Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1165

In "An Essay on the Theatre; or, A Comparison Between Laughing and Sentimental Comedy," Goldsmith distinguishes between "hard" and "soft" comedy. Instead of the “Weeping Sentimental Comedy" which gratified audience sympathies at injustice suffered by innocent worthies, Goldsmith's 1773 essay advocated the "laughing comedy," which offered a "natural portrait of Human Folly and Frailty." She Stoops to Conquer opens with a prologue by actor and impresario David Garrick declaiming on the state of the theatre and sentimental comedy. Mr. Woodward, who speaks the monologue, weeps, saying, "Would you know the reason why I'm crying?/The Comic Muse, long sick, is now a-dying!" In She Stoops to Conquer and his earlier play The Good-Natur'd Man, Goldsmith sought to rescue that muse. His writing, according to Louis Kronenberger in an introduction to the 1964 Heritage Press edition of the play, led "an assault on the sentimental comedy that had held the boards for upwards of fifty years.'' No mere iconoclast, Goldsmith does more than critique the past. In fact, according to Oscar James Campbell in his introduction to Chief Plays of Goldsmith and Sheridan: The School for Scandal, She Stoops to Conquer, The Rivals, She Stoops to Conquer is "a virtual School for Comedy." Goldsmith's play incorporates and transforms elements of both the earlier Restoration Comedy of Manners and contemporary Sentimental Comedy and "opened the door'' to a new kind of comedy.

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Goldsmith's comedy has its roots in serious philosophical debate. In his 1651 Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes describes original human nature as a constant state of war, with minimal social cohesion and strong dominating weak. Hobbes's ideas influenced the Restoration comedy, an urban comedy of manners in which power and polish led to social manipulation and dominance. By the 1690s, Locke and others argued that people's innate moral sense made them naturally good and happy. This led to the "soft," "sentimental," or "reform" comedy, which lacked laughter and attempted to teach virtue by making audiences feel sympathy and empathy for the suffering of the innocent. These were comedies only in having a happy ending, for the same reason that Dante named his poem The Divine Comedy.

In She Stoops to Conquer Goldsmith tries to correct both the rakish mannerism of the Restoration comedy and the pathos of the Sentimental comedy. For example, while Restoration comedy privileged urban sophistication over rural simplicity, Goldsmith reverses the trend. "In Restoration comedies countrymen appeared as fools in London drawing rooms,'' noted Campbell. In She Stoops to Conquer, "Tony, on his own turf, easily hoodwinks the city dudes into mistaking an old house for an inn." For Goldsmith, country life seems not unfashionable exile but the repository of the traditional English virtues he portrayed in The Deserted Village. In his portraits of Mr. Hardcastle and Kate, Goldsmith validates the familial warmth of country life. In the multiple marriages that mark its ending, the play shows the triumph of idealistic love instead of merely manners, all the while creating laughter and even "low" humor.

Goldsmith undermines Sentimentalism in ways which J. L. Styan, writing in an issue of Costerus, noted may be missed by contemporary audiences. For example, when Constance find Kate alone in the first act, she judges by her complexion that something emotional has happened. Constance asks, "has the last novel been too moving?" She wonders if Kate's sensibilities have been engaged by a Sentimental novel—of the kind Goldsmith satirizes in The Vicar of Wakefield. We quickly learn that Kate's emotional state has been heightened, not by a novel but by the imminent arrival of her suitor, an action that will initiate actual, not Sentimental comedy.

Goldsmith's play does more than simply respond to the past, however. By striking a balance between situation and characterization, She Stoops to Conquer proved innovative. What makes the play work for Styan are its "madcap situations" which resembles a farce in seeming "exaggerated, impossible, absurd, and ridiculous." According to Louis Kronenberger, the "farce idea that galvanizes it [is] the idea of having two young men directed to a private house—the very house they have been invited to visit—under the impression that it is an inn." The subtitle of the play, "The Mistakes of a Night," suggests the plot's farcical beginnings, though the play's success as a comedy, for Kronenberger, comes from the ways Goldsmith "ingeniously keeps exploring and extracting.. .the possibilities in his hoax."

Still, most critics see the play not as pure farce but as something more, largely due to its strong characterization. Styan observed that the "important farcical ingredient in Goldsmith's comedy depends upon the invention of a situation absurd enough to admit an exaggeration of character." True, "Marlow's being altogether at his ease with wenches and hopelessly shy with young ladies scores best as an amusing plot device." Further, "The spirit of this comedy is made to turn on ... a marriage of convenience ... inverted so that the lady takes the initiative, Miss Hardcastle becomes Kate, and the genteel heroine a barmaid who sets about seducing the genteel hero." But it is the character of Kate, not merely her predicament, that makes the comedy work. According to Campbell, "Miss Hardcastle is the first heroine for many decades who has no taste for sentimental aphorism and tender hearts." This becomes clear in her response to Marlow's formal wooing during their initial meeting. She desires authentic emotional involvement, not sentimental claptrap and goes about getting it with her scheme to impersonate a barmaid.

In this, Goldsmith demands versatility of his characters, forcing them to present themselves in more than one way, as Styan noted. For example, compare the stiff, sentimental wooing scene in which Marlow first encounters Kate with later scenes between the more libertine Marlow and the "low" barmaid Kate, which provides comical counterpoint For Campbell, characters like Mrs. Hardcastle and Tony Lumpkin, with his "pot house tastes and prankster ways... is a booby who lays booby traps for odiers,'' make the play "not farce, but comedy of continuous incident"

Two other elements of technical stagecraft enhance Goldsmith's comedy. One is his use of asides, in which a character makes a comment meant to be heard by the audience but not by other characters on stage. During Marlow's initial meeting with Kate, for example, Styan believes the characters' asides invite the audience into their thought processes and offer perspective on their actions.' "The fact that the discussion here purports to be about hypocrisy makes the asides to pertinent that the farce shifts into a realm of social satire," Goldsmith also creates comic tension by the ways he orchestrates the stage action. The scene in which Marlow agrees to accept Kate despite their class differences resembles those in the typical sentimental comedy. But, according to Mark Anthony Houlahan in the International Dictionary of Theatre-1: Plays, Goldsmith "invigorates the clichés of sentiment by placing... [the characters] in an absurdly contrived and complex setting" in which the lovers—with Kate in disguise—can be observed by Mr. Hardcastle and Sir Charles Marlow.

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