The Redemption of the Rakes: An essay to accompany the Shakespeare Theatre Company's production of "The Beuax' Stratagem" - by Edward Isser, PH.D.
THE REDEMPTION OF THE RAKES
BY EDWARD ISSER, PH.D.
From "Asides" Magazine of the Shakespeare Theatre, Washignton, DC
The figure of the rake is one of the most enduring character types in Restoration comedy. He is invariably a member of the upper social order who has committed himself to pursuing the pleasures of the flesh and leading the lifestyle of a bon vivant. Most often he is the ne’er-do-well younger brother of a titled lord. Simultaneously limited and empowered by his position and economic status, the rake has little to do other than to partake in the social scene. He is unable to pursue a normal profession because it is beneath his station, yet he is denied any real prospects in the upper echelons of court life because of the unfortunate order of his birth. Thus the rake can attain status among his peers only by exhibitions of extravagant munificence and sexual conquests. In early Restoration comedies, he is an unabashed libertine, possessing neither morals nor a social conscience. In pursuit of sexual conquests, he dupes witless, foppish husbands while having his way with their hypocritical, licentious wives.
George Farquhar’s The Beaux’ Stratagem appears, at first glance, to be a typical Restoration comedy. Our two heroes—Tom Aimwell and Jack Archer—are textbook examples of rakes who have fallen upon hard times. Together they have managed to squander both their inheritances and are left in a quandary with few prospects. With no resources available to pursue their extravagant, indulgent lifestyle, they set off to meet and marry rich women to subsidize their nefarious pursuits. Aimwell and Archer, however, turn out to be rather incompetent rakes when each develops a healthy conscience and, in the end, behaves in an upright, heroic manner.
The early Restoration comedies of Dryden, Etherege, Behn and Wycherley were shockingly frank in their representation of sexual intrigue. Although these plays make fun of the foibles of the upper crust, they rarely—if ever—pass judgment upon the morally
reprehensible behavior of their protagonists. Restoration comedies reflected the social customs and loose morality of the court, catering to an aristocratic elite that enjoyed seeing itself gleefully (and often caustically) lampooned on the stage. By the end of the 1680s, however, the pendulum began to swing in the other direction. The ascension of William and Mary in 1688 marked the return of a more restrained and conservative mindset. The blunt sexuality of Restoration comedy was considered a violation of decorum, and public attacks were made upon the theatre on moral grounds.
By 1700 the era of unrestrained licentiousness on the stage was over. A type of sentimental drama began to emerge that championed love over lust and honor over conquest. George Farquhar, born in 1678, was too young to remember the Restoration. His first play, Love and a Bottle, was produced in 1698. The Beaux’ Stratagem, his last play, written in 1707, reflects the changing mores of its time. Most scholars refer to the work as a late-Restoration drama, because it retains the forms and conventions of Restoration comedy even as it adheres to a more modern, conventional moral standard that is almost middle-class in its outlook.
The Beaux’ Stratagem is a drama of its day, replete with wry observations on the contemporary social and political situation. When the play premiered in 1707, England and France were embroiled in the War of the Spanish Succession, which informs both the plotting and character development of the work. All things French are fair game for comic derision—their accents, ineptitude and alleged moral depravity. Despite such topical references, the appealing characters, witty banter and well-crafted farcical structure remain theatrically effective. Indeed, Aimwell and Archer are the template for a type of character that modern audiences have come to adore—they begin with the worst intentions but, after a series of farcical complications, their plans go happily awry.
In 1939, Thornton Wilder began working on a free adaptation of The Beaux’ Stratagem. He sought to capture the spirit of the original in idiom and approach but allowed himself leeway to alter dialogue and create entirely new scenes. Interestingly, however, he chose not to update the time or change location. The setting remains early-18th-century England—but the plot is significantly streamlined and the speech simplified and clarified. Unfortunately, at the outbreak of the Second World War, Wilder—having finished about half the adaptation—abandoned the project. In 2000, the 57-page handwritten manuscript was discovered, and Ken Ludwig picked up the thread. This unique ollaboration—among two dead playwrights and a living one—results in a version that maintains the spirit of the source material but is something quite original.
The Beaux’ Stratagem, in its new incarnation, remains a naughty farce that titillates without being vulgar. Archer and Aimwell match up against three women—Cherry, Dorinda and Kate Sullen—who are every bit their match. These women are good in a clinch, armed or unarmed, and they know how to deal with the would-be Lotharios. The rakes ultimately get exactly what they sought but not what they bargained for. Wilder and Ludwig preserve the essence of Farquhar’s creation, but by restructuring the story, modernizing characterization, smoothing out rough edges and inventing new business, they create a piece suited for a 21st-century audience.
Edward Isser, Ph.D.
College of the Holy Cross
Copyright Edward Isser
Copyright The Shakesepare Theatre Company