Thomas Durfey Essay - Critical Essays

Durfey, Thomas


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.

Principal Works

Archerie Reviv'd, or, The Bow-Man's Excellence: An Heroick Poem [with Robert Shotterel] (poetry) 1676

The Fool Turn'd Critic (play) 1676

Madam Fickle: Or, The Witty False One (play) 1676

The Siege of Memphis: Or, The Ambitious Queen (play) 1676

A Fond Husband: Or, The Plotting Sisters (play) 1677

Squire Oldsapp: Or, The Night-Adventurers (play) 1678

The Virtuous Wife: Or, Good Luck at Last (play) 1679

The Royalist, London (play) 1681

Sir Barnaby Whigg: Or, No Wit Like a Woman's (play) 1681

The Injured Princess: Or, The Fatal Wager [adaptor; from William Shakespeare's play Cymbeline] (play) 1682

A New Collection of Songs and Poems (songs and poetry) 1683

Choice New Songs Never Before Printed (songs) 1684

Several New Songs (songs) 1684

An Elegy Upon the Blessed Monarch King Charles II. And Two Panegyricks Upon Their Present Sacred Majesties, King James and Queen Mary (poetry) 1685

A Third Collection of New Songs Never Printed Before (songs) 1685

The Banditti; Or, A Ladies Distress (play) 1686

A Compleat Collection of Mr. D'Urfey's Songs and Odes, Whereof the First Part Never Before Published (songs and poetry) 1687

A Poem Congratulatory on the Birth of the Young Prince, Most Humbly Dedicated to Their August Majesties King James, and Queen Mary (poetry) 1688

Collin's Walk Through London and Westminster: A Poem in Burlesque (poetry) 1690

New Poems, Consisting of Satyrs, Elegies, and...

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Cyrus L. Day (essay date April 1932)

SOURCE: Day, Cyrus L. “Pills to Purge Melancholy.Review of English Studies VIII, no. 30 (April 1932): 177-84.

[In the following excerpt, Day lists the publication dates of various editions of Pills to Purge Melancholy, traces the beginning of Durfey's editorial work on the series to a relatively late edition, and describes how the title of this popular collection of songs evolved over the years.]

One of the most entertaining of eighteenth-century poetical miscellanies is the six-volume collection of songs and ballads entitled Wit and Mirth: Or Pills To Purge Melancholy. The first volume of this well-known series was published in 1698 and the...

(The entire section is 2561 words.)

Cyrus L. Day (essay date 1959)

SOURCE: Day, Cyrus L. Introduction to Wit and Mirth: Or Pills to Purge Melancholy, edited by Thomas D'Urfey, pp. i-xi. New York: Folklore Library Publishers, 1959.

[In the following excerpt, Day describes the popular appeal of Pills to Purge Melancholy.]

The successive volumes of Wit and Mirth: Or Pills to Purge Melancholy,—D'Urfey's Pills, as they are commonly called,—edited originally (1698-1706) by Henry Playford, and in a final six-volume edition (1719-1720) by Thomas D'Urfey, occupy a unique position in the history of English songs and vocal music. They mark the close of an area of intellectual contempt for popular literature, and the beginning...

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William W. Appleton (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: Appleton, William W. Introduction to Wonders in the Sun, Or, The Kingdom of The Birds (1706), by Thomas D'Urfey, pp. i-iv. Los Angeles: William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, 1964.

[In the following essay, Appleton describes Wonders in the Sun, as an odd opera full of political allusions that failed with both critics and audience.]

Theatre historians and musicologists have been bewildered by Thomas D'Urfey's Wonders in the Sun. Dr. Burney found it a “whimsical drama,” John Genest an “eccentric piece,” and today we are still hard put to classify it. Described by the author as a “Comick Opera,” D'Urfey's entertainment was performed by...

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Jack A. Vaughn (essay date December 1967)

SOURCE: Vaughn, Jack A. “‘Persevering, Unexhausted Bard’: Tom D'Urfey.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 53, no. 4 (December 1967): 342-48.

