Because of its earnest self-importance and prudish restrictiveness, Victorian England was as ripe for comic deflation as the Rome of Plautus, and few of his contemporaries were as skillful as Arthur Wing Pinero at producing subversive, farcical laughter. In the typical Pinero farce, the young and uninhibited gain the upper hand over their proper, authoritarian elders with dazzling ease. In the course of the play, the well established and the vain, the powerful and the pompous are teased and tormented until nothing remains of their cherished propriety but a sheepish grin. All of this is accomplished without rancor, however, and even the figures of fun are treated with warmhearted sympathy.
In The Magistrate, the primary victims of comic deflation are the mock-heroically named Aeneas Posket, a stuffy but charitable police magistrate who fills his household with those convicted in his court, and his deceiving second wife, Agatha. The instigator of their discomfiture is Agatha’s delightfully irresponsible son, Cis Farringdon. The unlikely premise on which the plot depends is that, out of vanity and a desire to catch a second husband, Agatha has subtracted five years from her own age and five years from that of her son, thereby convincing both Aeneas and Cis that she is thirty-one and that Cis is fourteen. As she explains to her sister Charlotte in one of Pinero’s contrived expository dialogues, “If I am only thirty-one now, my boy couldn’t have been born nineteen years ago, and if he could, he oughtn’t to have been, because, on my own showing, I wasn’t married till four years later.” Because she lives in a society that has taught her that no man is likely to propose to a middle-aged woman and that no respectable woman has a child out of wedlock, Agatha has set a trap both for herself and for her unsuspecting husband.
The trap is sprung by Cis, who, despite believing himself to be fourteen, cannot help acting nineteen. He flirts with his sixteen-year-old music teacher, gambles quite skillfully, and lures his dignified stepfather, at a key moment, into a night of carousing. The carousing is made possible through Pinero’s use of another of his favorite plot contrivances, the fortuitous arrival of important letters. One of these letters announces an upcoming visit by Colonel Lukyn, a friend of Agatha’s first husband, who will be sure to expose Agatha’s deceit unless she intercepts him. A second letter informs Agatha of the sickness of a friend, Lady Adelaide Jenkins, which gives Agatha the excuse she needs to leave the house in quest of Colonel Lukyn. A third contains an overdue bill for charges incurred by Cis and his friends at the Hotel des Princes, a bill that Cis decides to manipulate his stepfather into paying. The fourth, whose significance in Pinero’s jigsaw puzzle plot becomes clear only later in the play, declares the intention of Charlotte’s straitlaced, sententious fiancé, Captain Horace Vale, to break off their engagement because of the impulsive Charlotte’s flirtation with another man.
What the characters are unaware of is that all of them are headed for the same place, the Hotel des Princes, where the intricately prepared comic reversal awaits them. Cis is there to get his bill paid for him and to have a good time; Aeneas is there to see his wondrous new fourteen-year-old son in his unlikely natural habitat; Colonel Lukyn is there to visit old haunts; Captain Vale is there because he knows Colonel Lukyn; Agatha is there to plead for Lukyn’s silence; and Charlotte is there because Agatha is.
Pinero milks the scenes that follow for all of their humorous possibilities, and in the process, he puts his dignified characters through absurd torments. The proper Captain Vale, for example, is asked to step onto a rickety balcony during a torrential rainstorm when Agatha and Charlotte request a private meeting with the colonel. He later creeps back into the room, soaked to the skin and wearing a bedraggled, oversized hat, mistakenly handed to him by Lukyn, and hides behind a curtain. In the meantime, the colonel has peppered his speech with so many babbling asides about his poor friend on the balcony that Agatha suspects him of suffering the aftereffects of sunstroke. Nevertheless, she does win his pledge to keep her secret, and the three sit down to dinner, while the grumbling, half-starved captain acts as a disembodied waiter from behind the curtain.
After an absurd discovery scene in which Vale, visible to the audience, converses from his hiding place with the principals, Pinero begins the true humbling of his characters. As Vale and Charlotte attempt a reconciliation and as the infuriated Agatha realizes for the first time that the voices from the next room are those of her husband and her son—both of whom, like Agatha herself, have lied about their plans for the evening—the hotel is raided for serving food and drink after hours. Aeneas, the ostensible upholder of the laws, and Cis escape by leaping through a window and falling through a roof, while the magistrate’s wife and her three companions are dragged off to jail.
