Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2418
Of Sir Richard Steele’s four plays, The Funeral and The Tender Husband are at once the most humorous and the least sentimental. The Funeral, Steele’s most original play, was written in part to relieve him of the reputation he had made as a pious drone through his essay The...
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- Critical Essays
Of Sir Richard Steele’s four plays, The Funeral and The Tender Husband are at once the most humorous and the least sentimental. The Funeral, Steele’s most original play, was written in part to relieve him of the reputation he had made as a pious drone through his essay The Christian Hero. Even these sprightly pieces, however, reveal Steele’s concern with curing the corruption of the London stage. He shunned the licentiousness that had been rampant but gave each piece enough wit, zest, and characterization to make it popular for many years to come. It is as the author of The Lying Lover and The Conscious Lovers that Steele’s reputation as a founder of the sentimental comedy rests. The earlier play was not a stage success, and it is clearly the weakest of Steele’s dramatic efforts. The Conscious Lovers was both a success and a major influence. An analysis of The Tender Husband and The Conscious Lovers allows representation of what M. E. Hare called Steele’s “purely amusing and his didactic veins.”
The Tender Husband
The Tender Husband presents Biddy Tipkin, a young girl whose guardian uncle has arranged her marriage to a country cousin, one Humphry Gubbin. Biddy, whose head is filled with the excesses of the airy romances she reads so voraciously, has let herself imagine something far more exotic and impassioned than this dry arrangement. For his part, Humphry does not want to be forced into anything. When the two meet, they pledge to be friendly enemies; they will not have each other, but they will cooperate toward each other’s freedom.
Before the audience is introduced to this pair, it learns that Captain Jack Clerimont is seeking his financial ease through a careful marriage. His older brother, Clerimont Senior, has heard of Biddy and helps set a plot in motion that will give Jack a chance at that prize. Everything Jack hears about Biddy’s wealth is translated into a positive personal attribute in his playful formulations. Apprised of her fortune of ten thousand pounds, Jack responds: “Such a statute, such a blooming countenance, so easy a shape!” The play’s humor, and part of its meaning, derives from interchanges of this sort. By making Jack a good-natured rogue, Steele softens the cynicism in this conventional equation of love and money.
With the wily lawyer Samuel Pounce as helpful (and bribed) intermediary, Jack is given the opportunity to meet and to woo Biddy. He imitates the manner and language of romance literature, quickly winning her heart. He has already convinced himself that he is rescuing her from the hard fate her uncle has in mind. Biddy, because she wants to be, is an easy conquest. Pounce, by distracting Biddy’s stern Aunt Barsheba with talk of the stock market (her true passion), makes Jack’s path as smooth as can be.
In a later scene, Jack, disguised as the artist hired by Barsheba to paint her niece’s portrait, completes his courtship of Biddy while warning her of how her romantic notions will have to be adjusted to reality. By this time, Steele has modulated Jack’s intentions so that his cynical first motive has changed into something far more acceptable; he has discovered a genuine affection for the girl. No longer simply deceiving her for her money, he has been transformed from Restoration rake into earnest suitor.
Wrapped around the Humphry-Biddy-Jack plot is another, more sinister one. Clerimont Senior has been using his soon-to-be-cast-off mistress, Lucy Fainlove, in a most despicable manner. He has had her disguise herself as a man, not only to pass unsuspected before Mrs. Clerimont but also to put that lady in a compromising position so that her husband can “discover” the infidelity that he assumes to be the consequence of the fashionable liberty she desires and he seems to grant. Although his scheme works, he gains little by it. Because he is softened by his wife’s tears and somewhat sorry for his deceit, Clerimont Senior becomes Steele’s way of suggesting that even a man of generous heart can be temporarily led astray by social fashions that magnify vice by encouraging human frailties. His wife, too, has allowed herself to be victimized. Her love of appearances and affectations provided her, for a while at least, with more pain than pleasure.
Everyone ends up reconciled and happy with the final state of affairs. Jack gets Biddy, the older Clerimonts passionately patch things up, and Lucy Fainlove captures Humphry, who is quite pleased with himself. Lucy turns out to be the sister of lawyer Pounce, a neat twist that allows Steele to link the two plots together.
