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On This Date Elizabeth Barrett Browning Died

June 29, 2017

On this date in 1861 Elizabeth Barrett Browning died in Florence at the age of 55.

Book Knife-at-Work

Years after her death, her husband Robert Browning found among the posthumously published letters of Edward FitzGerald—author of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám—a letter written directly after his wife’s death. FitzGerald wrote, “Mrs. Browning’s death is rather a relief to me, I must say: no more Aurora Leighs. . . . She and her sex had better mind the kitchen and the children.” Browning sent this poem in to the Athenaeum.

To Edward FitzGerald

By Robert Browning

I chanced upon a new book yesterday;
I opened it, and, where my finger lay
‘Twixt page and uncut page, these words I read –
Some six or seven at most – and learned thereby
That you, Fitzgerald, whom by ear and eye
She never knew, “thanked God my wife was dead.”
Aye, dead! and were yourself alive, good Fitz,
How to return you thanks would task my wits.
Kicking you seems the common lot of curs –
While more appropriate greeting lends you grace,
Surely to spit there glorifies your face –
Spitting from lips once sanctified by hers.

 

 

On this Day in History: Sheridan’s The School for Scandal was First Performed

May 8, 2017

Brian Bedford school1200

Brian Bedford is Sir Peter and Michelle Giroux
is Lady Teazle in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s
THE SCHOOL FOR SCANDAL.dir. Richard Monette. Stratford Festival 1999.

On this Day in History: Sheridan’s The School for Scandal
was First Performed

Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s comedy of manners, The School for Scandal, has delighted audiences uninterruptedly since its first production on May 8, 1777 at the Drury Lane Theatre in London because of its tightly constructed plot, its grand comedy, and its polished wit. Besides being called a comedy of manners, this type of play also is often called a drawing room comedy because so much of its action takes place in the formal rooms of fashionable London town homes, and these intimate settings have undoubtedly contributed to the play’s appeal on stage.

If you haven’t read or seen performed this classic play in awhile, here is a simple summary of its complex plot by Martin S. Day: The atmosphere of frivolous London high society binds together three plot elements: Lord Teazle is an old man married to a young and skittish Lady Teazle. Their squabbles leave her open to the advances of Joseph Surface, The Surface brothers are contrasted: Charles is open-hearted but ne’er do well; Joseph is a hypocrite who appears to be a humanitarian and a man of feeling. Their uncle, Sir Oliver in disguise, tests both brothers ad finds the apparently feckless Charles to be an honest man and the supposedly reliable Joseph a sneaking scoundrel. The two plots come together in the famous screen scene of Act Four, when Charles discovers lady Teazle at a, ahem, tryst, as they used to call it, with Joseph. The scandalmongers—Snake, Lady Sneerwell, Mrs. Candour—represent that part of society which relishes killing a reputation with each word.

Here a few notes on the stage settings for an essay I once published for Salem Press years ago:

Lady Sneerwell’s Dressing Room. Despite the fact that the stage direction indicates that the first scene of the play takes place at Lady Sneerwell’s dressing table, the room in which the scene takes place is a large room used by fashionable ladies for waiting on their most confidential guests. Thus Lady Sneerwell uses her dressing room to converse with Snake in much the same way the men of the house would use his library.

The Drawing Room. Other scenes in Lady Sneerwell’s house are set in the typical drawing room of a fashionable house. For example, In Act Two, Scene two Sheridan presents the famous school for scandal in attendance in the drawing room. Drawing rooms were used purely for public purposes. It was here that a hostess would receive guests or where guests would gather before and after dinner. Usually they were among the larger rooms of the house and certainly the room in Lady Sneerwell’s must be large enough to handle her rather large group of scandal mongerers.

The Library. The most famous scene in the play occurs in Joseph Surface’s library. Like women’s dressing rooms, libraries for men were where they met their friends for personal visits. Usually, however, it was where they met their male friends, so the scene in which Joseph meets intimately with Lady Teazle has a special significance in its being set in the library.

Now, with all this in mind, you need to know that The School for Scandal will run throughout the summer from May 15 to October 30 this year at the Stratford Festival of Canada for over 50 performances. This will be by far the premier production of Sheridan’s play in the world for this year. For information click https://www.stratfordfestival.ca/WhatsOn/ThePlays

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Paul Varner

 

 

“Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister.” On this Date in 1812 Robert Browning was Born.

