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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VI. The Drama to 1642, Part Two.

IX. Lesser Jacobean and Caroline Dramatists

§ 11. The City Witt; its briskness and humour

The brightest and pleasantest of Brome’s comedies of manners is The City Witt, or The Woman wears the Breeches. It is the best, just because it most successfully keeps in one key. