Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Three English Comedies: Review

Three English Comedies, edited by A. B. (Agnes) De Mille, is an illustrated copy containing three 18th Century plays: She Stoops to Conquer by Oliver Goldsmith and The Rivals and The School for Scandal by Richard Brinsley Sheridan.  The book is apparently a textbook of sorts from 1924 and along with the plays it contains notes on lives of Goldsmith and Sheridan, a discussion of London life and dramatic literature, and aids to the study and acting of the comedies.  There are even discussion and test questions meant to help students meet the requirements of the College Entrance Board exams of the time.  I must confess to skipping most of that.  This past Saturday (February 23) I attended a production of The School for Scandal and it prompted me to dig out this book and read the play for myself (and reread She Stoops to Conquer and go ahead and read The Rivals).  A nice set of witty, satirical plays. Lots of fun and an interesting look at the 18th Century. Three and a half stars for all. Having completed all of the plays, I declare this book conquered for the purposes of various challenges.

And, now, on with the show(s)....

I first read She Stoops to Conquer when I was in college.  We read it (and excerpts from various other 18th C plays) during the course of the 300-level major section covering the time period. I loved both it and The Beggar's Opera by Gay. The comedic wit and satirical comedy of the 18th C is not to be matched (as far as I'm concerned) until Oscar Wilde bursts upon the scene in the Victorian era.  A couple of years ago, I saw a production of She Stoops to Conquer that prompted me to read it again.  And, of course, now I have been enticed back to the 18th C after my latest dramatic excursion. 

Goldsmith's play is a light-hearted romantic comedy which takes place in an English country house. We have Tony Lumpkin who is trying to keep out of an arranged marriage with his cousin, Miss Neville.  His mother is highly in favor, but neither he nor the lady in question are at all enthusiastic. In fact, Miss Neville has quite another man in mind. Then there's his step-sister, Miss Hardcastle, who is being told to marry a man picked out by her father.  She's not excited about that match. Young Marlowe (Miss Hardcastle's intended), is quite the bashful fellow--and that won't do at all. Both of the suitors are on their way to the Harcastle's home and Tony comes up with a plan to set matters straight.  He tells the gentleman that they have arrived at an inn.  And it seems that Marlowe is a totally different man when he comes amongst the lower classes--ordering his host about, treating the daughter of the house like a barmaid.  Will Mr. Hardcastle run the men out of his house before true love's course can run straight?

The Rivals by Sheridan is new to me. But the situations of double-identity and mistaken notions are not.  We have the young lovers, Lydia and Jack, who must make their way through both before they can have their happy ending.  Jack has a father, Sir Anthony Absolute, who is determined that his son will marry the girl of his (that is Sir Anthony's) choice. Lydia has an aunt who also insists that Lydia marry the person she chooses. And both Sir Anthony and Mrs. Malaprop hold the purse strings of their charges.  To add to the mix, Lydia is an insatiable reader of romances and vows to marry for romantic reasons and will go into poverty to do so.  She refuses to consider Jack as a suitor when offered to her as the soon-to-be-wealthy Captain Absolute--but is more than happy to align herself with him when he presents himself as the poor Ensign Beverley. Two others also vie for her hand, Captain Absolute's friend, Acres, and Sir Lucius O'Trigger--though Sir Lucius has been paying his addresses to the aunt by misdirection.  In the end, it will take a pair of duels to bring everything to a satisfactory conclusion. As a bonus, we have Mrs. Malaprop, mother to the linguistic mistake, who produces such lovely lines as "She's as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile!" and "He is the very pineapple of politeness!"

MM: There's a little intricate hussy for you!
SA: It is not to be wondered at, ma'am,---all this is the natural consequence of teaching girls to read. Had I thousands daughters, by Heaven! I'd as soon have them taught the black art as their alphabet. ~Mrs. Malaprop; Sir Anthony Absolute

SA: In my way hither, Mrs. Malaprop, I observed your niece's maid coming forth from a circulating library!--She had a book in each hand--They were half-bound volumes, with marble covers!  ~Sir Anthony [Oh No! Anything but marble covers!]

MM (in a letter): Female punctuation forbids me to say more.... ~Mrs. Malaprop

And, of course, the start of this little dramatic interlude...The School for Scandal. After the delightful production put on by the IU Department of Theatre & Drama, I immediately came home to look for my copy of the play. As with so many things, the modern age may think it has invented gossip and scandal, but as Sheridan's play proves--it's a sport that has been in fashion for over 250 years, and more. There's a lot going on here.  Sir Oliver Surface has left his friend Sir Peter Teazle to watch over his nephews while Sir Oliver is off in the East Indies. Sir Peter is also the guardian of Maria and hopes that there will be a marriage between Maria and his favorite of the two nephews, Joseph.  But Maria is in love with Charles.  Charles is represented as an extravagant spender and heavy partier for the age.  Joseph presents himself as virtuous, moral, and sentimental--everything Sir Peter expects a man to be. Then there is Lady Sneerwell who wants Charles for herself and employs her servant Snake in the task to spread rumor and scandal to discredit Charles with Maria. Lady Sneerwell also has quite a following in her "school" of scandal--gossip-mongers all. 

Lady Teazle is a new pupil in the school. She was a simple country girl who married Sir Peter and has found herself enamored with the fashion of town. Lady Teazle must have all that is fashionable and quarrels regularly with her husband about her spending habits. Joseph, as part of his scheme to get in good with Maria, has played up to Lady Teazle--in hopes that the lady will speak well of him to Maria, but finds himself regarded as the lady's lover instead. It all comes to a fine end when Sir Oliver returns and wants to see for himself how his nephews are conducting themselves.  He sets up a couple of tests to find the truth of their nature and to see who shall become his heir. There is much hiding behind screens and in boxes and in closets; there are overheard conversations and sudden unveilings before the matter is settled.

No comments: