Source of book: I own this
This is another of the lovely Easton Press hardbacks that I found at a library sale.
Literature seems to go in cycles, with whole generations writing nothing memorable in a particular genre, for one reason or another. Sometimes, the reason is obvious, such as the ban on theater during the Puritan experiment after King Charles II. Other times, it is less obvious what happened. The muse seems to have departed, at least in hindsight.
One of those weird gaps occurred in British theater in the 1700s and 1800s. After a brief flowering during the Restoration, there was a huge gap that lasted over 150 years, punctuated only by two truly great comedies (and one lesser one.) It wasn’t until Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw in the 1890s that British comedy can be said to have truly returned to greatness.
So what about those exceptions to the wasteland? Well, Richard Sheridan wrote two plays which are still considered worthwhile. The Rivals, which I read earlier this year, is good but not as good as Sheridan’s other play, The School for Scandal, which is one of the finest satires ever written.
The other great play from the era - also written in the 1770s like Sheridan’s works - is She Stoops to Conquer by Oliver Goldsmith.
Goldsmith was an interesting character, unique in that while he didn’t write prolifically, he managed to create a masterpiece in each of three different dramas. His long poem, “The Deserted Village,” is still considered to be the pinnacle of its form. The Vicar of Wakefield, his one novel, was widely read and beloved during the Victorian Era, and is referenced in many novels written later. It is not as popular these days, alas. I have yet to read it, but if it is as good as She Stoops to Conquer, it must be quite good.
This play is of its own kind. It doesn’t have the biting satire of either Sheridan or Wilde, it isn’t as broadly farcical as a bawdy Restoration Era comedy, and it isn’t particularly serious either. It is just a rather funny, yet nuanced, comedy.
The basic idea is that the Hardcastles are minor aristocracy, living in the countryside. Daughter Kate is of marriageable age, so Mr. Marlow, son of a family friend, comes to potentially court her. With him is Hastings, who is in a secret relationship with Kate’s cousin Constance. The older generation, however, wants Constance to marry Kate’s half-brother Tony Lumpkin, an immature but good natured prankster. By making this marriage, Constance’s inherited jewels stay in the family, so to speak. Tony and Constance are on good terms, but have no interest in marrying each other.
As Hastings and Marlow travel to the Hardcastle residence, they become hopelessly lost. Fortunately - or not if you prefer - they run into Tony at the local pub. Tony, seeing a chance at some fun, directs Hastings and Marlow to the Hardcastle residence, but tells them that it is an old house now converted to an inn.
Thus, when Hastings and Marlow arrive, they believe that they are simply staying at an inn. They treat Mr. Hardcastle like an innkeeper, the servants like barkeeps, and so on. To great hilarity.
In addition, Kate, after a tipoff from Tony, decides to play two parts. She meets Marlow in her own name, but he, as usual for him, gets all tongue-tied and awkward and makes a mess of things. Kate then disguises herself, and pretends to be the barmaid. Marlow is able to loosen up, and the two of them fall in love.
In the meantime, Constance conspires with Hastings and Tony to pilfer her own jewels, so she can elope with Hastings. Unfortunately, this successful purloining goes awry when Marlow, who is not in on the secret of the elopement, misunderstands what he is to do with the jewels he is handed, and returns them to Mrs. Hardcastle for safekeeping - he believes she is the landlady.
Things go even crazier before they are resolved, in large part because of Tony’s chutzpah.
The plot itself seems rather like one P. G. Wodehouse would later write, complete with dour aunts, secret engagements, stolen property, mistaken identity, and a good-natured rogue.
The dialogue is quite witty. It’s not exactly Shakespeare, and it lacks the sharp edge of Wilde, but it is more gently humorous. Although there are a few funny innuendos, it isn’t bawdy. Here are some examples, starting with the opening dialogue.