If The Tender Husband (an ironic title) says anything, it says that people will behave as these people do. It also suggests that those most concerned with forms and appearances are most easily deceived. Steele, like William Congreve in The Way of the World (pr. 1700), advocates marriages based on love rather than on parental arrangements, but he (again like Congreve) recognizes the importance of financial security. Jack begins by seeking a fortune; Biddy begins by longing for a romantic dream. Each ends up at a humane, caring, yet practical middle ground.
In many ways, The Tender Husband is like much of the Restoration comedy that predates it. Clerimont Senior is the familiar libertine type, though his reformation precludes either a significant victory or any kind of punishment. The far more appealing Jack is still not a paragon of virtue, as the true sentimental hero must be. The tone of the play, however, is far less cynical and the satire is far more gentle than that to which audiences had been accustomed. It is easy to feel sympathy for Jack, for Biddy, and even for Humphry, who is a very special version of the stock country bumpkin and a clear model for Oliver Goldsmith’s famous Tony Lumpkin in She Stoops to Conquer (pr. 1773). Biddy’s aunt, her Uncle Hezekiah, and Humphry’s father are all recognizable types, but Steele gives them life. The many songs in the play add their own charm. Colloquially convincing, witty, unburdened by preachiness, The Tender Husband is to many critics Steele’s best play. It “reforms” the excesses of Restoration comedy without losing touch with what made them work. It remains, first and last, an entertainment.
The Conscious Lovers
The same cannot be said for The Conscious Lovers. In his preface to the first edition, Steele asserted that “the chief design of this was to be an innocent performance.” The prologue asked the audience to value “wit that scorns the aids of vice” and to help “moralize the stage” by giving the work a kind reception. Clearly, then, The Conscious Lovers was designed as a model for a new type of drama. As governor of Drury Lane, Steele had made but the slightest advances in his campaign for reform. With his own play he hoped to make his intentions clear while pleasing a discriminating audience.
The play’s plot concerns Bevil Junior’s desire to please his heart without displeasing his father. Bevil is a model son: loving, respectful, and particularly unwilling to bring his father any pain. Sir John, though a bit formal, is a caring father who has his son’s interests at heart. In standard comic tradition, he has arranged a marriage between his son and Lucinda Sealand. It would be a sensible match, except that the two are not in love. Because Bevil does not wish to go against his father, he has not given any hint of his dismay. He acts exactly as his father wishes as the marriage day approaches. The audience learns that he is counting on being rebuffed, as he knows that Lucinda has her heart set elsewhere. This is a very risky charade, however, especially since Mr. Sealand has favored the match with Bevil.
Recently, though, Mr. Sealand has begun to have doubts about Bevil, and he is about to break off the engagement. Bevil was seen paying suspicious attentions to a mysterious young lady at a masked ball. Questioned by Sir John, Bevil insists that everything is honorable, that he is still worthy of his father’s trust, and that the planned marriage should take place.
The mysterious beauty is Indiana, an unfortunate girl who has lost first her parents and then her guardians in a series of calamities. She had been threatened by pirates and sent to prison; then fortune sent Bevil into her life. Her rescuer has set her up in respectable London lodgings with her Aunt Isabella and is “keeping” the young lady without making any demands. Believing himself tied to Lucinda, Bevil has not spoken to Indiana of his love for her, but she hopes that she has read signs of love in his deeds and in his eyes. Isabella expects base motives and keeps her niece worried. Poor Indiana is desperately in love with her benefactor and is tortured by doubt.
There are two genuine suitors for Lucinda’s hand. One is Bevil’s friend Mr. Myrtle, whose sincere love is returned by Lucinda. The other is Cimberton, a formal, distant, wealthy oaf who is Mrs. Sealand’s choice. These complications introduce a battle of wills between Lucinda’s parents concerning who will control the girl’s future. A conflict, thus, springs up between Bevil, whose behavior is confusing to those around him, and Myrtle, whose jealousy leads him to suspect Bevil of treachery.
