George Second Duke of Buckingham Villiers Critical Essays

Introduction

George Villiers, Second Duke of Buckingham 1628-1687

English essayist, playwright and poet.

During his lifetime Buckingham was considered, as his contemporary Francis Lockier declared, the “most accomplished man of the age,” a central figure in the political and literary circles of Restoration England. He was raised with the future king Charles II, and during the Commonwealth period played an active role in the efforts to return the monarchy to power. After the Restoration, Buckingham was the principal member of the Court Wits, a literary circle that included figures such as Charles Sackville and John Denham. Buckingham is principally remembered today for his 1671 play The Rehearsal, a satirical attack on theatrical conventions that, as Peter Lewis has asserted, “scattered its progeny throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and then projected its powerful hereditary strain even into our own comedies, farces, and revues.”

Biographical Information

Buckingham was born January 30th, 1628, into a wealthy and powerful family. His father, George Villiers, the first Duke of Buckingham, was a favorite of both James I and Charles I. In August 1628 the elder Villiers was assassinated and his son, just seven months old, assumed his title of Duke of Buckingham. Buckingham's mother, Lady Katherine Manners, was pregnant at the time of her husband's death. When she later remarried, Buckingham and his siblings were left in the care of Charles I, who raised them along with his sons, Charles and James, both of whom would later rule England. In 1640 Buckingham and his younger brother, Francis, enrolled in Trinity College, Cambridge, but left two years later to join royalist forces involved in the civil war. Francis was killed in battle in 1648, and Buckingham escaped to the Continent. After Charles I was beheaded in 1649, Buckingham worked to restore the monarchy. In 1657 he returned to England and married Mary Fairfax, whose father had been awarded a significant portion of Buckingham's former estate. Buckingham's close association with the royal family led to his arrest and imprisonment shortly after his marriage, and he was sentenced to death. However, before he could be executed, Oliver Cromwell died and the monarchy was restored. After the Restoration, Buckingham regained his property and the income it produced, and became an influential member of Charles II's court, serving for a time as the king's first minister. During this time, he began writing plays and poems, and his position at court made Buckingham the most influential of the so-called Court Wits, a circle of courtier artists and intellectuals, among them Abraham Cowley, Christopher Wren, and Samuel Butler. Buckingham's plays were often produced in collaboration with other Court Wits, and several satirical portraits of Buckingham's political and literary enemies achieved great popular acclaim. In 1665 Buckingham began a notorious affair with Anna-Maria, the Countess of Shrewsbury, which provoked her husband to challenge Buckingham to a duel. When Lord Shrewsbury died of wounds he received in the contest, public opinion turned against Buckingham. In 1671 Lady Shrewsbury gave birth to Buckingham's son, but the infant died shortly after birth. Buckingham's very public grief at the loss of his only child—along with the elaborate funeral he staged—caused further scandal. In 1674 Buckingham was ordered by Parliament not to cohabit with Lady Shrewsbury and was removed from office. He lived for a year in retirement in Yorkshire before returning to London to lead the opposition in Parliament. He was briefly jailed in 1677, an event that restored public sympathy for him. He again retired in 1681 and devoted his remaining years to his writing and leisure. Buckingham died on April 16, 1687, two days after catching a chill while fox hunting near his Yorkshire estate.

Major Works

Buckingham's literary career began in the early 1660s, when he began composing poems which were circulated among his friends at court. The first of his small handful of plays, a revision of John Fletcher's The Chances, was first performed in 1664. His next play was The Country Gentleman (1669), written with Robert Howard. In 1671 Buckingham's most famous and enduring work, The Rehearsal, was staged in London. The play is believed to be a collaborative effort with other Court Wits, but the extent of each man's contribution has not been determined. A biting satire about the theater, The Rehearsal features a play-within-a-play, written by the character Bayes. The play, which unintentionally (by Bayes) burlesques the genre of heroic drama, is observed in rehearsal by two gentlemen, Mr. Smith and Mr. Johnson, who critique and mock it. Bayes is commonly considered to be a caricature of John Dryden, although some critics maintain that the character more closely resembles the Earl of Arlington, Buckingham's political foe. No fewer than seventeen contemporary heroic dramas were directly parodied in The Rehearsal, and many more were referenced obliquely. The Rehearsal was extremely successful, and was revived over 170 times in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In 1683, after his retirement, Buckingham adapted the tragicomedy Philaster by Fletcher and Francis Beaumont and retitled it The Restauration. It has never been staged.

Critical Reception

Buckingham's most successful work—and the one that has attracted the most critical attention—is The Rehearsal. Several critics, among them Emmett L. Avery and Dane Farnsworth Smith have attested to the play's tremendous popularity in the century following its debut. According to Smith, it was “a burlesque so satirically pungent and so diverting that the public returned to it year after year.” Smith has written that the work was a critical as well as a popular success, claiming that The Rehearsal was “the criterion of good drama for more than a century, and still remains the best negative statement on dramatic art.” Peter Lewis has cited the play's originality and considerable influence on succeeding satires, noting that Richard Brinsley Sheridan's enormously successful The Critic “is closely modeled on Buckingham's exceptionally popular play.” G. Jack Gravitt has suggested that the play's appeal for modern audiences lies in the fact that it shares many of the conventions usually associated with a twentieth-century art form. “The modernity of The Rehearsal results,” according to Gravitt, “from its anticipation of literary techniques and devices present in today's Theatre of the Absurd.” Many contemporary critics have also commented on the scope of Buckingham's satire, which targets both political and literary figures as well as the conventions of theater itself, particularly those associated with the heroic drama. Lewis, for example, has described one scene that “simultaneously ridicules the arbitrary inclusion of dramatically irrelevant songs in many Restoration plays, the use of stage machines to obtain sensational effects at the cost of dramatic sense (visual burlesque), and those miraculous reversals in heroic drama accomplished by a deus ex machina (situational burlesque).” While most scholars, among them Robert F. Willson, Jr. and Richard Elias, have asserted that the character Bayes represents John Dryden, George McFadden has argued that the true target of Buckingham's satire is the Earl of Arlington. Margarita Stocker has contended that both views are accurate and neither should necessarily be privileged over the other; asserting that “in The Rehearsal political and literary satire are analogous, mutually reinforcing, and effectively inseparable. … The Rehearsal offers a logical political analysis of its time, precisely by diagnosing the ideology implicit in its literary target, the heroic drama.”