MRS. HARDCASTLE: I vow, Mr. Hardcastle, you’re very particular. Is there a creature in the whole country but ourselves that does not take a trip to town now and then, to rub off the rust a little? There’s the two Miss Hoggs, and our neighbor, Mrs. Grigsby, go to take a month’s polishing every winter.
MR. HARDCASTLE: Ay, and bring back vanity and affectation to last them the whole year. I wonder why London cannot keep its own fools at home. In my time, the follies of the town crept slowly among us, but now they travel faster than a stage-coach. Its fopperies come down, not only as inside passengers, but in the very basket.
The jokes at the expense of London don’t stop there, however. Tony Lumpkin and the pub landlord joke about Hastings and Marlow.
LANDLORD: There be two gentlemen in a post-chaise at the door. They have lost their way upo’ the forest; and they are talking something about Mr. Hardcastle.
TONY: As sure as can be, one of them must be the gentleman that’s coming down to court my sister. Do they seem to be Londoners?
LANDLORD: I believe they may. They look woundily like Frenchmen.
Hey, a joke at the expense of both London and France. Tony at this point has an idea. He will soon inherit from his late father, and thus can prank his step father (“father-in-law”).
TONY: Father-in-law has been calling me whelp and hound, this half year. Now, if I pleased, I could be so revenged upon the old grumbletonian. But then I’m afraid -- afraid of what? I shall soon be worth fifteen hundred a year, and let him frighten me out of that if he can!
I love the word “grumbletonian,” which really needs to be in common use again. The landlord knows Tony is up to something, and uses his supply of “colorful metaphors” along the way.
LANDLORD: Ah, bless your heart, for a sweet, pleasant -- damn’d mischievous son of a whore.
Meanwhile, Hardcastle, in preparation for his guests, lectures his staff, which are not, shall we say, the sharpest tools. After admonishing them that they need to serve the guests, and not eat until later, Diggory protests.
DIGGORY: By the laws, your worship, that’s parfectly unpossible. Whenever Diggory sees yeating going forward, ecod, he’s always wishing for a mouthful himself.
There are some more fun words there. Unpossible is logically acceptable, although non standard, and thus amusing. There is also the less common version of “egad,” both meaning a minced oath version of “by god!” And, of course, an early use of “yeet.” At least that’s what I am going to tell the kids.
Having realized that Kate is at the “inn,” Hastings tries to psych poor Marlow up to talk to her. Marlow is hopelessly intimidated by the idea of trying to court a girl, however.
HASTINGS: If you could but say half the fine things to them that I have heard you lavish upon the barmaid of an inn, or even a college bed maker --
MARLOW: Why, George, I can’t say fine things to them. They freeze, they petrify me. They may talk of a comet, or a burning mountain, or such bagatelle. But to me, a modest woman, drest out in all her finery, is the most tremendous object of the whole creation.
HASTINGS: Ha! ha! ha! At this rate, man, how can you ever expect to marry?
MARLOW: Never, unless, as among kings and princes, my bride were to be courted by proxy. If, indeed, like an Eastern bridegroom, one were to be introduced to a wife he never saw before, it might be endured. But to go through all the terrors of a formal courtship, together with the episode of aunts, grandmothers and cousins, and at last to blurt out the broad, staring question of, Madam, will you marry me? No, no, that’s a strain much above me, I assure you!
Hence, Kate will have to “stoop to conquer” him, by allowing him to court her as if she were a barmaid. Because sure enough, when they meet, he ends up making a very unromantic conversation.
MARLOW: Yes, madam. In this age of hypocrisy, there are few who upon strict enquiry do not--a--a--a--
MISS HARDCASTLE: I understand you perfectly, sir.
MARLOW [aside]: Egand, and that’s more than I do myself!
MISS HARDCASTLE: You mean that in this hypocritical age there are few that do not condemn in public what they practice in private, and think they pay every debt to virtue when they praise it.
MARLOW: True, madam; those who have most virtue in their mouths have least of it in their bosoms. But I’m sure I tire you, madam.