After several hours of running from the authorities, Aeneas again becomes a figure of authority himself and prepares, as best he can, to judge the wrongdoings of others. What a shock it is, however, when he finds that the first case before him involves his wife’s friend, Colonel Lukyn, and three of Lukyn’s comrades. In a face-to-face interview with the colonel before the trial begins, Aeneas refuses to give special treatment to any of the four, not even the two ladies, and he exclaims, in righteous indignation, “I am listening, sir, to the guiding voice of Mrs. Posket—that newly-made wife still blushing from the embarrassment of her second marriage, and that voice says, ‘Strike for the sanctity of hearth and home, for the credit of the wives of England—no mercy!’” The result is that he hears the four malefactors plead guilty to exactly the crime he himself has committed and sentences them to seven days in jail, at the very moment that his wife, who has lied about her identity, pulls back her veil.
In a play of this sort, in which self-righteousness and rigid social conventions are held up to ridicule, the appropriate conclusion is a liberating relaxation of the rules, and Pinero chooses just such a conclusion for The Magistrate. Mr. Bullamy, Aeneas’s fellow magistrate, finds a way of skirting the letter of the law and secures the prisoners’ release. The warring parties, much chastened by their experiences, are reconciled, and every concealed truth is revealed. Pinero even makes use of that most ancient symbol of reconciliation, a marriage, to bring the play to an end. Aeneas agrees to bless the upcoming union of the music teacher and Cis, who was fourteen yesterday but is nineteen today, especially if the two will accept his gift of a thousand pounds and take themselves off to Canada.
Pinero’s most successful sentimental comedy, Sweet Lavender, also makes use of ego deflation to bring its characters to their senses, but here laughter is less important than pathos for winning the audience’s approval of the playwright’s resolution of his plot. The play centers on one of the themes dealt with in The Magistrate, the sometimes rocky progress of love, but Sweet Lavender manages to explore much more dangerous ground without giving the impression of considering controversial materials. Essentially, the play asks whether one should follow the dictates of one’s heart or the expectations of society when choosing a spouse; the emphatic, and unabashedly maudlin, answer is that, if it is sensitive to innocence and virtue, the heart is the better guide.
The exposition is again handled through convenient conversations, but this time with less artificiality than in The Magistrate. From these conversations, the audience learns that Clement Hale, a law student and the adopted son of wealthy banker Geoffrey Wedderburn, is sharing rooms with Dick Phenyl, a drunken but kindly barrister, and that Clement loves Lavender Rolt, the young daughter of housekeeper Ruth Rolt. He has not yet told Lavender of his love, and Dick Phenyl is convinced that such a declaration would destroy Clement’s future. The simple, poverty-stricken young lady is an unworthy match for Clement, he argues, and Mr. Wedderburn expects Clement to marry his niece, Minnie Gilfillian. Dick himself is very familiar with poverty and failure and would hate to see his young friend ruin his own expectations.
From Lavender’s first entrance, however, Pinero makes it clear that she and Clement are destined for each other and that whatever snobbishness interferes with their union is unjust and must be overcome. Barriers of rank and wealth are of no consequence when two people are as well matched as Clement and Lavender, and the audience is in perfect sympathy with the two lovers when Clement, early in the play, proposes marriage and Lavender accepts him. Their decision to marry is so obviously right that the Wedderburns and anyone who sides with them must be convinced of their error in resisting such a perfect union.
Dick Phenyl is the first to be won over. An impractical romantic himself, and for that very reason an admirable character, he quickly succumbs to the sentiment of the situation and acts as the lovers’ ally. Minnie becomes a collaborator with equal ease; her love for Clement is more nearly sisterly affection than passion, and besides, she herself is too busy flouting social conventions by playing the coquette with an upstart American to worry about a lost match with Clement.
Mr. Wedderburn and his sister, Mrs. Gilfillian, are more stubborn in their interference, and it is only after both have been humbled that the marriage can occur. In one of his most extreme reversal scenes, Pinero has Wedderburn deliver an ultimatum to Clement to abandon Lavender or be cut off without a cent at the very moment when his own ruin is about to be announced. Barely has Clement reaffirmed his loyalty to Lavender and Wedderburn cursed him as a penniless fool when Dick Phenyl carries in a telegram that tells of the collapse of...
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