George Etherege 1636-1692?
English playwright and poet.
Etherege has been credited as a principal founder of the comedy of manners tradition in English drama. This dramatic genre represents the satirical exploitation of the manners and fashions of the aristocratic class on the stage for their own amusement. Critics have acknowledged Etherege as an accomplished writer of wit, speculating that his comedic voice was shaped by his experiences as a young traveler in France, where he likely witnessed the pioneering social comedy of Molière as well as the ostentatious display of Parisian court fashion and manners. Based on these experiences, Etherege wrote comedies in which he affectionately, yet incisively parodied Carolinian attitudes toward a vast array of ideological concerns, including sexuality, naturalism, fashion, and social class. Etherege's peers revered his easy wit and his portraits of French-aping fops, gamely embracing the dramatist's social satire which poked fun at their class as a whole. As John Dryden wrote in the Epilogue to The Man of Mode; or, Sir Fopling Flutter (1676): “Yet none Sir Fopling him, or him can call; / He's Knight o' th' Shire, and represents ye all.”
Etherege was likely born in London in 1636, to Captain George Etherege and Mary Powney. Little is known about his formative years, other than the fact that his father, who was a royalist during the Civil War, fled to France in 1644 and died in exile six years later. Placed in the care of his grandfather, Etherege was apprenticed to attorney George Gosnold of Beaconsfield in 1654. Five years later, he was admitted to Clements Inn to study law, during which time he was involved in a lawsuit between his uncle and grandfather over a disputed inheritance. Literary scholars have noted that Etherege exhibited neither the aptitude nor the inclination to study law; instead, he began writing poems and bawdy verse that earned him some notoriety in academic and courtly circles. Indeed, commentators have discovered little evidence to indicate the substance of Etherege's activities as a young man, but some have argued that he traveled to Flanders and France at this time and became highly influenced by French comedy and manners. Also during this period, Etherege became acquainted with Charles Sackville, Lord Buckhurst and later the earl of Dorset, who would become a close friend and patron.
Back in London by 1664, Etherege became an instant celebrity when his The Comical Revenge; or, Love in a Tub debuted to widespread popular acclaim at the Duke's Playhouse. Apparently taking advantage of his newfound fame, Etherege embraced a lifestyle of drinking, gambling, and seducing women, earning the nicknames “Gentle George” and “Easy Etherege” for his devotion to free living. He also became acquainted with a group of court wits known as the “merry gang,” which included Buckhurst, Sir Charles Sedley, and John Wilmot, earl of Rochester. Rochester in particular shared Etherege's libertine proclivities and the two became fast friends. In fact, many scholars contend that the rake Dorimant in The Man of Mode was modeled on Rochester and his real-life antics.
In 1668 Etherege's She Would If She Could premiered at the Duke's Playhouse. Based on Samuel Pepys's eyewitness account, the audience was disappointed with the play, and Etherege himself placed the blame for the play's failure on the actors' uninspired performances. The failure of the play did not affect Etherege's court preferment; in fact, he was granted gentleman status and assigned as a secretary to the Turkish ambassador, Daniel Harvey. Etherege followed Harvey on a diplomatic mission to Constantinople in late 1668, and after some three years there, he made his way to Paris and then back to London. In London, Etherege resumed his life of dissolution, occasionally circulating poems and songs but more often pursuing libertine activities with his “merry gang.” By 1676 Etherege had written his third and final play, The Man of Mode, which was staged at the Dorset Garden Theatre. That same year, Etherege and other members of the “merry gang” were involved in a fracas with a watchman at Epsom which left a man dead.
In the years that followed, Etherege was knighted and he married a rich widow named Mary Arnold. In fact, some biographers have posited that Etherege married Arnold for her fortune in order to pay off his gambling debts and to purchase a knighthood. Based on Etherege's own letters, the union was not happy, and when he was appointed by James II as ambassador to Ratisbon, Germany, in 1685, Arnold did not join him at his new post. By all accounts, Etherege missed his life of ease at the English court. He despised living in conservative, provincial Germany, and he became embroiled in several gambling and sex scandals. Nevertheless, he remained at his post in Ratisbon until he learned of James II's ouster in the Glorious Revolution in late 1688. The following year, Etherege joined James and the exiled court in Paris, where it is believed that he died in 1691 or 1692.
While most commentators have censured Etherege's insubstantial plots and the lack of dramatic action in his comedies, they nearly all acknowledge the brilliance of his brisk and witty dialogue. It is this element, critics have contended, which invigorates his characters and creates humorous scenes that resonated with Carolinian audiences. Because of their lack of technical sophistication, Etherege's plays have often been viewed as prototypes of the later, more refined Restoration comedies of William Wycherley, William Congreve, and John Vanbrugh.
