She Stoops to Conquer: Or, The Mistakes of a Night was an immediate success for Goldsmith, his last literary triumph. The opening night audience at Covent Garden on March 15, 1773, roared its continued approval. Five days following the premiere, every copy of the published version of the play was sold. Yet the circumstances surrounding the production of the play were marked by enormous difficulty for Goldsmith because the theater manager anticipated certain failure. Goldsmith finished writing the comedy in September, 1771. He took it to George Colman, manager of the Covent Garden, who repeatedly postponed producing it. It was only through the firm intervention of Samuel Johnson that Colman reluctantly agreed to stage it. (Goldsmith inscribed the published work to Johnson.) The script was much revised and altered during the weeks of rehearsal. Several of the leading actors refused to appear in it and were replaced. The play’s approval was such a complete success that Colman was severely criticized for his delay.
Looking back, it is difficult to comprehend Colman’s reluctance to stage the comedy. She Stoops to Conquer was Goldsmith’s second play. (Five years earlier at Covent Garden, Colman produced Goldsmith’s first effort, The Good-Natured Man, also well received by the public.) The problem stemmed from the fact that Goldsmith’s views on comedy were different from prevailing taste. He had taken aim at the whole genre. In a piece published early in 1773 entitled “Essay on the Theatre: Or, A Comparison Between Sentimental and Laughing Comedy,” he had bemoaned the prevailing taste of audiences for “sentimental comedy,” which he called a bastard form of tragedy. In its place, Goldsmith proposed a new comic genre to be called “laughing comedy.” The new form of comedy, as his two plays aptly demonstrated, eliminated moralizing, false appeals to sentimentality, and extraneous song and dance and concentrated instead on mirth, the exposure of human follies, and using characters from the middle and lower classes and dialogue that was easy and natural. The general aim was laughter.
She Stoops to Conquer is a perfect example of Goldsmith’s theories. The play opens with two gentlemen from London looking for the home of Mr. Hardcastle. They are tricked into thinking that the home is an inn and conduct themselves accordingly. One of the young men is there to woo young Kate Hardcastle. Kate pretends to be a barmaid until the hero declares his love for her. The Londoners behave boorishly to all concerned, and the nonstop frolic escalates rapidly. She Stoops to Conquer contains vital energy, many farcical elements, and amusing irony. Goldsmith’s major theme is exploring the follies of blindness that all humans commit. After poking fun at all the characters, the playwright ends the comedy on a note of discovery. The hero, for example, finds himself and discovers the meaning of true love, marrying the perfect woman for him.
About a year after its premiere, Goldsmith died. She Stoops to Conquer endured, however, to become one of the most frequently produced plays of the English repertoire. Hardly a year passes in the United States that it is not staged by some professional, community, or university theater company. It has also been produced several times for television.