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"Serious Comedy": Putting On "The Beaux' Stratagem" At The Shakespeare Theatre, by Akiva Fox



From "Asides" Magazine of The Shakespeare Theatre, Washington, DC

Jeremy Collier had seen enough. In 1698, the Anglican clergyman wrote a scathing treatise titled A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage, attacking the greatest playwrights of his day. He assailed the plays of such famous figures as Dryden, Congreve and Vanbrugh for “their Smuttiness of Expression; their Swearing, Profaneness, and Lewd Application of Scripture; their Abuse of the Clergy; their making their Top Characters Libertines, and giving them Success in their Debauchery.”

All of these accusations were, of course, true. After Puritans deposed the king in 1642, they closed the theatres for fear of moral contamination. When the Catholic Charles II returned to take the throne in 1660 (an event known as the Restoration), he brought with him a new freedom. This freedom manifested itself immediately in the reopened theatres: the dialogue overflowed with sexual innuendo, and, for the first time on English stages, it was being spoken by women. The plots usually portrayed a rakish man seducing a married woman to adultery, and frequently satirized both marriage and religion. By the time Collier spoke out in 1698, the Restoration style of comedy was in full, licentious swing.

Just as Collier published his treatise, a young Irish writer named George Farquhar arrived in London with a play that would scandalize Collier even further. Love and a Bottle followed the model of the times, presenting a rollicking story of libertinism, prostitution, cross-dressing and illegitimacy. Though Farquhar and others claimed that they showed bad behaviors on stage only to discourage them in daily life, Collier accused them of glamorizing those behaviors at every turn. “To put Lewdness into a Thriving condition, to give it an Equipage of Quality, and to treat it with Ceremony and Respect,” he argued, “is the way to confound the Understanding, to fortify the Charm, and to make the Mischief invincible.”

But by the time he came to write his last play, The Beaux' Stratagem, nine years later, Farquhar, and English drama as a whole, had changed. The “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 had restored Protestant rule and made England more conservative; by the 1730s, all plays would require an official censor's approval before they could be staged. And Farquhar, on the verge of death, injected serious social themes into The Beaux' Stratagem in ways unprecedented for a comedy.

The Beaux' Stratagem tells the story of Archer and Aimwell, two rakish gentlemen seeking to marry for money. While Aimwell falls in love with the eligible Dorinda, Archer falls in love with Mrs. Sullen, an unhappily married woman. Recent comedies, especially those of John Vanbrugh, had presented such situations as a springboard for their farcical plots. These comedies often manufactured happy endings with the help of convenient coincidences, cheerfully skirting problems of adultery. But Farquhar undertook the subject in more depth and with surprising seriousness, in part because in England at this time, the question of how to escape an unhappy marriage was a source of great social turmoil.

Today, incompatible couples may file for divorce on the grounds of “irreconcilable differences.” But as late as the mid-19th century, English marriages were all but permanent. Upon marriage, a couple legally became “one flesh”; a woman's very existence was suspended and incorporated into that of her husband (a concept called coverture). The church courts, which still operated under medieval law, could grant a legal separation without possibility of remarriage. But until 1857, a true divorce to allow both parties to remarry could be granted by only an act of Parliament, a procedure out of reach for all but the wealthiest citizens. “ England thus had the worst of all worlds,” the social historian Lawrence Stone has written. “Marriage was far too easy to enter into, but extremely difficult to get out of.”

Farquhar knew this fact all too well. In 1702, he had married a widow under the impression that she was wealthy, only to learn afterwards that she was penniless. He spent the rest of his life trying to support his new family and to pay off debts. But when it came time to depict an unhappy marriage in The Beaux' Stratagem, he turned to the words of another unhappily married writer, and an unlikely source for comedy: John Milton. When Mr. and Mrs. Sullen complain that instead of being one flesh, they have become “two carcasses joined unnaturally together, or rather a living soul coupled to a dead body,” they are quoting directly from Milton 's 1644 treatise The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce. Milton opposed giving courts power over marriage, arguing that “the absolute and final hindering of divorce cannot belong to any civil or earthly power, against the will and consent of both parties.” This “natural law” argument gives Farquhar a solution to the Sullens' predicament that could ensure future happiness to both parties.

The only problem with the resolution of The Beaux' Stratagem is that English law considered it illegal, and many people considered it immoral. One critic called the ending “unnatural”; another labeled Mrs. Sullen “a deliberate violator of her marriage vow.” Fewer commented on the unflattering comparisons Farquhar makes between the gentlemen and the highwaymen, showing that while both set out to steal ladies' money, the highwaymen were thought criminal and the gentlemen honorable. Fortune-hunting was considered moral and legal, while happiness-hunting was considered immoral and illegal.

But Farquhar was above all a writer of comedies, and he was careful to wrap his serious messages in uproarious humor. In his 1702 Discourse upon Comedy, he described the form as “a well-framed tale handsomely told as an agreeable vehicle for counsel or reproof.” This description of the purpose of comedy was surprisingly close to Collier's assertion that “the business of Plays is to recommend Virtue, and discountenance Vice.” The difference lay in the proposed method of reform: Collier wanted to see examples of Good rewarded and Evil punished on stage, while Farquhar chose instead to ridicule injustices by representing their absurdity. He seems to suggest that morality based on outmoded laws is no morality and that people should not be called immoral for disregarding those unnatural laws. Thornton Wilder, who would adapt The Beaux' Stratagem centuries later, agreed: “The comic spirit is given to us,” he told an interviewer, “in order that we may analyze, weigh, and clarify things … which we are outgrowing, or trying to reshape.”

—Akiva Fox, Literary Associate

Copyright Akiva Fox
Copyright The Shakesepare Theatre Company

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