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.
Tony Lumpkin, son of Mrs. Hardcastle from a previous marriage, is a drinker and a prankster. Indeed, his pranks lead to confusions, mistaken identities, and false assumptions. His mother indulges him and hopes that her ward, Constance Neville, will marry him. Mr. Hardcastle has little patience with his son.
Mr. Hardcastle makes his daughter, Kate, wear the clothes of a country girl, at least part of each day, hoping that doing so will make her overcome her wish to be a lady of importance. Thinking as well that she should marry, Mr. Hardcastle has asked his closest friend, Sir Charles Marlow, to send his son from London to meet Kate, who is pleased by her father’s description of the young man in all features except one: She does not like that he is shy and retiring.
On the trip from London, the young Marlow has the company of his dear friend, Hastings, who has hopes of marrying Miss Neville. She is delighted that Hastings is coming, and she reveals to Kate that she knows the young Marlow. She describes him as being very shy with fashionable young ladies but quite a different character with young women of a lower class.
En route to the Hardcastle home, Hastings and Marlow lose their way and arrive at an alehouse, where Tony is carousing with friends. Recognizing the two men, Tony decides to play a trick on his stepfather. He tells Hastings and Marlow that they have gone way off course and that it would be wise to stop at an inn a short distance up the road. The inn is actually Mr. Hardcastle’s home. Knowing nothing of Hastings and Marlow’s misconception, Hardcastle treats them as guests, while they, in turn, treat him as an innkeeper. Each party thinks the other extremely rude. Hardcastle certainly sees no modesty in Marlow’s brash behavior.
Hastings finally meets Constance, who quickly recognizes Tony’s hand in the mischief, but they choose to keep the secret to themselves. Hastings explains to Marlow that the two young ladies had arrived at the inn after a long journey from the Hardcastle home. Then he takes Tony aside and expresses his desire to marry Constance, an arrangement quite satisfactory to the rascal Tony who has no wish to marry her himself. He promises to help the lovers and even to try to secure Constance’s jewelry, presently in Mrs. Hardcastle’s keeping. The bargain having been made, Tony goes to his mother’s room, steals the gems, and gives them to Hastings. He then whispers to his mother that she should tell Constance they had been lost. Thinking it a capital plan for keeping Constance in her control, Mrs. Hardcastle complies with Tony’s suggestion, only to discover later that the gems actually are missing. She screams about the loss with such distress that Tony congratulates her on her acting.
At their first meeting, Marlow and Kate engage in a stumbling, broken conversation. Marlow is so tongue tied and shy he cannot even bring himself to look at Kate. Later, Kate, according to her agreement with her father, puts on a simple peasant dress. She knows full well that Marlow thinks he is in an inn, and she decides to keep him in error. He believes that she is a serving-girl, and then reveals himself as a flirtatious dandy. As he tries to kiss her, Mr. Hardcastle enters the room, and Marlow flees. Mr. Hardcastle asserts to Kate that she now has clear proof that Marlow is no modest young man. Kate vows she will convince her father that Marlow’s personality could please them both. However, Marlow’s continued impudence so angers Hardcastle that he orders him to leave his house, warning him that his father, Sir Charles, will soon be here. Marlow begins to realize that he may have made some mistake thinking this place an inn. Kate, still in the guise of a barmaid, tells Marlow about Tony’s prank. She does so, but she alters her identity to a “poor relation” and Marlow finds himself more and more attracted to her, and she to him.
Hastings gives Marlow the jewels that Tony stole from Mrs. Hardcastle. To protect the valuables, Marlow sends them to Mrs. Hardcastle, supposing her to be the innkeeper’s wife. The servants, under Tony’s instructions, explain to the distraught lady that the jewels had been mislaid because of some confusion in the household. In the meantime, with Tony’s help, Hastings and Constance are on the verge of eloping, fleeing into the night with fresh horses provided by Tony. Mrs. Hardcastle discovers the plan. Enraged, she decides to punish Constance by sending her to visit her aunt, Pedigree.
Tony drives the coach, apparently taking Mrs. Hardcastle and Constance to Aunt Pedigree; instead, he drives them around in circles for three hours until Mrs. Hardcastle believes they are lost a good forty miles from home. After hiding his terrified mother in the bushes, Tony takes Constance back to Hastings. Constance, however, is determined not to leave without her jewels. When Mrs. Hardcastle at last discovers Tony’s trick, she is furious.
Sir Charles, on his arrival, is greatly amused by Hardcastle’s account of Marlow’s mistake. Hardcastle assures Sir Charles that Marlow loves Kate, but Marlow insists he has no interest in her. Kate promises the two fathers that she can prove Marlow loves her, and she tells them to hide while she talks with Marlow. Still under the impression that Kate is a serving-girl or a poor relation, the wretched young man tells her he loves her and wants to marry her. Sir Charles and Hardcastle emerge from their hiding place satisfied that the marriage would be arranged. Marlow is astounded that the young woman with whom he has behaved so freely is really Miss Hardcastle.
Mrs. Hardcastle reminds her husband that she has full control of Constance’s fortune until she marries Tony when he comes of age. Only if he should refuse her would Constance be given control of her inheritance. Mr. Hardcastle then announces that Tony’s real age had been hidden in the hope the lad would improve his character. Learning that he is already of age, Tony refuses to marry Constance. Sir Charles assures Mrs. Hardcastle that Hastings is a fine young man. Mrs. Hardcastle turns the jewels over to her ward, who may now openly marry Hastings. Marlow, the wiser for all the mistakes of the night, happily marries Kate.