George Villiers’s restless, unstable nature urged him to live at a fast pace and to play for high stakes. He would no doubt have justified his risk taking with the potential rewards, yet despite a few successes, notably the manufacture of glass in England, he lost in most of his ventures. His achievements in statecraft and literature, with the exception of The Rehearsal, do not rise above mediocrity.
During the Restoration, scores of plays by Elizabethan dramatists, including William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, and Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, were revised for theater audiences. Villiers’s first significant effort as a playwright, The Chances, was a revision of Fletcher’s comedy of the same name, which saw a successful production in 1667. Villiers retouched Fletcher’s first three acts and rewrote entirely the final two acts, rendering the blank verse of the original into prose while leaving the first three acts largely in blank verse.
The play features a tangled plot that turns on coincidence and confusion of identities. Two women named Constantia, one a duke’s mistress and the other the unwilling mistress of an older lover who proves to be impotent, decide to leave their lovers at the same time. Both seek help from Don John, a young rake, and his friend Don Frederick. Meanwhile, Petruchio, brother of the duke’s mistress, seeks to avenge her loss of honor and sends the duke a challenge, only to learn that the duke has married her. After confused brawling in the street and several mistakes in efforts to straighten matters out, the play ends with the first Constantia restored to the duke and with the younger Constantia beginning a relationship with the reformed rake Don John, after her lover Antonio has reclaimed the money she took from him in order to flee.
The play features a number of witty exchanges and maintains a realistic tone throughout, successfully avoiding sentimentality, but it relies too heavily on confused identity and improbable circumstances in the plot, and it lacks the brilliant repartee of the later Restoration comedies of manners. Oddly, very few of the speeches are between the paired lovers. Villiers ties up the loose ends of the plot and sets a moral tone regarding love somewhat above that of the comedy of manners, yet apart from the lively character Don John, the play holds little attraction.
The only drama by Villiers well known today is The Rehearsal, a burlesque of the theater first produced in 1671. In its composition he probably had the assistance of Samuel Butler, Martin Clifford, and Thomas Sprat. The work achieved enormous popularity during its day. It belongs in the literary tradition of such drama burlesques as Beaumont and Fletcher’s The Knight of the Burning Pestle (pr. 1607), Henry Fielding’s Tom Thumb: A Tragedy (pr. 1730), and Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Critic (pr. 1779). The object of its satiric attack is the heroic play, a dramatic genre that developed following the Restoration, and its most successful practitioner, John Dryden.
Largely influenced by French tragedy, which attracted the king’s interest during his exile, the heroic play originated in England during the early 1660’s. Dramas of this type were written in rhymed heroic couplets, a distinctive feature that rendered the dialogue artificial. The speeches were often long, consisting of debate and ratiocination, often marked by bombastic language. The dramas typically presented a swashbuckling hero drawn into a conflict between love and his sense, or code, of honor; his task was to resolve the conflict without compromising either emotionally charged value. He was surrounded by a group of stock characters drawn primarily from the drama of Beaumont and Fletcher—characters such as the weak king, the faithful friend, the sentimental maiden, the evil woman, and the Machiavellian villain. The plays usually had remote or exotic settings, strange...
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