Thomas Durfey Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Thomas Durfey 1653-1723

(Also D'Urfey) English playwright, poet, songwriter, and translator.

Durfey was perhaps the most prolific playwright of the Restoration stage, publishing a total of thirty-three plays, most of them musical comedies and bawdy satires. He is also known for his poems and songs, and for compiling and contributing to a six-volume collection of popular songs, Wit and Mirth: Or Pills to Purge Melancholy (1719-20). While critics from his own time to the present have condemned Durfey for his lowbrow humor as well as his fluctuating political allegiances, it is precisely these elements that made Durfey one of the most popular dramatists of his day, both with theater audiences and with a succession of English royalty. Durfey's dramatic output has received renewed attention in recent decades for its influence on the rise of English sentimental drama in the eighteenth century and, more importantly, for offering modern readers a perspective on the tastes of London theatergoers in the years following the English Restoration.

Biographical Information

Little is known for certain about Durfey's early life, beyond the fact that he was born in Devonshire in 1653. His many publications spelled his name alternately as “Durfey” and “D'Urfey”; Durfey himself adopted the latter spelling to bolster his claim of kinship to the renowned French poet Honoré d'Urfé, author of L'Astrée. There is, however, no evidence to support this connection. Durfey claimed to have studied law, although evidence of this too is lacking. By 1676 Durfey was living in London, where he produced his first play, The Siege of Memphis, at the Drury Lane Theatre. Undaunted by the commercial failure of this work, Durfey continued to write for the English stage, and over the next three decades nearly thirty of Durfey's plays were produced and published, most of them farces in which comedy and song provided the principal entertainment. Although Durfey was known to speak with a stutter, he was said to have a fine singing voice, and he sang songs, read poetry, and staged his plays for English royalty, including Charles II, James II, William and Mary, Queen Anne, and the future George II. Later in life, Durfey gained a reputation for heavy drinking and a somewhat flamboyant social presence. He died in 1723.

Major Works

Durfey's literary career was as prolific as it was long. While he is best remembered for his numerous plays and popular songs, Durfey also published poetry, satirical essays, and translations of Italian and French tales. His thirty-three plays include twenty-three comedies, five tragedies, four operas, and a tragicomedy. Common elements in nearly all of his dramatic works were the employment of song and bawdy jokes. For the musical scores in his plays, Durfey collaborated with Henry Purcell until the latter's death in 1695. While several of these plays were commercial failures, others, including Madam Fickle (1676), A Fond Husband (1677), and Love for Money (1691) were great successes on the London stage. Their farcical portrayals of cuckolds, flirts, and cross-dressers caught in some manner of sexual intrigue captured the imagination of London theatergoers. Another theatrical success, The Comical History of Don Quixote, produced in three parts between 1694 and 1695, is said to be the first comedic opera. A late operatic work, Wonders in the Sun (1706), failed with audiences. Scholars have speculated that the reason for the failure of this work may have been its depiction of England as a declining power, or perhaps it failed because audience tastes had begun to move away from Durfey's formula of slapstick and satire. Perhaps the best known of Durfey's works is his edition of Wit and Mirth: Or Pills to Purge Melancholy. Pills, as it is commonly called, was first published in 1698, and contained hundreds of popular songs and ballads, the majority of which were written by Durfey. The 1719-20 edition, which Durfey edited himself, was issued in six volumes, the first two of which contain songs written exclusively by Durfey. The work, containing satirical and humorous ballads, court songs, and country songs covering topics ranging from drinking to politics, and from romantic love to gambling, was a great popular success, selling so well that the book continued to be reissued for much of the remainder of the eighteenth century. Today Durfey's Pills is considered an authoritative source for popular English music from the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.

Critical Reception

Although Pills and many of Durfey's plays were hugely popular, his literary output was almost unanimously scorned by critics in his own time and for centuries afterward. Alexander Pope, while admitting that Durfey's songs in Pills were often funny, went on to claim that they held no lasting value. Pope wrote more damningly of Durfey's dramatic efforts, comparing his work to a “fart, at once nasty and diverting.” Jonathan Swift called Durfey's work “excrement.” In the 1690s, Jeremy Collier, a prominent clergyman, charged that Durfey's plays were immoral, anti-clerical, and corrupted the values of English audiences. In 1691 an anonymous play, Wit for Money: Or, Poet Stutter (a title that mockingly echoed Durfey's Love for Money), lampooned the playwright as a plagiarist and a buffoon. Severe criticism turns up again and again in early assessments of Durfey's work, which was roundly condemned as comedic smut designed to appeal to the basest tastes of its audience. In 1899, nearly two centuries after Durfey's death, his plays were described by A. W. Ward as “the literary nadir of Restoration comedy.” This view has been moderated in recent decades by scholars who, while admitting that Durfey's plays are seldom of the highest rank, have argued that individual plays are deserving of more respect. Some critics have begun to view Durfey's plays, particularly Madam Fickle, The Virtuous Wife (1679), Love for Money, The Richmond Heiress (1693), and The Campaigners (1698) as foreshadowing the rise of the sentimental drama later in the eighteenth century. Durfey's dramatic treatment of women as strong-willed and virtuous has also been praised, and his use of songs to extend dramatic action is regarded as innovative. Modern scholars are generally agreed that Durfey's plays provide valuable insights into the tastes of London audiences during the Restoration period.