Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Man of Mode by Sir George Etheredge

Source of book: I own this.

The Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries must have been an interesting time for the citizens of England. A seemingly trivial event - a pretty woman catching the eye of a married monarch - led to a century-and-a-half of religious and political upheaval and forever changed both church and state in the English speaking nations.

Henry VIII probably didn’t intend to change the world: he wanted a male heir, and was none to fond of Catherine anyway. Perhaps Anne Boleyn would be a better choice. If the pope hadn’t been so stubborn, perhaps the Anglican church would never have come into being, and Spain and England would have remained allies. Henry could have had his divorce, and the Catholic Church would have retained its precedence in the British Isles. Instead, Henry broke with Rome, and England eventually became a predominantly Protestant nation.  

(This wasn’t the only way that Henry inadvertently caused a revolution. Lawyers know that the idea of the trust was formed in response to Henry’s “Statute of Uses,” which was an attempt to curb tax evasion. Henry needed money, and his attempt to obtain it caused a revolution in the law of estate planning.)

The ride was a bit bumpy, however. After Henry’s death, Catherine’s daughter Mary attempted to re-convert England to Catholicism, spilling a great deal of blood in the process. Then, Anne’s daughter Elizabeth returned to Protestantism. Since Elizabeth didn’t leave an heir, the line of the Tudors ended, and James I of Scotland - who rather liked being head of the Church of England, tangling with Parliament, Puritans and Presbyterians alike.

His son Charles I was even worse, believing strongly in the “Divine Right of Kings” to do whatever they wanted. Not content to feud with both the English and Scottish parliaments, he suppressed the Puritans, and attempted to conform the Scottish church to the English pattern. Things eventually came to a head, and Charles ended up losing his.

The intervening period began as a commonwealth, with the Puritan-leaning Parliament in charge. A whole host of political, judicial, and religious reforms followed. Among them was a series of “moral” laws, mandating the observance of the sabbath and shutting down all of the theaters.

The commonwealth gave way to the “Protectorate,” the rule by the “Lord Protector,” Oliver Cromwell, with the support of the army. Cromwell’s son Richard wasn’t a capable as his father, and discontent grew.

Eventually, the son of Charles I, the soon-to-be Charles II, agreed to return to be king of England, and the monarchy was restored. While Charles II had Catholic leanings, he did not attempt anything further than unsuccessfully pressing for toleration of Catholics. His son, James II, however, was openly Catholic, and not only ordered religious toleration (which was not popular) but appointed Catholics to high government posts. He also appeared to very much believe in the Divine Right of Kings.

This led to the invitation to William of Orange to come assume the throne. (William had married the sister of James II.) At last, this put an end to the controversy. The monarchy lost much of the power it had had under the Stuarts, Parliament became the preeminent institution, and England became thoroughly Protestant.

Rather a long introduction, but this play makes more sense in light of the historical background.

The Man of Mode, or Sir Fopling Flutter, is one of the better known Restoration Comedies. The Puritan Cromwell, believing all acting and theater to be evil, abolished them at the outset of the Commonwealth. In retrospect, it is hard to believe that this could occur so soon after the writing and performance of Shakespeare’s masterworks. However, there were also many bawdy entertainments, and theaters attracted prostitution and gambling as well. While many sought to clean up the theater, the Puritans distrusted all amusements as being a distraction from spiritual things and a waste of time; thus, they also sought to do away with ballad singers, dancing, game festivals, and even mirrors (due to concerns about vanity). (Political considerations were also present: then as now, artists tended to mock the status quo.)

England eventually tired of Puritan rule - they were fed up enough to invite nearly Catholic Charles back. When the Restoration came, the theaters were re-opened, and a floodgate of new works spilled forth. (In the New World, the Puritan influence keep the theaters close for an additional hundred years, and indeed, there remains a segment of American Christianity that still avoids theaters of all kinds, whether for plays or movies.)

Of the new works, the one genre that lasted beyond the time was the so-called Restoration Comedy, which featured a new kind of character, the Rake. Short for “rakehell,” the rake was a man of wit and means, who wasted it all on wine, women, and song. Particularly the women, as the rake was always a notorious womanizer. In most cases, the rake was reformed to some degree, usually by marriage.

The Man of Mode is notable for its witty dialogue and its piercing commentary on social manners. It also caused a stir at the time because all of the characters - even the minor ones - are based on real persons. The protagonist, Dorimant, is a thinly veiled portrait of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester. (Rochester would die at age 33 of syphilis and alcoholism, naturally.) His friend and fellow womanizer and wit Medley, is probably Etheredge himself: Etheredge and fellow playwright William Wycherley ran in the licentious aristocratic circles themselves. Sir Fopling Flutter (a great name for the character) was also based on a real person, in that case a flamboyant dandy who attempted to look French. 

The only known portrait of Etheredge, by an unknown artist.

The plot itself is not complicated, but is a little hard to follow due to the language. On stage, it would probably be easier to keep the characters straight. Dorimant wants to dump his current mistress, Mrs. Loveit, for the younger Bellinda. He attempts to engineer a break that doesn’t make him look bad by making much of Sir Fopling’s attentions to Mrs. Loveit. Meanwhile, young Mr. Bellair and his flame Emilia wish to marry, despite his father, old Mr. Bellair, who has his eye on Emilia himself. So, young Bellair pretends to flirt with Harriet (who is the wittiest and most interesting female in the play) to throw his father off the scent until he can get a minister to do the deed. In the end, Dorimant finds himself rejected by both Mrs. Loveit and Bellinda, and is put in the position of having to marry Harriet, who is probably the only woman who can tame him.

