Sir John Vanbrugh Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Sir John Vanbrugh also wrote A Short Vindication of “The Relapse” and “The Provok’d Wife” (1698). The standard edition of Vanbrugh’s dramatic and nondramatic works is the four-volume edition prepared by Bonamy Dobrée and Geoffrey Webb (1927-1928).


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Despite his numerous translations and adaptations of others’ plays, Sir John Vanbrugh’s fame rests on his two complete original plays, The Relapse and The Provok’d Wife. These comedies reflect the transition from the Restoration comedy of manners to the sentimental comedy that dominated the theater of the eighteenth century. Vanbrugh’s plays are transitional only in a very limited sense, however, because the species of comedy Vanbrugh developed, a comedy that presents problems realistically but rejects both cynicism and simplistic solutions to complex problems, did not prosper.

Vanbrugh’s primary interest was in the treatment of serious moral issues through careful and consistent characterization. His plays focus primarily on problems that can arise after marriage rather than on those of courtship, and they explore the relationship between marital incompatibility and infidelity. Although Vanbrugh’s comedies neither approve nor excuse adultery, they indicate the ways in which husbands can unintentionally encourage their wives to be unfaithful. Although Vanbrugh employs many of the stock character types of the comedy of manners, he endows them with a new freshness and significance by combining types and by presenting these types in new contexts. Moreover, in Vanbrugh’s plays, in contrast to Restoration comedy, characters may be evaluated according to their exercise of charity and common sense rather than simply according to the quality of their wit. Although wit provides much of the humor in Vanbrugh’s plays, the dialogue is remarkable more for realism and vigor than for aphoristic polish. Characters also express emotion, especially sexual passion, physically as well as verbally onstage, and this physical element provides some additional humor in the form of farce.

Although some characters in The Relapse and The Provok’d Wife experience genuine moral struggles and speak of virtue with veneration and without cynicism, Vanbrugh’s plays cannot be classified as sentimental comedies. Unlike sentimental comedies, Vanbrugh’s plays do not present a facile reformation of immoral characters; rather, they maintain consistency of characterization and thus fail to offer entirely happy conclusions. The Provok’d Wife and The Relapse are criticized most often for their failure to resolve all the problems each raises.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Berkowitz, Gerald M. Sir John Vanbrugh and the End of Restoration Comedy. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1981. Examines the works of Vanbrugh in the context of the transition from Restoration comedy to new forms of comedy. Includes bibliography and index.

Bull, Jon. Vanbrugh and Farquhar. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998. Analyzes the work of Vanbrugh and George Farquhar in the context of English drama in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Includes bibliography and index.

Downes, Kerry. Sir John Vanbrugh: A Biography. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987. Examines the life and works of this dramatist and architect. Includes bibliography and index.

McCormick, Frank. Sir John Vanbrugh: The Playwright as Architect. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1991. McCormick provides both critical analysis of Vanbrugh’s works and discussion of his role as architect. Includes bibliography and index.

Ridgway, Christopher, and Robert Williams. Sir John Vanbrugh and Landscape Architecture in Baroque England, 1690-1730. Stroud, England: Sutton in association with the National Trust, 2000. Although this work focuses on Vanbrugh as an architect, it provides valuable insights into his life and the times in which he lived. Includes bibliography and index.