Sir George Etherege developed and refined the comedy of manners with his dramatic works. The developmental process is evident in his first work, The Comical Revenge, and the fruition of his efforts is revealed in his The Man of Mode.
The Comical Revenge
Etherege’s first play, The Comical Revenge, has no discernible main plot. Rather, it has four more or less unconnected subplots. Three of the plots are derivative of earlier drama; the fourth constitutes Etherege’s real contribution to dramatic form. The first of the derivative plots is the “heroic” plot, based no doubt on the romantic plays of Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher (still very popular during this period) and of Sir William Davenant. When the characters of this plot, with their characteristically romantic names, come onstage, the play’s usual prose dialogue shifts to rhyming verse. The action in this subplot revolves around highly stylized conflicts between love and honor. Graciana and Lord Beaufort are madly in love. By mischance, however, Graciana’s brother has told his best friend, Colonel Bruce, that Graciana will marry him. Colonel Bruce does not care particularly about Graciana, whom he has not met, but would like to be connected to the family of his best friend. Secretly, Graciana’s sister Aurelia is madly in love with Bruce but out of honor cannot tell him. When Colonel Bruce discovers that Beaufort might be his rival for Graciana, he fights a duel with him, is disarmed but is magnanimously given his life by Beaufort. Not to be outdone in honor, Bruce falls on his sword. As he lies grievously wounded, Graciana feels honor-bound to pretend to Beaufort that she never loved him but only led him on to test Bruce’s love for her. She pledges to Bruce that if he survives she will marry him; if he dies, she will remain forever a virgin. At the last minute, everybody accidentally overhears everybody else confessing his and her true thoughts. All are overcome by how honorable all the rest are, and the right couples get together and live happily ever after.
The second plot is low farcical comedy of a kind to delight those who guffaw at dialect jokes and pratfalls. The humor is meant to come in part from the nearly unintelligible French accent of the servant, Dufoy (“Begar me vil havé de revengé”), and in part from his situation. He looks pale and unhealthy, and when people ask the cause, he claims he is languishing from unrequited love for Betty, a waiting woman. Actually, it soon comes out, he is languishing from a venereal disease. Betty, highly indignant when she discovers that he has been pretending to love her, locks him up in a washtub (the “comical revenge,” or “love in a tub” of the title), providing opportunities for various farcical jokes. In the “happy ending,” it appears that Dufoy and Betty actually are to get married. It is difficult to guess how boisterously audiences may have responded to this kind of comedy.
The third plot seems to derive from the comedy of Ben Jonson, or perhaps of Thomas Middleton. It involves Sir Nicholas Cully, who, as his name suggests, is a gull waiting to be swindled. He falls into the clutches of Wheadle and Palmer, two con artists; thinking all the time that he is the one who is doing the swindling, Cully gets the treatment he deserves. What separates this plot from the first two is its astonishing, almost documentary realism: The language of the street plays against the absurdly elevated “torments” and “despair” of the heroic scenes and the theatrically conventional burlesque French accent of Dufoy. For example, Wheadle and Palmer, having maneuvered Cully into a tavern to play cards, want to shift from the public table where they are seated to a back-room table, where they can cheat their victim in private. Finding a pretext for this move, one of them says, “this table is so wet, there’s no playing upon it.” That may be the first time in the history of the drama that a character mentions something so homely and realistic as the wetness of a table that has had several glasses and bottles sitting on it.
The fourth plot, which in the play gets no more emphasis than the other three, constitutes Etherege’s major contribution to Restoration drama and was to become the central plot of his two comedies to follow. It involves Sir Frederick Frollick, a young rake and gallant and wit about town. Audiences were no doubt accustomed to the nonspecific, timeless settings of William Shakespeare and to the remote and imaginary settings of the romantic plays of Beaumont and Fletcher. Suddenly, Sir Frederick walks in off the very London streets the playgoers themselves have just quitted to see this play. The language he speaks is their language, and the class to which he belongs is theirs. His conversation is topical. He is indeed a sad young rake, keeping his wench, intriguing with dozens of women, drinking, carousing, fighting, breaking windows, and otherwise tearing about. He is also, at least to a degree, witty, fashionable, and genteel. As the wealthy widow he is chasing throughout the play admits, he is “the prettiest, wittiest, wildest gentleman about the town.” Having gone through his fortune, he must court and wed the widow to mend his estate, as Etherege himself was to do a few years later.
The play as a whole is not memorable. Except for the moments of fine realism in the swindling scenes, the motivation for actions and the conflicts to be overcome are all weakly contrived. The four plots are but faintly connected. At the end, all the players—servants, whores, swindlers, rakes, and romantic lovers—are improbably brought onstage together in a mass marriage ceremony. With the exception of this unlikely event, they could as easily have been in separate plays.
Still, the play contained important innovations, and Etherege, shrewdly observing his audience, must have seen their delight and response to his contemporary rake speaking their language and frequenting the same places of pleasure as they did. He must also have recognized his facility in rendering such a character (so like himself) and his witty language. He made such characters the center of his subsequent plays, wisely phasing out the other subplots or rather disguising, shifting, and transforming them until they were no longer recognizable, serving instead as underpinnings to his main plot.
She Would if She Could
Etherege’s second play, She Would if She Could, is a considerable refinement on The Comical Revenge. The structure is clearer, simpler, and the actions more logically motivated. Three plot lines are discernible, but one of these is clearly the major plot, and the two minor plots are closely integrated with it, supporting its actions and commenting on it thematically. Most important, in the play as a whole, the contrast between the Truewit and the Witwoud, or would-be wit, has become central, setting the pattern for the great comedies of manners of the period.
