such concern with the moral implications of a fool’s actions, rather than mere laughter at the fool’s expense, indicates Vanbrugh’s movement away from the Restoration comedy ethos and toward that of sentimental comedy.

Another character who is based on a Restoration comedy type is Miss Hoyden, a virginal but sexually precocious country girl. Hoyden’s virtue is merely technical, having been preserved only by the watchfulness of her overly protective father, also a Restoration comedy country type. Moral questions do not trouble Hoyden: Unconcerned about committing bigamy, she readily marries the real Lord Foppington after having just married an impostor. Hoyden ultimately rejects her second spouse and retains her first not because of any promptings of conscience or affection but because she finds Young Fashion more attractive physically and because she expects he will be...

(The entire section is 4536 words.)