May 7, 2017

monastery2

On this date in 1812 Robert Browning was born in London. He died in 1889. In commemoration, how about we read one of his most popular poems, “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister.” The poem’s first appearance in print was in Bells and Pomgranates, number 3, under the title “ Camp and Cloister” and in book form in 1842 in Dramatic Lyrics. In both early appearances “Soliloquy in the Spanish Cloister” as we have it today was paired with the “Incident of the French Camp” under the title “Camp and Cloister.” In Browning’s later distributions of his poems it remained one of the Dramatic Lyrics.

“Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister,” in 72 lines, 9 stanzas, consists of the under-the-breath mutterings of a cloistered monk as he observes with hatred Brother Lawrence watering his myrtle-bushes in the convent garden. Everything about Brother Lawrence irritates the speaker deeply. He can’t stand the way that the monk spends refection talking about the weather and his beloved plants, the way he eats and drinks heartily while the speaker is always careful to demonstrate his own piety by laying his knife and fork crosswise and by drinking his watered orange pulp in three sips to represent the trinity.

He imagines how Brother Lawrence must lust deeply, if only he would show it, after brown Dolores who often sits outside the convent wall combing her long, black, lustrous hair. Even as the speaker observes Brother Lawrence trimming his flowers, he takes great pleasure when one snaps, and he gleefully admits keeping the plants “close-nipped on the sly.”

So he contemplates how most effectively to destroy the soul of the hated brother. Perhaps he could trap him in one of the 29 sins listed in a passage in Galatians just as he is at the point of death and send him off to hell. Or perhaps turn down the most lurid page of all in his own pornographic novel and slip it in among the garden tools. That certainly would cause the despised brother to grovel in the hands of Belial.

He even fantasizes selling his soul to the devil (but being sure to leave a loophole in the contract). But just then the vesper bells ring calling the brothers to prayer. The poem closes as the speaker curses Brother Lawrence before they have to enter into prayers together.

So, here’s the poem:

I
GR-R-R—there go, my heart’s abhorrence!
Water your damned flower-pots, do!
If hate killed men, Brother Lawrence,
God’s blood, would not mine kill you!
What? your myrtle-bush wants trimming?
Oh, that rose has prior claims—
Needs its leaden vase filled brimming?
Hell dry you up with its flames!
II
At the meal we sit together:
Salve tibi! I must hear
Wise talk of the kind of weather,
Sort of season, time of year:
Not a plenteous cork-crop: scarcely
Dare we hope oak-galls, I doubt:
What’s the Latin name for “parsley”?
What’s the Greek name for Swine’s Snout?
III
Whew! We’ll have our platter burnished,
Laid with care on our own sheld!
With a fire-new spoon we’re furnished,
And a goblet for oneself,
Rinsed like something sacrificial
Ere ’tis fit to touch our chaps—
Marked with L. for our initial!
(He-he! There his lily snaps!)
IV
Saint, forsooth! While brown Dolores
Squats outside the Convent bank
With Sanchicha, telling stories,
Steeping tresses in the tank,
Blue-black, lustrous, thick like horsehairs,
—Can’t I see his dead eye glow,
Bright as ’twere a Barbary corsair’s?
(That is, if he’d let it show!)
V
When he finishes refection,
Knife and fork he never lays
Cross-wise to my recollection,
As do I, in Jesu’s praise.
I the Trinity illustrate,
Drinking watered orange-pulp—
In three sips the Arian frustrate;
While he drains his at one gulp.
VI
Oh, those melons? If he’s able
We’re to have a feast! so nice!
One goes to the Abbot’s table,
All of us get each a slice.
How go on your flowers? None double?
Not one fruit-sort can you spy?
Strange!—And I, too, at such trouble,
Keep them close-nipped on the sly!
VII
There’s a great text in Galatians,
Once you trip on it, entails
Twenty-nine distinct damnations,
One sure, if another fails:
If I trip him just a-dying,
Sure of heaven as sure can be,
Spin him round and send him flying
Off to hell, a Manichee?
VIII
Or my scrofulous French novel
On gray paper with blunt type!
Simply glance at it, you grovel
Hand and foot in Belial’s gripe:
If I double down its pages
At the woeful sixteenth print,
When he gathers his greengages,
Ope a sieve and slip it in’t?
IX
Or, there’s Satan!—one might venture
Pledge one’s soul to him, yet leave
Such a flaw in the indenture
As he’d miss till, past retrieve,
Blasted lay that rose-acacia
We’re so proud of! Hy, Zy, Hine.
‘St, there’s Vespers! Plena gratiâ
Ave, Virgo! Gr-r-r—you swine!