[In the following essay, Vaughn views Durfey's plays as valuable for the insights they provide into Restoration dramatic tastes.]

Thomas D'Urfey (1653-1723), known to his contemporaries as Tom, was one of the more popular and prolific of Restoration playwrights, yet his name is all but unknown today. It is unfortunate that a dramatist who produced thirty-three plays for the English theatre and who shared the limelight with Congreve and Vanbrugh in Jeremy Collier's indictment of the London stage should today be unrepresented by a...

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Peter Holland (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: Holland, Peter. “Durfey's Revisions of The Richmond Heiress.Archiv für das Studium der Neueren Sprachen und Literaturen 216 (1979): 116-20.

[In the following essay, Holland notes that a revised version of Durfey's The Richmond Heiress, one that eliminated much of the satirical force of the original, demonstrates the diminishing appeal of satiric comedy in the 1690s.]

Thomas Durfey's The Richmond Heiress was first performed in April 1693; it was not a success. Dryden wrote to Walsh on 9 May:

Durfey has brought another farce upon the Stage: but his luck left him: it was suffered but foure dayes; and...

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James L. Thorson (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: Thorson, James L. Introduction to Butler's Ghost, by Thomas D'Urfey, pp. iii-xxi. Delmar, N.Y.: Scholars' Facsimiles & Reprints, 1984.

[In the following excerpt, Thorson discusses the political themes in Durfey's Butler's Ghost,]

Thomas D'Urfey's Butler's Ghost: or, Hudibras, the Fourth Part first appeared on the English literary, political, and religious scene in March 1682 in the aftermath of the Popish Plot and Exclusion crises. The poem cannot claim to be the most famous work to grow out of the controversy, as that honor must undoubtedly go to John Dryden's Absalom and Achitophel (1681), but it is of real interest to students of the period...

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Jack Knowles (essay date fall 1984)

SOURCE: Knowles, Jack. “Thomas D'Urfey and Three Centuries of Critical Response.” Restoration 8, no. 2 (fall 1984): 72-80.

[In the following essay, Knowles describes the critical reception to Durfey's work from his own lifetime to the twentieth century.]

In his own day, Thomas D'Urfey (or Durfey) was compared by Gerard Langbaine to “the Cuckow [who] makes it his business to suck other Birds Eggs.”1 Roughly two centuries later, even less regard was expressed by A. W. Ward, who claimed that D'Urfey probably represented “the literary nadir of Restoration comedy—and indeed of the Restoration drama in general.”2 More recently, however,...

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Olive Baldwin and Thelma Wilson (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: Baldwin, Olive and Wilson, Thelma. “The Music for Durfey's Cinthia and Endimion.Theatre Notebook 41, no. 2 (1987): 70-4.

[In the following essay, Baldwin and Wilson discuss the lyrics and musical accompaniment of several of the songs in Durfey's Cinthia and Endimion.]

Carolyn Kephart, in her article on Durfey's A New Opera call'd Cinthia and Endimion (Theatre Notebook xxxix, 3), confined her consideration of the music to the four songs to be found in Day and Murrie's English Song-Books 1651-1702.1 In fact, the situation is more complex and interesting: music for the opera survives elsewhere and two of the four...

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Raymond Adam Biswanger, Jr. (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: Biswanger, Raymond Adam. Introduction to Thomas D'Urfey's The Richmond Heiress: An Edition with Introduction and Notes, edited by Raymond Adam Biswanger, Jr., pp. xi-cxvi. New York: Garland Publishing, 1987.

[In the following excerpt, Biswanger describes how the popularity of Durfey's songs lasted longer than that of his plays, and discusses Durfey's contribution to the development of the sentimental comedy as a dramatic genre.]

Thomas D'Urfey was a prolific writer. Taken as a whole, this list of plays would seem to be a tremendous achievement, numbering as it does, twenty-three comedies, five tragedies, three operas, a burlesque opera, and a...

