Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 581
To the modern reader Restoration comedies sometimes seem like snowflakes: each one is different, but viewed from a distance, they are difficult to tell apart. There are a limited and recurring number of types to act their parts (the witty heroine, the dashing hero, the Frenchified fop, and the obstinate parent), and a limited and recurring number of dramatic jobs to be done (expose affectation and folly, distinguish true love from lust or powerplays, and restore the natural order of things). The trick is to devise and expertly complicate fresh situations through which these conventional elements are driven to their inevitable conclusion. In the fiercely competitive world of Restoration theater, wit and novelty are the chief qualities which distinguish the efforts of a master craftsman like Wycherley from those of his competitors.
THE GENTLEMAN DANCING MASTER is not one of Wycherley’s best plays, but it has sufficient wit and novelty to be worth reading today. Its strength lies not in its strained plot, at once hectic and thin, but in Wycherley’s sharp characterizations, especially of the ludicrously affected Monsieur de Paris, and the sprightly and resourceful Hippolita who, despite her mask of innocence and simplicity, knows exactly what she wants and how she intends to get it. Paris and Don Diego (James Formal) form a perfect dramatic opposition: the precious pseudo-Frenchman and the stiff, gullible pseudo-Spaniard; and the scene in which Formal forces Paris to strip off his French dress and speech, and to substitute the Spanish golilia (collar-band) for his cravat makes for splendid theater.
The saucy servant, Prue, in the tradition of commedia saucy servants, is a sparkling example of her kind. Prue’s speech on the “unfortunate conditions of us poor chambermaids,” who must “shift for our mistresses, and not for ourselves,” is strangely affecting (for a cynical Restoration comedy); and her subsequent clumsy attempt to lure Paris into her bed by telling him of an erotic dream she has supposedly had about him is both comic and pathetic.
Wycherley plays up the standard Restoration character virtues: wit, youth, good looks, self-knowledge, and plain dealing; but those who come off best, ultimately, are those who can most successfully manipulate others, with or without their knowledge and approval. Hippolita is the most admirable in this regard. She manipulates her fiance, Paris, into procuring Gerrard for her in the first place and then into validating the dancing-master scheme, thereby allowing the courtship to progress. She manipulates Gerrard into becoming her husband after having manipulated him into revealing his true love (his willingness to take her without her dowry). Finally, she manipulates her father into believing the ruse, and even into leaving the couple his estate, in order to avoid looking like a fool. Don Diego himself manipulates his sister, Mrs. Caution, into conceding his own perspicacity and her gullibility (when in fact, she has seen through Gerrard from the beginning). And Mistress Flirt, the prostitute, manipulates Paris into agreeing to a highly advantageous financial settlement.
As in many other Restoration comedies, it is the women—Hippolita, Mrs. Flirt, Mrs. Caution—who are the wisest, strongest, and most resourceful characters; the men spend most of their time and energy trying to keep up with them. True love and devotion may be the ostensible ideal, but the play’s real center of gravity lies in the caustic cynicism through which the playwright views the relationships between people, the follies that undo them, and the motives and strategies that impel them.
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