The play is a framework for Bevil’s moral dilemmas. Should he disobey his father? Can he do so without hurting him? When Myrtle challenges him to a duel, should he partake of this honorable custom—or should he prove to Myrtle that his jealousy is groundless by revealing an exchange of letters between Lucinda and himself against Lucinda’s wishes? The audience is intended to feel the struggle within the sensitive and scrupulous young man, and, to some extent, Steele’s strategy does succeed. Because Steele detested the dueling custom, he has Bevil argue his way out of the challenge, though Bevil finally must break the confidence that Lucinda has placed in him. Myrtle, once enlightened, is properly thankful, almost tearful, as he recognizes the difficulty of Bevil’s stance and the purity of his motives. In true sentimental-comedy form, the two can now work together toward the end of matching Myrtle with Lucinda.
While Mr. Sealand is planning to seek out the mysterious Indiana to discover the truth about Bevil’s behavior, Mrs. Sealand is busy concluding arrangements for Lucinda’s marriage to Cimberton. She calls in lawyers to determine if Cimberton can bestow an estate on Lucinda without his uncle’s consent. Seeing an opportunity for information and delay, Myrtle and Bevil’s man Tom disguise themselves as the lawyers. Their expert exchange of opinion naturally ends in confusion. Sir Geoffry Cimberton is then expected. Now Myrtle disguises himself as the uncle, buying time for himself, slightly discouraging the match, then revealing himself and his bold, passionate nature to Lucinda. Mrs. Sealand, not sure what to do next, decides to take everyone and follow her husband as he inquires into the Indiana matter.
A tearful discovery scene ensues as Indiana first reveals the delicacy of her situation and then, by reviewing her history, leads Mr. Sealand to understand that he is face-to-face with his daughter (by a first wife) who was lost in infancy. Through this happy accident, a Bevil-Sealand match is made possible after all. Sir John, when he learns all, is properly proud of his son’s behavior and is happy to welcome Indiana in Lucinda’s place. He has learned his lesson about arranged marriages. Cimberton, on hearing that Lucinda’s fortune has now diminished by one half (that becomes her sister’s), leaves the field, and Myrtle is quick to take advantage of the opening. The play concludes with assurances that “Whate’er the generous mind itself denies/The secret care of Providence supplies.”
Though Steele has made virtue attractive in terms of the plot, the stock discovery scene cheapens the resolution somewhat. One cannot depend on providence being this fantastic. The question is whether Steele has made virtue attractive in terms of the virtuous characters themselves. The moral scruples of Bevil Senior and Junior create a strained situation in which they cannot deal frankly with each other, and Bevil’s constant rationalizing of his behavior is not especially attractive. One is made to believe that, in the end, Bevil would not have gone through with the marriage to Lucinda. Thus, saving a miracle, a rupture between father and son would be inevitable. Would it not be better for Bevil to make an early declaration of his feelings for Indiana? Certainly Indiana would have been spared much anguish. Although it is clear that the hero never acts out of malice, his caution and sensibility lead him into behavior that is deceitful and hurtful.
Isabella’s constant questioning of Bevil’s motives creates the trial of Indiana’s fortitude that is an emotional center of the play; more important, this persistent doubt reveals the pervasive cynicism of the play’s social world. To others, if not to the audience, Bevil’s behavior is unbelievable if understood as altruistic. Isabella is sure there is a trap somewhere: Bevil must expect something for paying Indiana’s bills. Thus, Steele creates a sort of Platonic mistress while keeping vice off stage. Because Bevil, however, perceives Indiana’s warm feelings for him, is it fair—is it manly—for him to withhold his own?
The Bevils, father and son, remain compromised and tedious figures, whatever Steele’s intentions. Real wisdom lies in Sir John’s servant, Humphrey, and to a lesser extent in the truly comic characters, Tom and Phillis. The romance between Tom and Lucinda’s maid is high-spirited and reasonably straightforward. Their bantering and jests at the upper classes are a source of genuine humor, as are the disguise scenes of Tom and Myrtle and the stuffy indifference of Cimberton. It is as if Steele has two plays going on at once: a solemn, didactic tearjerker and an old-fashioned farce. The sentimental part is not comic, and the comic part is not sentimental.
If he had continued to write for the theater, Steele might have improved on the formula—he had the tools and the inspiration. In itself, The Conscious Lovers only points in a direction it cannot reach.