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William E. Carpenter (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: Carpenter, William E. Introduction to Thomas D'Urfey's The Virtuous Wife: A Critical Edition, edited by William E. Carpenter, pp. 17-34. New York: Garland Publishing, 1987.

[In the following excerpt, Carpenter explores several of Durfey's comedies.]


D'Urfey's first comedy, Madam Fickle: Or, The Witty False One (November 1676),1 is an amusing play in which Madam Fickle, a supposed widow, is besieged by three suitors anxious to wed such a lovely and rich lady. The plot builds around Madam's witty tricks to tease, lead on, yet elude the suitors, while keeping each ignorant of the...

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Christopher Wheatley (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Wheatley, Christopher. “‘Power Like New Wine’: The Appetites of Leviathan and Durfey's Massaniello.Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture 22 (1992): 231-51.

[In the following essay, Wheatley analyzes the political and social themes of Durfey's Massaniello, a play based on an Italian peasant uprising.]

Traditional descriptions of Restoration political drama as “Whig” or “Tory” are sometimes irrelevant to plays that lack an immediate topical application to English political events: Thomas Durfey's two part The Famous History of the Rise and Fall of Massaniello is an example of a play that defies such classification. Although...

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Christopher Wheatley (essay date fall 1993)

SOURCE: Wheatley, Christopher. “Thomas Durfey's A Fond Husband, Sex Comedies of the Late 1670s and Early 1680s, and the Comic Sublime.” Studies in Philology 90 (fall 1993): 371-90.

[In the following excerpt, Wheatley discusses English sex comedies from the 1670s and 1680s, of which Durfey's A Fond Husband and The Virtuous Wife were among the most popular and influential.]

In Thomas Shadwell's A True Widow (1678) the poetaster Young Maggot describes a new play that he admires to the male leads Bellamour and Carlos: “I saw it Scene by Scene, and helped him in the writing, it breaks well, the Protasis good, the Catastasis...

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Christopher Wheatley (essay date October 1996)

SOURCE: Wheatley, Christopher. “‘But speak every thing in its Nature’: Influence and Ethics in Durfey's Adaptations of Fletcher.” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 95, no. 4 (October 1996): 515-33.

[In the following essay, Wheatley discusses three plays Durfey adapted from dramas by John Fletcher, arguing that the adaptations show an interest in ethical problems seldom attributed to Durfey in particular or to Restoration comedy in general.]

Thomas Durfey, the most prolific playwright of the Restoration, adapted three plays by John Fletcher: Trick for Trick (1678) from Monsieur Thomas (1615), A Commonwealth of Women (1685) from...

(The entire section is 8261 words.)

Garry Sherbert (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Sherbert, Garry. “Metaphysic Wit: The Charm and Riddle of D'Urfey's Menippean Satire. In Menippean Satire and the Poetics of Wit: Ideologies of Self-Consciousness in Dunton, D'Urfey, and Sterne, pp. 76-117. New York: Peter Lang, 1996.

[In the following essay, Sherbert discusses the riddles, puns, and other comic techniques Durfey used in his parody of John Norris's An Essay Towards the Theory of the Intelligible World.]

Wit's false mirror

—Alexander Pope, Essay on Man

Thomas D'Urfey's contribution to the eighteenth-century battle of wits is his “Satyrical Fable”, An Essay Towards the Theory of the Intelligible...

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Further Reading


Köster, Patricia. “Purcell's Swan Song: A Long Reverberation in Women's Fiction.” In Time, Literature and the Arts: Essays in Honor of Samuel L. Macey, edited by Thomas R. Cleary, pp. 140-56. Victoria, British Columbia: University of Victoria English Literary Studies, 1994.

Describes how a song from Durfey's Pills was used in several short stories in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Solomon, Harry M. “‘Difficult Beauty’: Tom D'Urfey and the Context of Swift's ‘The Lady's Dressing Room.’” Studies in English Literature 19, no. 3 (summer 1979): 431-44.

Argues that Swift's “The...

(The entire section is 174 words.)