 

Forms and Devices

Browning’s appeal has often come from the dramatic presentation of inner psychological character, frequently of figures out of the mainstream of normal experience. In “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister,” Browning uses the technique of soliloquy taken from the stage. Whereas the speaker actually voices his thoughts, unlike in dramatic monologues, nobody in the poem hears him. As a result of this technique, the poem achieves immediacy—everything happens within the timeframe of the actual reading of the poem just as it would if this soliloquy were spoken on stage.

Furthermore, the dramatic nature of the form allows Browning to avoid stilted poetic diction and instead to demonstrate the quite forceful language of the speaker in a variety of forms:

If hate killed men, Brother Lawrence,

God’s blood, would not mine kill you!

It allows Browning to show us a speaker who sometimes voices his own opinions, sometimes quotes from the Bible, mocks, or parodies Brother Lawrence’s hated affectations. At times we may even sympathize with the speaker in his disdain for the boring Brother Lawrence In short, the dramatic nature of this poem allows the full display of the speaker’s ambiguous personality.

Remarkably, while the poem sounds so dramatically real, Browning reveals his true virtuosity through the poetic forms he uses. Each stanza consists of 8 variously trochaic and iambic tetrameter lines. Tetrameter often is used for fast movement in a poem, as in stanzas 7 and 8, but speed and natural speech cadences also are achieved by the use of irregular rhymes and frequent double rhymes, for example in the last lines of the poem in which every line ends with a double rhyme:

Blasted lay that rose-acacia

We’re so proud of! Hy, Zy,Hine.

‘St, there’s Vespers! Plena gratia

Ave, Virgo! Gr-r-r—you swine!

The phrase “Hy, Zy,Hine” represents the ringing of the vesper bells but also are the beginning of the final curse on Brother Lawrence.

 

Themes and Meanings

“Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister” ostensibly deals with the lives of only two monks, but Browning intends to give us a glimpse into the whole monastic system while unintentionally revealing his own protestant prejudices against asceticism. No historic basis serves as a source for the poem; instead, Browning treats the cloister as a breeding ground for extremely narrow-minded thinking and gross jealousy of all that does not satisfy powerful egos. Here we have a poem that gives the sour-natured attitude of mind of a monk jealous of a brother whom he hates merely because of his genial nature and goodness. Of course, Brother Lawrence does come off seeming like a terrible bore, and perhaps his dullness lends to the humorous counterpoint of the speaker’s lust for physical enjoyment in life. In Stanza 1 Brother Lawrence’s simple caring for his garden galls the speaker utterly:

What? Your myrtle-bush wants trimming?

Oh, that rose has prior claims—

Needs its leaden vase filled brimming?

Hell dry you up with its flames!

The speaker further despises Brother Lawrence for his simple interest in spiritual life, and his neglect of those petty superstitious forms the observance of which the ill-natured monk congratulates himself.

When he finishes refection,

Knife and fork he never lays

Cross-wise, to my recollection,

As I do, in Jesu’s praise.

I the Trinity illustrate,

Drinking watered orange pulp—

In three sips the Arian frustrate;

While he drains his at one gulp.

 

We delight in this at times humorous portrait of the monk, even though we disapprove of his attitude, but we enjoy his shocking exuberance, his demonic intensity, his zest for earthly pleasure. But, when everything is finally considered, “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister” is Browning’s brilliant analysis of emotional hatred such as too close and too long association might develop in an uncharitable person.

 

I have taken my material for today’s post from notes to an essay I published many years ago for Salem Press.

