The Wonder! "Melancholy As An Unbraced Drum"

"Melancholy As An Unbraced Drum"

Context: The English actress and compiler of anthologies of early English plays, Mrs. Inchbald, puts Mrs. Centlivre in the first rank of her country's comic dramatists, for her handling of plots and characters. Though her weakness in dialogue puts her below Congreve, Wycherley, and even Farquhar, Congreve gave up his career as a dramatist because his The Way of the World (1700) was so coldly received by the public at a time when Mrs. Centlivre's Busy Body was breaking records with a run of thirteen performances. Sussanah Freeman was driven to playwriting by necessity. Her father was a dissenter whose estates were confiscated, and he and his family driven to exile in Ireland. Here Sussanah found herself an orphan at the age of twelve. Impoverished and pursued for her beauty, she started for London. Tradition says she met a young man who later became "Silver Tongued Anthony Hammond, Commissioner of the Navy," who persuaded her to put on masculine attire and accompany him to college. After one such experience, she demanded marriage of her next sweetheart, but was widowed before she was eighteen. In a third matrimonial episode, she became Mrs. Carroll, only to be left a widow again. The only comment on this period in her biography declares, "After several gay adventures over which we shall draw a veil," she turned to the theatre as a not very successful actress but an increasingly popular playwright with her nineteen plays, fifteen of which were successful. She performed on tour in her comedy, At a Venture, including an appearance at Windsor Castle in 1706, where Queen Anne's pastry cook, Joseph Centlivre, fell in love with and married her. This time she was the one who died first. The best comedy by this matrimonial risk was The Wonder! A Woman Keeps a Secret, suggested by Ravencroft's The Wrangling Lovers. It appealed to some of the best actors of England. Garrick found the jealous Don Felix one of his favorite roles. He declared that here was a play that entertained without recourse to either drollery or sentiment. It roused the expectations of an audience and maintained them without disappointment. The famous Mrs. Glover introduced the part of Violante. It was no novelty for a heroine to kill a tyrant or to be a raging virago and kill herself, but the cool deliberateness of Violante in holding her tongue caused her to be regarded as the "Wonder" of the title. The action of the play takes place in Lisbon, when that city was part of Spain's empire. Don López has two children, Felix and Isabel. Because of a duel over his projected marriage, Felix has to flee, supposedly to England. This episode gives the dramatist a chance to include speeches of admiration for the English love of liberty. López intends to curb Isabel's love of liberty by marrying her to elderly Don Guzmán, whose only merits are money and noble blood. Isabel tells her servant Inis that she would perfer a convent. Her father, overhearing, reminds her of a Spanish child's duty of parental obedience. Felix loves Violante, daughter of Don Pedro. To her, Felix's servant, Lissardo, brings a letter saying his master has not fled, but is returning to see her. At the conclusion, in the style of Spanish plays, everybody is properly married, Violante with her Felix, and Isabel with an English Colonel Briton. The servants of the sweethearts are also paired off, Flora to Lissardo and Inis to Scottish Gibby, the colonel's batman. Receiving Don Felix's letter in Act II, Violante questions the messenger, Lissardo, who insists that his master is wasting away in his melancholy for her. An "unbraced drum," (meaning the drumhead is not tightened) makes a most melancholy sound. Violante is suspicious.


VIOLANTE
You live very merrily then, it seems. . . . Had ye treats and balls?
LISSARDO
Oh, yes, yes, madam, several. [He is kissing the hand of Flora, her servant.]
FLORA [aside]
You are mad, Lissardo; you don't mind what my lady says to you.
VIOLANTE
Ha! Balls!–Is he so merry in my absence? And did your master dance, Lissardo?
LISSARDO
Dance, madam! Where, madam?
VIOLANTE
Why, sure you are in love, Lissardo; did you not say but now, you had balls where you have been?
LISSARDO
Balls, madam! Odslife, I beg your pardon, madam! I, I, I had mislaid some wash-balls of my master's t'other day; and because I could not think where I had mislaid them just when he asked for them, he fairly broke my head, madam; and now, it seems, I can think of nothing else. Alas, he dance, madam! No, no, poor gentleman! he is as melancholy as an unbraced drum.