As R. J. Kaufmann observes, Richard Brome’s work forms “an intelligible and complex commentary on a central phase of an historical evolutionary process.” That historical process, though highly complex itself, with its many social, religious, and nationalistic side issues, can be briefly summarized as the growing challenge of the English middle class to the old aristocratic order. Although individuals did not line up neatly, the middle class as a group found its symbol of power in Parliament, while the king was the figurehead of the old order. The middle class also leaned toward the Puritan sects, while the aristocracy generally hewed to the established Anglican Church. These deep-rooted tensions and others came to a head during the ill-fated reign of Charles I, from 1625 to 1649, when Brome practiced his art, and culminated in the English Civil War and the beheading of King Charles in 1649.
As these bloody events show, Brome lived and wrote on the eve of destruction. Although his tone is comic, Brome nevertheless sets forth the conditions that led to social paroxysm. As a playwright, he sets forth those conditions in human terms, in the terms of feeling individuals. Therefore, for students of seventeenth century English history, Brome has particular significance, but there are also some strong parallels between the social conditions in his plays and those of today. For people living in unstable times, possibly on the edge of cataclysm, Brome has a message.
Brome’s message centers mostly on money, which dominates the life depicted in his plays, and money’s erosion of all other values. Marriages and alliances are formed on the basis of money as much as on the basis of love or friendship. Degraded aristocrats, short on cash, join with the middle class or with crooks and coney-catchers in pursuit of lucre. Groups of beggars roam the countryside. Everywhere the middle class is rampant, feeling its oats and hoping to purchase the manners and pedigrees of the aristocracy it is replacing. The world itself seems turned upside down, former values inverted. For the general theme of Mammon-worship, Brome was probably indebted to his mentor, Jonson, but Brome elaborates the social details of his theme that were apparent in the society around him. Brome might also have been indebted to Jonson for his conservative, aristocratic sympathies; with the changing makeup of the Caroline audience, Brome had to tone down those sympathies and appeared to be a more evenhanded observer.
The Northern Lass
The Northern Lass is an example of Brome’s early work. The play’s immediate success, combined with that of The Love-sick Maid, which was produced the same year, firmly established Brome’s popularity in his time. These two early hits proved Brome’s ability to satisfy his audience’s tastes, but The Northern Lass makes one question those tastes and wonder whether Jonson was not right, after all, to attack them. The play’s overdone intrigue and disguising become tedious, and its main attraction is its sentimental portrait of Constance from England’s North Country. Yet The Northern Lass does illustrate the typical Brome: It introduces the all-pervasive theme of money and Brome’s use here, in one play, of both satiric and romantic elements.
Money’s power is underlined by the play’s opening scene: Sir Philip Luckless, a court gentleman, has contracted to marry Mistress Fitchow, a rich city widow. The marriage represents a common social expedient of the time, the uneasy alliance of aristocrats and members of the middle class as the aristocrats sought to replenish their funds while the middle class sought to obtain titles. Sir Philip learns how uneasy the alliance is when he meets his bride’s relatives, “a race of fools,” and discovers that the bride herself is a loud shrew. He regrets the marriage bargain even more when Constance, the sweet-voiced Northern lass who is in love with him, appears on the scene. Eventually, Sir Philip gets a divorce on a technicality (since he and Mistress Fitchow quarrel on their wedding day, their marriage is never consummated) and is able to marry Constance. Significantly, the conflicts between love and money, aristocracy and middle class, end in compromise: Half of Constance’s rich uncle’s estate comes with her hand, and Fitchow marries Sir Philip’s cousin Tridewell, who rather unconvincingly falls in love with her. By Brome’s time, dramatists had to give money...
(The entire section is 1840 words.)