 

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Paul Varner

 

 

 

 

 

Walt Whitman’s “A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim”

April 15, 2017

Walt Whitman’s “A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim”

This date in history President Abraham Lincoln died after being shot the night before while he and Mary were watching the play “Our American Cousin” at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. The Civil War over which he had overseen a bloody victory had essentially ended just four days earlier.

Earlier still in the War of Rebellion as the Union forces called the Civil War, or the War of Secession as the Confederate forces called it, the good grey poet Walt Whitman had written Drum-Taps, a collection of war poems, Here is “A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim”:

A SIGHT in camp in the day-break grey and dim,
As from my tent I emerge so early, sleepless,
As slow I walk in the cool fresh air, the path near by
the hospital-tent,
Three forms I see on stretchers lying, brought out there,
untended lying,
Over each the blanket spread, ample brownish woolen
blanket,
Grey and heavy blanket, folding, covering all.

 
Curious, I halt, and silent stand;
Then with light fingers I from the face of the nearest,
the first, just lift the blanket:
Who are you, elderly man so gaunt and grim, with
well-grey’d hair, and flesh all sunken about the
eyes?
Who are you, my dear comrade?
Then to the second I step—And who are you, my
child and darling?
Who are you, sweet boy, with cheeks yet blooming?

 
Then to the third—a face nor child, nor old, very
calm, as of beautiful yellow-white ivory:
Young man, I think I know you—I think this face of
yours is the face of the Christ himself;
Dead and divine, and brother of all, and here again he
lies.

 

In this elegy, written well before the death of Lincoln, Whitman mourns three soldiers who died just hours before. He states rather clearly that their martyrdom is comparable to that of Christ. Obviously the words were to take on even more meaning after the events that night at Ford’s Theatre.

On This Date in History: Lee Surrendered to Grant

April 9, 2017

North South flags

Walt Whitman’s Drum-Taps

On this date in 1865 General Robert E. Lee of the Confederate States of America surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia to General Ulysses S. Grant of the United States of America.

For those of us for whom literature matters greatly, probably no literature of the American Civil War matters as much as Walt Whitman’s collection of poetry, Drum Taps. Here are two poems “Beat! Beat! Drums” and “Cavalry Crossing a Ford.”

 

Walt Whitman

BEAT! BEAT! DRUMS!

1

BEAT! beat! drums!—Blow! bugles! blow!
Through the windows—through doors—burst like a
force of ruthless men,
Into the solemn church, and scatter the congregation;
Into the school where the scholar is studying:
Leave not the bridegroom quiet—no happiness must
he have now with his bride;
Nor the peaceful farmer any peace, plowing his field or
gathering his grain;
So fierce you whirr and pound, you drums—so shrill
you bugles blow.

2

Beat! beat! drums!—Blow! bugles! blow!
Over the traffic of cities—over the rumble of wheels in
the streets:
Are beds prepared for sleepers at night in the houses?
No sleepers must sleep in those beds;
No bargainers’ bargains by day—no brokers or specu-
lators —Would they continue?
Would the talkers be talking? would the singer attempt
to sing?
Would the lawyer rise in the court to state his case
before the judge?
Then rattle quicker, heavier drums—you bugles wilder
blow.

3

Beat! beat! drums!—Blow! bugles! blow!
Make no parley—stop for no expostulation;
Mind not the timid—mind not the weeper or prayer;
Mind not the old man beseeching the young man;
Let not the child’s voice be heard, nor the mother’s en-
treaties;
Make even the trestles to shake the dead, where they lie
awaiting the hearses,
So strong you thump, O terrible drums—so loud
you bugles blow.

CAVALRY CROSSING A FORD.

vaWhitesFord
A LINE in long array, where they wind betwixt green
islands;
They take a serpentine course—their arms flash in the
sun—Hark to the musical clank;
Behold the silvery river—in it the splashing horses,
loitering, stop to drink;
Behold the brown-faced men—each group, each person,
a picture—the negligent rest on the saddles;
Some emerge on the opposite bank—others are just
entering the ford;
The guidon flags flutter gaily in the wind.

