Wednesday, 23 August 2000
George Farquhar: The Recruiting Officer (1706)
Review number: 585
Today we probably think of compulsory enlistment as a feature of the eighteenth century British navy rather than the army, mainly because it features strongly in such well known fiction as the Hornblower series. However, during the wars of the early part of the century, the Press Act allowed the involuntary recruitment of those with no visible means of support, and so army officers toured the country, to encourage voluntary enlistment with all kinds of specious promises and to press others with the co-operation of local magistrates. The activities of such a group of enlisters forms the basis for The Recruiting Officer, a comedy satirising the abuses for which they were notorious.
The abuses shown in the play include corruption (any bribe greater than the bounty paid for a new recruit secured his release), enlistment of infants so that other soldiers could draw their pay, debauchery (it was said at the time that they made enough women pregnant to replace the men enlisted).
Against this background, Farquhar sets a fairly traditional romantic comedy, with two courting couples delaying the inevitable happy ending, though even here there are digs at the society of the time. The obstacle in the way of Plume and Silvia is conventional (the objections of her father), but that which mars the courtship of Worthy and Melinda is more unusual. Worthy is of higher social standing, and had attempted to make Melinda his kept mistress for the (large) sum of 500 pounds a year. Then she suddenly inherited 20,000 pounds and became his social equal, and naturally resents his attempts to marry her now that it is acceptable to do so. Class plays an important part in The Recruiting Officer - another example is that the original audience would have understood that the lure of promotion held out to get yokels to volunteer was false, as it was not until the Crimean War that non-gentlemen could become commissioned officers.
The emphasis of The Recruiting Officer is not really on satire; it is meant to be a fun comedy. Thus, none of the characters are really unpleasant; they may be weak, tempted into abuses by the absurdity of early eighteenth century society or the system created by the Press Act. The characters are a great strength of this play, the male parts in particular avoiding melodramatic heroes and villains. (The female parts are rather blander.)
The Recruiting Officer remains a classic comedy which has retained its charm and sparkle. Since its satirical targets are long gone, the way that Farquhar made them secondary to the fun has ensured the survival of the play.