THE INIMITABLE AND UNCATEGORIZABLE BEAUX STRATAGEM
Crowned in 1625, Charles I was overthrown by Oliver Cromwell in 1642 and subsequently beheaded. Theatres were shut or burned down, well-known actors and playwrights fled, and a repressive Puritan regime squelched all forms of artistic expression. A military coup placed Charles II on the throne in 1660 and he ushered in an era of unprecedented hedonism, sexual freedom, and a celebration of all things theatrical. He licensed and sponsored two theatre companies, and playwrights – in reaction to the repressive Puritan regime – set about writing plays filled with seductions, adulterous liaisons, and all manner of licentiousness. The Puritans and a rising middle class audience responded with moral outrage eloquently addressed by Jeremy Collier in the now famous “A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage.” Collier’s essay decried the seductive nature of Restoration plays and the evil of spectatorship, declaring, “Concerns over profanity and blasphemy are nothing compared to the depravity that can result from watching actors represent Love Intrigues and all Manner of Lewdness.” He condemned playwrights who “make women speak smuttily” and turn “fiction into reality.” Thereafter, playwrights exercised greater restraint and crafted more humanistic stories with dimensional characters. Rather than cartoonish fops, prudes, and gossips – with names like Horner, Pinchwife and Tattle – Farquhar gives us the more redeeming Aimwell, Bountiful, and Dorinda.
How is it that Mr. George Farquhar came to write the most popular comedy of the Restoration era? Biographical information is scarce. He was born in Ireland in 1677. His father was a Protestant minister who, according to report, “was plundered of all his own and died penniless.” After graduating from Trinity College, Farquhar stayed in Dublin to pursue acting, but his career came to an abrupt end when he almost killed a fellow actor with his sword during a performance. This defining moment was the end of a budding acting career and the beginning of his life as a playwright. Though his first two plays were well-received, they were followed by a string of failures that left him penniless. He married a widow who, according to his biographer, “tricked him into matrimony by pretending to be an heiress.” After discovering the truth, he enlisted in the army in order to support his wife and two stepsons. Three years later, he fell gravely ill and, according to reports, penned The Beaux Stratagem from his death bed, weaving threads of his own life experience into the fabric of this masterwork.
Mr. Farquhar redefined what we think of as Restoration comedy, addressing issues that are au courant today. He’s given us a play of contradictions, within which we have:
•Two dashing rakes pretending to be something they’re not,
•A mother who heals and a son who can’t be healed,
•Characters who are prisoners to spouses, victims of birth order, and slaves to their families,
•A graphic depiction of alcoholism and domestic abuse; and
•The first serious discussion of divorce in any British play. (Divorce based on mutual consent did not become legal in Great Britain until 1971.)
All seriousness aside, The Beaux Stratagem remains one of the funniest, and most rollicking, engaging and popular plays of the era because – first and foremost – it’s a ripping good yarn chock full of comedic devices. Sewn into the plot, we have a bromance between two role-reversing gallants, a comic juxtaposition of country folk and city slickers, a flirtation between aristocrat and innkeeper’s daughter, a courtship between two lords and two ladies, a paragon of virtue and her dissolute son, and a comic sword fight that sets the stage for a celebratory denouement.
Rich Rand, Dramaturg