The Witwouds are at the center of the two minor plots. In one subplot, Sir Oliver Cockwood is a “country knight.” In the social geography of the Restoration stage, the courtiers, rakes, and the stylish and witty women all live in the “town,” the fashionable West End of London. The “city” is the commercial part of London, where the “cits,” the much despised middle class, live. Worst of all, however, is the country. For the wits, the chief pleasures in life were found in association with town and court: the coffee-houses, the playhouses, the pleasure resorts, the fashionable clothing. The severest penance, therefore, would be to live in the country, where everything is several years out of date, where the only diversion is going for long walks. Witty young people forced to live in the country by cruel parents who do not trust them among the seductions of London are justified in using any means to escape to the town. Older people from the country are automatically assumed to be foolish and out of fashion.
Sir Oliver Cockwood is typical of the country knights. His name, to begin with, is appropriate (the “wood” having the sense of “would-be”), since his annoyed wife charges that he is impotent. If he stayed in the country, got drunk every night, and hunted foxes during the day, no one would object to him. His fault is that he has come to town to act like a young rake and to boast of all of his amorous adventures. He spends most of his time running away from his wife to make ineffectual dates with prostitutes. He becomes a comic butt because of his pretensions to being a man of honor (that is, a duelist and a lover) when he is actually timid and impotent.
In the other subplot, his wife, Lady Cockwood, is equally well named, though with an opposite signification. She tries to make assignations with any young man who will look at her. The problem is that she also wants to maintain her reputation for honor and virtue. She becomes a comic butt because of her pretensions to being modest and chaste, when it is obvious to everyone that she would readily be unchaste if she could. Interestingly, Lady Cockwood’s language is a burlesqued echo of the heroic or romantic scenes of The Comical Revenge. Her dialogue is filled with such words as “honor,” “ruined,” “undone,” “betrayed,” and “false,” but with the meanings comically reversed. If a young rake fails to keep his assignation with her, he is “wicked.” If he finally does show up to commit adultery with her, “truly he is a person of much worth and honor.”
The subplots in which these foolish persons partake, by giving examples of Witwouds—failed Truewits—provide a backdrop against which the Truewits of the main plot can be measured. These Truewits are the young men Courtall and Freeman and the young women Gatty and Ariana. The young men are considerable refinements on Sir Frederick Frollick of The Comical Revenge. For example, Frollick’s idea of courtship is to get drunk and go to his lady’s window in the wee hours of the morning to shout out ribald suggestions to her. He marries at the end a wealthy widow, behavior that Etherege himself was not above. Courtall is above it. He is much more self-assured than Frollick and has his drives, emotions, and true feelings absolutely under control—an important sign of the Truewit. Losing control, however, and thus putting himself at the mercy of others, is the unmistakable sign of the Witwoud. Courtall needs to marry a rich heiress but will not consider a widow. His wife, in addition to being rich, must also be young, beautiful, as witty as he, and untouched by other men.
Of particular interest in this play are the roles of the female characters. Lady Cockwood is an archetypal character—the lustful woman—who has appeared in both comedy and tragedy from the classical drama onward. Etherege, however, makes specific Restoration uses of her. She is made comic by her pretension to heroic virtue and by the fact that she has so little control of her emotions that she gives herself away at every word. By the lights of the Restoration society, she is not wrong in wishing to have a reputation for chastity, for without such a reputation a woman was lost (with the exception of mistresses of high royalty). At the same time, she was not wrong to possess sexual desire, for women, in this realistic society, were allowed to have at least moderate appetites. She was wrong, and therefore comic, in her extreme pretension of virtue, in her extreme libidinousness, and in her consequent inability to control herself. Control of self was highly valued in Restoration theater because only through self-control, so it was believed, could one’s external world be controlled. The world of Restoration theater is one in which a person must control himself or be controlled. Courtall, for example, by pretending to be interested in her, used Lady Cockwood in order to gain access to Gatty and Ariana, who are staying in her house, and then uses her desire to save her reputation to fend her off. He fends her off, interestingly, because her overeagerness has rendered her undesirable.
Gatty and Ariana represent the feminine witty ideal. Envious of the men for their freedom (which the women cannot have, for reputation is important), they decide, while resolving “to be mighty honest” to have as much fun as circumstances will allow. They put on masks (very popular at the time) to disguise their identities and go strolling in the fashionable Mulberry Garden in hopes of flirting innocently with some handsome and witty men. Though the men whom they encounter (Courtall and Freeman) are tremendously attractive to them, the women easily fend them off with witty conversation and a dissembling of their emotions. This response does not mean that they lack emotions, for in private they admit to each other how much the men tempt them. As Gatty says to Ariana: “I hate to dissemble when I need not. ’Twould look as affected in us to be reserved now we’re alone as for a player to maintain the character she acts in the tiring [dressing] room.” The scene is in direct contrast with the scene in which Lady Cockwood sends out her maid to pimp for her and then scolds her (even though they are in private) for doing so.
She Would if She Could, in short, is a didactic play, suggesting which emotions, which pretenses, which modes of behavior are proper—that is, witty—and which are not. The modern theatergoer, losing sight of this and responding to the play as simply a realistic social document, can misinterpret it in certain ways, seeing cruelty, for example, where a Restoration theatergoer would see a didactic point being made.
The finest thing of all in She Would if She Could is...
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