Wednesday, 21 July 1999

George Farquhar: The Beaux Stratagem (1707)

Edition: Nick Hern Books
Review number: 294

Just as the term 'Elizabethan drama' is frequently extended well into the seventeenth century, so too the term 'Restoration comedy' is not restricted to the historical period implied by the title. George Farquhar is a case in point; of Irish origin (son of an Anglican clergyman of Londonderry, who lived through the siege of that city), his success as a playwright falls firmly in the reigns of William and Mary. Though well after the 1660 restoration, his plays still fall within the stylistic genre of Restoration comedy. By the time he was writing, this genre was on its last legs, and the new fashion, a more mannered style, was soon to replace it. Farquhar is clearly not happy with some of the literary conventions of the time, but his ideas lead more towards low comedy and in a few years would have been considered somewhat immoral. (In particular, he was very cynical about the charms of matrimony - an attitude which plays an important part in The Beaux Stratagem.)

The plot of The Beaux Stratagem is reasonably simple for this sort of comedy. The main male parts are two fashionable beaux, on the lookout for a heiress to marry so they can repair their fortunes. Aimwell and Archer are taking it in turns to be the fashionable gentleman, the other being the gentleman's servant. When they arrive in Lichfield, Aimwell is the gentleman, and his insinuates himself into friendship with the beautiful Dorinda, daughter of Lady Bountiful (the origin of the expression). Meanwhile, Archer strikes up an extremely worldly friendship with Dorinda's sister-in-law. She's married to Sullen, the country squire parody in this play, mad for hunting and eating and (especially) drinking.

While Aimwell and Dorinda continue their inexorable approach to an engagement at the end of the play, in accordance with the rules of the genre - young lovers always marry in the end, to live happily ever after - Farquhar uses Mrs Sullen to criticise this facile outcome. She, originally rich in her own right, is trapped in a loveless marriage to a man she despises, who keeps her from the town-based society she adores, by a legal system which does not allow divorce for incompatibility, and in which divorce would leave her disgraced and in absolute poverty (as her property passed absolutely to her husband when they married). The dark side to the play produced by this theme threatens to overwhelm the rest of it, and Farquhar has to resort to a deus ex machina character and an arbitrary adjustment to English law to get out of the hole he has dug for himself. Noticeably, even when her separation from Sullen seems an accomplished fact, the possibility of marriage never seems to cross either her or Archer's mind.

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