In The Comical Revenge, critics have mainly focused on Etherege's experimentation with four plot schemes ranging from high drama to low comedy. Dismissing as inferior the serious high plot written in heroic rhyming couplets, commentators instead have focused on the comic plot featuring Sir Frederick Frolick. They have posited that Frolick is the embryonic representation of a character type known as the Restoration rake, a libertine aristocrat with a sharp wit who subscribes to free living, drinking, gambling, and pursuing women for romantic trysts. Despite the flashes of humor in the scenes featuring Frolick, critics have pointed out how Etherege's maladroit handling of the various unconnected plots creates a sense of ambiguity and lack of structural unity in the comedy.
In She Would If She Could, critics have contended that Etherege displayed marked improvement in developing a cohesive dramatic structure and in polishing his witty dialogue. Further, commentators have noticed that Etherege initiated a more complex exploration of sexual politics between his characters, especially Courtall and Lady Cockwood. They have argued that Courtall represents Etherege's ideal libertine of easy morals and fine wit who defies social convention, whereas Lady Cockwood embodies the playwright's disdain for those who succumb to sensual, naturalistic impulses but who hide behind social pretense to manipulate and seduce others.
According to most critics, Etherege demonstrates the full power of his dramatic genius in The Man of Mode. They have maintained that the comedy deftly combines witty dialogue, superbly drawn characters, and Etherege's trademark social satire to produce a work which had no small influence on subsequent Restoration comedies. Commentators have regarded Dorimant, the central character, as the consummate Restoration rake, still given to liberal excess, but also exhibiting a worldly cynicism which suggests a more complex perception of the character than the farcical, one-dimensional Sir Frederick Frolick. Critics have added that Harriet provides another layer of complexity to the play in that she complements Dorimant as no other female character had complemented a rake in Etherege's earlier dramas. Harriet is considered a strong and intelligent heroine who proves to be Dorimant's equal in verbal banter and who shares his distain for social artifice; moreover, of all of Etherege's women characters, Harriet comes the closest to outmaneuvering the rake in the end. The significance of Sir Fopling Flutter himself as the foil to Dorimant has not been lost on commentators: he is the epitome of the vain, superficial man of mode, who is wholly involved in his affectation of courtly manners and fashion. In fact, Sir Fopling initiated the popular stage convention of the foppish imitator of flamboyant French courtly manners who is oblivious to the mocking ridicule of the other characters.
During his lifetime, Etherege's comedies met with general approbation by his peers and audiences, and he was eulogized in numerous contemporary poems and pamphlets. A generation later, the comedies were disdained as vulgar products of a licentious and immoral age.
Writing in 1711 about The Man of Mode, Sir Richard Steele asserted that: “This whole celebrated piece is a perfect contradiction to good manners, good sense, and common honesty.” Theophilus Cibber in 1753 affirmed Steele's sentiments, writing that while he found merit in Etherege's wit, nevertheless “his works are so extremely loose and licentious, as to render them dangerous to young, unguarded minds.” Throughout the remainder of the eighteenth century and well into the nineteenth, Etherege and his comedies remained in a state of general neglect. In the late nineteenth century, commentators began to reexamine Etherege as a leading innovator in the English comedy of manners, but still generally dismissed his works as superficial showpieces intended merely to appease the degenerate tastes of Carolinian theatergoers. This opinion prevailed well into the twentieth century.
Writing in 1924, Bonamy Dobrée maintained that “Etherege was not animated by any moral stimulus, and his comedies arose from a superabundance of animal energy that only bore fruit in freedom and ease, amid the graces of Carolingian society.” Dobrée concluded that Etherege “rarely makes an appeal to the intellect.” Etherege's literary reputation suffered another blow in 1937 when L. C. Knights wrote an essay condemning Restoration comedies as “trivial, gross, and dull” written by dramatists with a “miserably limited set of attitudes.” Knights's essay ignited a critical controversy in which literary scholars set out to restore the reputation of Restoration drama. Thomas H. Fujimura was one of the first critics to challenge Knights's censure of Etherege in particular, arguing that the playwright was in fact a literary and intellectual genius who masterfully synthesized such cultural influences as naturalism, libertinism, and skepticism into multilayered social satires. Critics such as Robert Markley and Lisa Berglund examined the language of Etherege's comedies in an effort to understand the cultural and historical circumstances that influenced their composition. Markley explored the playwright's experimentation with dialogue and dramatic form in his plays to examine the ideological dislocation of aristocratic culture in Restoration England. Berglund discussed the dramatist's construction of a “libertine language” of extended metaphors and analogies in The Man of Mode to subvert conventional morality. Despite these complex interpretations of Etherege's works, modern scholars nevertheless have remained divided in their opinion of the level of his literary achievement. To some, the playwright has been redeemed as a brilliant satirist of the ideological turbulence of the Restoration period; to others, he remains an unsophisticated dramatist who merely intended to amuse and delight his peers by lampooning their court manners on the stage.