The Recruiting Officer

by George Farquhar

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Critical Evaluation

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The Recruiting Officer is classified as a Restoration comedy, but that is something of a misnomer for several reasons. Restoration literature is usually understood to be British literature written between 1660 (the time of Charles II’s ascent to the British throne, which had been vacant since the execution of his father, Charles I, in 1649) and 1700. It is convenient to classify works written in the last forty years of the seventeenth century with the word “Restoration,” but additionally there is something distinctly different about much of the work of that period, particularly in drama. The recognizable characteristics of Restoration literature tend to slip over into the literature of the early eighteenth century. George Farquhar wrote The Recruiting Officer in 1705. He had, however, written plays as early as 1698, so there is some justification in calling him a Restoration playwright.

The play is best understood in comparison with more perfectly exemplary Restoration comedy. A Restoration comedy has a happy ending, usually one in which young men and women come together in matrimony or sincere pledges of marriage. It begins with males and females meeting, circling warily, engaging in the pleasures and pains of courtship (often harassed by concerned parents or social conventions), falling into short-lived quarrels, and finally coming together in mutual love. The Restoration comedy is, in short, something like life.

Restoration comedy also has its own conventions. These conventions arose from the expectations of the Restoration audience, which included the court of Charles II, who had lived in France and developed a taste for the sophisticated, risqué comedies of that country. He and his courtiers were the first patrons, financial supporters, and audience for the revived theater. They liked characters dressed as they were dressed, living in London, and living idealized, happy, upper-class lives. Male actors and, in a great development in English theater, female actors were expected to talk much in the manner of the court and with smart-set arrogance and high wit. Restoration audiences not only wanted the best-looking man to win the prettiest woman but also expected him to be the cleverest man on the stage, since intelligence and wittiness were the most admired qualities in the high society of the time. The contest between the leading man and contenders for that role was often played out in terms of intelligence. Intelligence, in turn, was often measured by characters’ ability to deceive others and to use their sophistication to achieve their social goals, such as marriage and other moneymaking connections. Brazen, for instance, is a man who thinks he is witty, but he is really a dupe for both Plume and Worthy.

The Recruiting Officer is a second-stage comedy in the sense that the couples (often two couples work toward matrimony) have already gone through some initial phases of their relationships before the play begins. They are now in difficulty but still in love, and they must work their way through misunderstandings to achieve resolution. Plume is the smartest man on the stage. Worthy is also intelligent, and both of them are witty. The leading ladies in Restoration comedies are often quite as witty as their suitors and not reluctant to go after their men.

Restoration comic conventions run throughout the play. Sylvia’s use of disguise is a common feature of Restoration comedy, for example. It is also an excuse to show off her figure. Fashion of the time allowed women to display their bosoms, but their voluminous dresses hid the rest of their bodies. Her disguise, therefore, was a bit risqué for the play’s times. The play’s mockery of old men is also...

(This entire section contains 930 words.)

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a commonplace of Restoration comedy, and country folk in such plays are always fools. The play’s placement in a province is uncommon, as London is the usual locale for these dramas.

This play, however, differs tonally from much Restoration comedy. The wit is brilliant, but it is less cruel than is typical in Restoration plays, and the innocent ignorance of country folk is not jeered at quite as rudely as might be considered usual. Advantage is taken of them, and the local magistrates turn a blind eye on the conduct of Plume and Kite, but the treatment seen in the play would not have seemed harsh to audiences aware of the difficulty of recruiting for the War of Spanish Succession, which had been going on for several years.

Plume, like most Restoration heroes (not to mention Charles II), has a questionable past, but he takes some care of his former conquests. He begins with an attempt to seduce Sylvia, but he learns to love her. Genuine feeling throughout the play culminates in engagements. Justice Balance, who approves of Plume initially, turns against him when Sylvia becomes his sole heir, but he is not so much punished for this as he is brought to his senses. A Restoration play might have given him, at least, a physical beating. All in all, the play is gentler than a typical Restoration comedy and less dismissive of flawed characters. In this way, it connects with the plays of the early eighteenth century, which were on their way to the sentimentality of late eighteenth century drama.

Some characters in the play are outside the romantic structure. Brazen is a marvelous grotesque. He is an example of sheer stupidity as a comic force. Sergeant Kite is a comic whirlwind. His fortune-teller is one of the finest pieces in the comic repertoire, and his comments on the way of the world provide an example of how these plays, seemingly trivial, are full of wisdom about human folly.