Many of Walt Whitman’s war poems embody the very spirit of civil conflict, picturing war with a poignant realism and a terrible, tender beauty. Unlike poems from other wars, such as those from World War I or those from Vietnam, these and other poems in Drum Taps make no attempt to resolve the tension between a romantic glorification of the Civil War and a rigorous anti-war stance.

A Book of Verses, a Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread and Thou: Edward FitzGerald’s Birthday

March 31, 2017

A Book of Verses, a Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread and Thou

Loaf of bread jug of wine8c859c04f840c00709dc9f99bef3ef07

On this day in 1809 Edward FitzGerald the author of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám was born in Woodbridge, Suffolk, England. Fittingly for my blog post, the celebrated author of one of the most famous poems about Spring was born in Spring. So here we go, folks. Happy Spring.

FitzGerald claimed his version (actually he wrote three distinctly different versions) of the Persian poem by Omar Khayyám was a translation of the poem from the original language. Well, let’s just say, kindly perhaps, that his translation bears as much relation to the original Persian as, say an Amazon.com suggestion that, hey, if you liked this Persian poem then maybe you will like this other thingy by the Victorian poet Edward FitzGerald. Nevertheless, The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám was a Victorian bestseller and since 1859 has been issued in nearly a thousand editions. I haven’t seen a copy in the last few years, but at one time you could count on nearly every Hallmark store and other stores selling inexpensive gift books to have on hand an illustrated copy of the Rubáiyát.

What makes the poem interesting for readers of Great Literature is the way the melancholy “eat, drink, and be happy” theme runs so counter to the usual popular literary fare of its time. Many readers read the poem as a celebration of life right now, while others read the poem as a celebration of wanton hedonism, specifically in its celebration of living life for the sake of drinking all the wine you can.

Here are some lines from the beginning of the 30-40-page poem. I conclude with its most famous lines.

I
Wake! For the Sun who scatter’d into flight
The Stars before him from the Field of Night,
Drives Night along with them from Heav’n, and strikes
The Sultán’s Turret with a Shaft of Light.
II
Before the phantom of False morning died,
Methought a Voice within the Tavern cried,
“When all the Temple is prepared within,
“Why nods the drowsy Worshipper outside?”
III
And, as the Cock crew, those who stood before
The Tavern shouted–“Open then the Door!
“You know how little while we have to stay,
“And, once departed, may return no more.”
VII
Come, fill the Cup, and in the fire of Spring
Your Winter-garment of Repentance fling:
The Bird of Time has but a little way
To flutter–and the Bird is on the Wing.
VIII
. . . .

Whether the Cup with sweet or bitter run,
The Wine of Life keeps oozing drop by drop,
The Leaves of Life keep falling one by one.
IX
Each Morn a thousand Roses brings, you say:
Yes, but where leaves the Rose of Yesterday?
. . . .
XII
A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread—and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness–
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!

On This Date: Julia Alvarez Was Born

March 27, 2017

julia-alvarezf5022dc2e282f581e74322c18c01e83e

A Ten-year Old Learns the Simplicity of the Nuclear Age: Julia Alvarez’s “Snow”

Julia Alvarez, author of How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents (1991), In the Time of the Butterflies (1994), and National Medal of the Arts honoree for 2014, was born in New York City, but spent much of her childhood in the Dominican Republic.

Her essay, “Snow” looks back at the time when she returned with her family to New York in 1960. Alvarez wrote the essay at the request of an editor of the Northwest Review for a special issue on The Nuclear Age.

How does one write a personal essay on a looming potential nuclear holocaust? What personal experience is there to call upon? Instead of writing an essay full of dire warnings and helpless end-of-the-world despair, Alvarez looks over her assigned topic through the eyes of a child.

Snow

By Julia Alvarez

In the summer of 1960 my family emigrated to the United States, fleeing the tyrant Trujillo. In New York we found a small apartment with a Catholic school nearby, taught by the Sisters of Charity, hefty women in long black gowns and bonnets that made them look like peculiar dolls in mourning. I liked them a lot, especially my grandmotherly fifth grade teacher, Sister Zoe.

As the only immigrant in my class, I was put in a special seat in the first row by the window, apart from the other children, so that Sister Zoe could tutor me without disturbing them. Slowly she enunciated the new words I was to repeat: laundromat, corn flakes, subway, snow.

