In general, past criticism of George Farquhar’s plays has centered on two basic areas: finding possible autobiographical references in both characters and settings and comparing Farquhar’s moral attitudes to those of previous Restoration dramatists. In fact, many critics view Farquhar as the harbinger of the eighteenth century sentimental comedy. Both these views fail to deal adequately with Farquhar’s artistic development of comedy. Unlike the writers of previous Restoration drama and subsequent sentimental comedy, Farquhar presents a balanced view of humanity and an equal appeal to the intellect and the emotions. His notion of the proper function of comedy, as expressed in a letter entitled “A Discourse upon Comedy” from Love and Business, includes the responsibility to portray the times accurately. The playwright’s diversions must be realistic if he is also to carry out his task of instruction. Following these ideas, Farquhar produced drama that rests at some point of balance between the earlier cynical, witty comedy of manners and the later melodramatic sentimental comedy. Thematic development, dramatic conflict, and sources of comedy in Farquhar’s three most popular plays—The Constant Couple, The Recruiting Officer, and The Beaux’ Stratagem—illustrate his philosophy of comedy.
In these three plays, the treatment of theme, dramatic conflict, and sources of comedy contributes to an increased realism. The stiff, artificial characters of early Restoration drama have no place in Farquhar’s theater. The audience at the turn of the eighteenth century was mainly a middle-class audience with an awakening sense of social consciousness.
Farquhar opened the window to a blast of fresh air for English comedy. By placing his characters in the world of innkeepers, military recruits, and highwaymen, Farquhar directed attention to humor rather than wit, and, in so doing, broadened the scope for comedy. His plays may well be less sharp-tongued than those of the dramatists who preceded him, but his work displays a greater naturalness and a deeper sense of life. His is the more human view of the world.
The Constant Couple
The Constant Couple is characterized by a light, often farcical atmosphere centered on situational comedy that instructs both by positive and by negative example. The efforts of several of the characters to attend the Jubilee in Rome gave the play a topical flavor.
Farquhar’s habit of sustaining dramatic tension by action rather than by dialogue is a primary characteristic of The Constant Couple. The main actions center on Lady Lurewell, Colonel Standard, Sir Harry Wildair, and Angelica Darling, whose names alone suggest positive and negative examples. Angelica virtuously rejects a hypocritical suitor in the beginning, quickly establishing her character. In revenge, this suitor, appropriately named Vizard, tells Sir Harry that Angelica is a prostitute. Sir Harry, who has followed Lady Lurewell from Europe in hopes of a conquest, makes several humorous attempts to solicit Angelica’s services; the best he can do is to look foolish and to hum when he discovers his mistake. Meanwhile, Lady Lurewell is involved in making all of her would-be lovers pay for the trickery of a man who seduced her at a young age. Her revenge takes the form of getting her suitors into foolish, farcical situations. Sir Harry finally abandons his wooing of Lady Lurewell to marry Angelica, and Standard is revealed as Lady Lurewell’s seducer, who has been faithful to his previous engagement with her. All potentially sentimental situations, such as the reconciliation of Lady Lurewell and Standard, are short and factual rather than long and emotional.
Another aspect of The Constant Couple that is typical of Farquhar’s plays is his modification of the usual Restoration characters. Sir Harry is not the stereotyped rake, cool and polished, living by his wit alone. Above all, he is...
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