Later, Kate and her father discuss Marlow. Neither of them likes his particular style; Kate because he is boring and weird - when he is talking to “her.” And Hardcastle because of Marlow’s jokes at his expense, believing he is the proprietor of an inn. However, Kate has also had her exchange with Marlow in her disguise as the barmaid, so she thinks she can prove Marlow to be different than her father thinks.
HARDCASTLE: If he be what he has shown himself, I’m determined he shall never have my consent.
MISS HARDCASTLE: And if he be the sullen thing I take him, he shall never have mine.
HARDCASTLE: In one thing then we are agreed -- to reject him.
MISS HARDCASTLE: Yes. But upon conditions. For if you should find him less impudent, and I more presuming; if you find him more respectful, and I more importunate--I don’t know--the fellow is well enough for a man--Certainly we don’t meet many such at a horse race in the country.
Meanwhile, Tony and Hastings have been scheming, unbeknownst to Constance Neville, who tries to gain access to her jewels from Aunt Hardcastle.
MRS. HARDCASTLE: Indeed, Constance, you amaze me. Such a girl as you want jewels? It will be time enough for jewels, my dear, twenty years hence, when your beauty begins to want repairs.
MISS NEVILLE: But what will repair beauty at forty will certainly improve it at twenty, madam.
Tony, who has by that time pilfered the jewels, overhears Mrs. Hardcastle - his mother - claim that the jewels have disappeared (which they have, but she doesn’t know it), as a way to make Constance go away. She enlists Tony - who is all too willing - to back her up, which he does.
TONY: That I can bear witness to. They are missing, and not to be found, I’ll take my oath on’t.
MRS. HARDCASTLE: You must learn resignation, my dear; for tho’ we lose our fortune, yet we should not lose our patience. See me, how calm I am.
MISS NEVILLE: Ay, people are generally calm at the misfortune of others.
That’s a sick burn right there. And way too true. Tony can’t resist taking it further after Constance leaves. His mom checks...and discovers the jewels really ARE missing. Tony just plays along, assuring her that he will continue to keep the secret, and congratulates her on faking her “bitter passion” so convincingly.
TONY: That’s right, that’s right! You must be in a bitter passion, and then nobody will suspect either of us. I’ll bear witness that they are gone.
MRS. HARDCASTLE: Was there ever such a cross-grain’d brut, that won’t hear me! Can you bear witness that you’re no better than a fool? Was ever poor woman so beset with fools on one hand, and thieves on the other?
TONY: I can bear witness to that.
Marlow now has a clear field so to speak, and can flirt with the “barmaid,” Kate. It goes much better, since he can relax without the pressure. I won’t quote all the banter, but he lays it on pretty thick, requesting that he fetch him some nectar...from her lips. She is his equal in repartee, however.
MISS HARDCASTLE: Then it’s odd I should not know it. We brew all sorts of wines in this house, and I have lived here these eighteen years.
MARLOW: Eighteen years! Why one would think, child, you kept the bar before you were born. How old are you?
MISS HARDCASTLE: O! sir, I must not tell my age. They say women and music should never be dated.
MARLOW: To guess at this distance, you can’t be much above forty [approaching] Yet nearer, I don’t think so much. [approaching] By coming close to some women, they look younger still; but when we come very close indeed-- [attempting to kiss her]
MISS HARDCASTLE: Pray, sir, keep your distance. One would think you wanted to know one’s age as they do horses, by mark of mouth.
As this is a comedy, everything does end well eventually. The aunt gets punked, Tony gets some laughs in, and the guys get their gals. It’s a good natured play, with gentle fun poked at the amusing characters. The stakes are low, nobody gets mean, and, well, it is a bunch of fun.
It also seems like it would stage well in a modern setting. Just make the house into a Bed and Breakfast - plenty of well-to-do sorts dream of retiring and running one, right? The young men would be fine as grad student sorts, a bit awkward, and going to meet the girls because their mothers put them up to it. Someone really should make this happen locally when theaters are safe again.