Soon I picked up enough English to understand holocaust was in the air. Sister Zoe explained to a wide-eyed classroom what was happening in Cuba. Russian missiles were being assembled, trained supposedly on New York City. Kennedy, looking worried too, was on the television at home, explaining we might have to co to war.

At school, we had air raid drills. An ominous bell would go off and we’d file into the hall, fall to the floor, cover our heads with our coats, and imagine our hair falling out, the bones in our arms going soft. At home, Mother and I said a rosary every night for world peace. I heard new vocabulary: nuclear bomb, radioactive, Third World War. Sister Zoe explained how it would happen. She drew a picture of a mushroom on the blackboard and dotted a flurry of chalk marks for the dusty fallout that would kill us all.

The months grew cold, November, December. It was dark when I got up in the morning, frosty when I stepped outside. One morning as I sat daydreaming out the window I saw dots in the air like the ones Sister Zoe had drawn—random at first, and then lots and lots. I shrieked, “The bomb, the bomb!”

Sister Zoe jerked around, her full black skirt ballooning as she hurried to my side. A few girls began to cry.

But suddenly, Sister’s shocked look faded. “Why, dear child, that’s snow!”

“Snow,” I repeated. I looked out the window warily. All my life I had heard about the white crystals that fell out of American skies in the winter. From my desk I watched the fine powder dust the sidewalk and parked cars below. Each flake was different, Sister Zoe had said, like a person, irreplaceable and beautiful. Northwest Review, 22. 1,2 (1984).

snow-sceneimg_3164

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On This Date: Friedrich von Schlegel Was Born

March 10, 2017

carl-wilhelm-friedrich-von-schlegel

On this date in 1772 Friedrich von Schlegel was born in Hanover. He died in 1829. Here are a few notes I made in writing my Historical Dictionary of Romanticism in Literature.

Friedrich von Schlegel, the younger brother of August Wilhelm von Schlegel, and one of the early Jena Romantics, was a leading German Romantic theorist whose ideas were popularized by his brother. He published frequently in the Athenaeum Magazine. His writings on Greek, Indic, and modern literature established a mode of thinking for his contemporaries and successors. Schlegel was notable for his studies of the history of literature, particularly Lectures on the History of Literature, Ancient and Modern, published in 1818. His method was to contrast classical and romantic literature and expound his theory of what he termed “romantic irony,” or the consciousness on the part of the artist of the unbridgeable gap between the ideal artistic goal and the limited possibilities of achievement.

Paul Varner

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On this Day in History: Farquhar’s The Beaux’ Stratagem First Performed

beaux-stratagem-1

Christopher Innvar, Ian Bedford, and Veanne Cox in the 2006 production of The Beaux’ Stratagem at The Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C. (© Carol Rosegg)

On this day in history, March 8, 1707, British playwright George Farquhar’s The Beaux’ Stratagem made its debut in London at the Theatre Royal in the Haymarket. This theatre is usually simply called The Haymarket.

George Farquhar (1678-1707) began his career in the theatre as an actor until he accidentally wounded a fellow actor. Abandoning acting, he set out to write for the London stage. His wife tricked him into marriage by pretending to be an heiress. Farquhar forgave her and the marriage was evidently happy. His two plays were The Recruiting Officer (1706) and our play today. Both plays were successful, yet Farquhar nevertheless died at age 30 in poverty as The Beaux’s Stratagem made its initial run.

If you haven’t read or seen performed this classic play in awhile, here is a simple summary of its complex plot by Martin S. Day: “Aimwell and Archer are the beaux, and their stratagem is to recoup their lost fortunes by marrying rich country girls near Litchfield by means of a complicated imposture. Archer weds Dorinda, daughter of Lady Bountiful. Aimwell almost seduces Mrs. Sullen, but she is saved because a gang of thieves breaks into the house. The heroes subdue the ransackers, and Mrs. Sullen and her churlish husband agree to divorce. Aimwell is to be her next husband.”