I found Etheredge to be a step below my two favorite masters of the biting comedy, Oscar Wilde and Molière, but amusing nonetheless. As I noted in my post on The Importance of Being Earnest, nearly any random line in that play is delightfully quotable. Molière’s dialogue likewise sparkles, and his observations of human nature are remarkably relevant 350 years later. The Man of Mode has scenes that seem more of their time than timeless, but there are plenty of moments that can still draw a smile or spark of recognition.

The introduction is a deliciously biting bit of wit, written for the play by Sir Car Scroop, an otherwise unnotable wit. (A common practice of the time.)

But I'm afraid that while to France we go,
To bring you home fine dresses, dance, and show,
The stage, like you, will but more foppish grow.
Of foreign wares why should we fetch the scum,
When we can be so richly served at home?
For, heaven be thank'd, 'tis not so wise an age
But your own follies may supply the stage.
Though often plough'd, there's no great fear the soil
Should barren grow by the too frequent toil,
While at your doors are to be daily found
Such loads of dunghill to manure the ground.
'Tis by your follies that we players thrive,
As the physicians by diseases live;
And as each year some new distemper reigns,
Whose friendly poison helps t'increase their gains,
So among you there starts up every day
Some new unheard-of fool for us to play.
Then for your own sakes be not too severe,
Nor what you all admire at home, damn here.
Since each is fond of his own ugly face,
Why should you, when we hold it, break the glass?

Dorimant also gets some fun lines, such as this one as he banters with Mr. Medley about his plan to dump Mrs. Loveit.

DORIMANT: Most infinitely; next to the coming to a good understanding with a new mistress, I love a quarrel with an old one. But the devil's in't, there has been such a calm in my affairs of late, I have not had the pleasure of making a woman so much as break her fan, to be sullen, or forswear herself these three days.

While Dorimant is focused on his womanizing schemes, Medley is there to spread the gossip and make merry over all the intrigue, while he himself stays aloof. Lady Townley and Emilia discuss Medley’s propensity to exaggerate.

EMILIA: I love to hear him talk o' the intrigues. Let 'em be never so dull in themselves, he'll make 'em pleasant i' the relation.
LADY TOWNLEY: But he improves things so much one can take no measure of the truth from him. Mr. Dorimant swears a flea or a maggot is not made more monstrous by a magnifying glass than a story is by his telling it.

Perhaps the most memorable cut is given by the ever-witty and cynical Harriet while speaking about another woman (who is named but doesn’t actually appear in the play) to her maid.

BUSY: Ah, the difference that is between you and my Lady Dapper! How uneasy she is if the least thing be amiss about her!
HARRIET: She is indeed most exact. Nothing is ever wanting to make her ugliness remarkable.
BUSY: Jeering people say so.
HARRIET: Her powdering, painting, and her patching never fail in public to draw the tongues and eyes of all the men upon her.
BUSY: She is indeed a little too pretending.
HARRIET: That women should set up for beauty as much in spite of nature as some men have done for wit!

That last line is highly quotable.

Soon afterward follows my favorite scene, where young Bellair and Harriet are pretending to flirt with each other, while exchanging witty banter completely contrary to that appearance. In fact, they start by promising in all possible false seriousness to never marry each other.

BELLAIR: What generous resolution are you making, madam?
HARRIET: Only to be disobedient, sir.
BELLAIR: Let me join hands with you in that.
HARRIET: With all my heart. I never thought I should have given you mine so willingly. Here.
(they join hands
I, Harriet—
BELLAIR: And I, Harry—
HARRIET: Do solemnly protest—
BELLAIR: And vow—
HARRIET: That I with you—
BELLAIR: And I with you—
TOGETHER: Will never marry.
HARRIET: A match!
BELLAIR: And no match!

Sir Fopling is a relatively minor character in the play, but his role is one of clown. He is over-the-top foppish, with his insistence on a whole train of French servants to accompany him everywhere, his affected French accent, and his garishly Continental attire. As in much English literature, a great deal is made of the differences between France and England (who after all, did manage a Hundred Years’ War), however minor. One bit of wit makes a comparison between music with kettle drums and trumpets on the one hand, and sweet flutes and French hautboys (oboes). Fopling is still humorous because he is recognizable as anyone who goes too far trying to be cool. He just doesn’t get how far he is from any form of good taste.

One final line struck me. Lady Woodvill, who has fallen for Dorimant’s charms, not realizing who he is, falls into a banter with him about how inferior the present is to the past, and young folks to persons of her age. Nobody gives proper deference to more noble blood like they used to.

DORIMANT: Forms and ceremonies, the only things that uphold quality and greatness, are now shamefully laid aside and neglected.
LADY WOODVILL: Well, this is not the women's age, let 'em think what they will. Lewdness is the business now, love was the business in my time.

I noted this in my discussion of Anthony Trollope’s excellent tragedy, He Knew He Was Right, that nothing really changes. Each generation thinks that the generation that follows is scandalously unchaste. Trollope poked fun at it in the 1860s. Here, Etheredge takes his shot in the 1670s. Each generation is sure that it invented love, and that young people simply don’t and won’t understand it. Nothing is new under the sun.

Overall, a worthy read, if not in the pantheon. There are plenty of witty lines (and some bawdy ones too), even if some of it seems to be silliness. I would recommend Molière over Etheredge, if one was going to read just one comedy from this era.

No comments:

Post a Comment