Here a few notes I once published in an essay for Salem Press years ago: Unlike most Restoration comedies of manners, The Beaux’ Stratagem is set in the country instead of London. As a result of the country setting emphasis is placed on low characters—innkeepers, servants, and highwaymen—instead of fashionable society. Archer and Aimwell, however, are newly arrived from the city and much of the play’s force derives from the contrast of country life versus city life. The two settings of the play, the inn and Lady Bountiful’s house reflect this conflict.

An inn in Litchfield is a way station for travelers coming and going from London to the country. As such it is utterly corrupt. At the inn a dishonest highwaymen plot to commit crimes with the complicity of a crooked innkeeper who even tries to corrupt his daughter for money. At the inn beaux from London plot stratagems. It is the forces from the inn that invade Lady Bountiful’s house in an attempt to destroy it.

In contrast to the world of the inn, Lady Bountiful’s house represents the simple virtues and charity of the best of the country. At Lady Bountiful’s house benevolence and concern for others dominate. Here the sick are healed and the corrupt are converted to virtue. This world is invaded by forces from the corrupt town by means of the highwaymen from the inn and by means of the beaux from the city. The robbers attempt to steal material goods while the beaux attempt to steal female virtue as well as money in Dorinda’s fortune. These corrupt forces eventually are defeated or neutralized while the country values of Lady Bountiful dominate at last.

Paul Varner

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On this Date: Premier of The Way of the World

March 4, 2017

The Premier of The Way of the World

 the-way-of-the-world-by-william-congreve-mr-baddeley-in-the-character-g37p4y

The premier of what many consider the greatest comedy of manners in English theatre history occurred sometime in March of 1700 when William Congreve’s (1670-1729) The Way of the World first took the stage at Lincoln’s Inn Fields in London. It was to be the last of Congreve’s plays. After the poor initial reception Congreve abandoned theatre for more profitable ventures.

If you don’t remember the details of the plot, nobody can blame you. It’s complicated even by Restoration comedy standards. Here’s a short synopsis from Martin S. Day:

Lady Wishfort, in addition to her own estates, controls the property of Mrs. Fainall, her daughter, and Millamant, her niece. Mrs. Fainall’s former lover, Mirabell, is now interested in Millamant. Mirabell disguises his servant Waitwell (already married) as a nobleman, hoping for his marriage to Lady Wishfort. Then, on the threat of telling the world how he was duped, Mirabell can blackmail Lady Wishfort into giving him Millamant and her property.

Learning of his wife’s former relations with Mirabell, Fainall threatens full revelation unless all property is signed over to him. The sweethearts, Millamant and Mirabell, come to an agreement, but it appears that their fortunes are ruined. Mirabell, however, produces a deed from Mrs. Fainall before her marriage that conveys all her property to Mirabell. Triumphant in law and in the ways of the world, Mirabell is united to Millamant.

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Maggie Smith with Jerermy Brett, “The Way of The World”, Stratford, Ontario, 1976.

Here is a short piece I wrote for Salem Press years ago about the physical world of The Way of the World:

William Congreve’s The Way of the World is the quintessential English comedy of manners. As such, the world of this play revolves around the values of fashionable seventeenth-century London.

London, England. The world of the play is a world of coffee-houses and periwigs and elaborately formal dress. It is an upper-class world of gallants, fine ladies, and would-be gallants and attractive ladies. The world of trade and agriculture surrounds this world but is not a part of it except by way of contrast.

A Chocolate-house. Act One takes place at a chocolate house. Such houses as Will’s near Covent Garden and White’s near St. James Park were fashionable meeting places of young gallants and wits. Often gaming was associated with them.

St. James Park. Act Two occurs out of doors in the fashionable Mall area of St. James Park. The Mall was a long tract in St. James that was formerly used for playing paille-maille, or pall-mall. By the time of this play it was known as a fashionable park used for walking, for meeting lovers, and for displaying one’s fashion. It is often confused with Pall Mall, another park close by to the north.

The Country. Although no scene in the play occurs in the country, the country always is in the background. Sir Wilful Witwoud is a country booby who serves as a butt of ridicule for all. His half brother, Witwoud, has done all he can to eradicate traces of the country from his manners, dress, and speech, but without success. No character in the play is associated in a positive way with the country. Millamant, perhaps the most normative character of the play loathes the country, saying, “I loathe the country and everything that relates to it.”

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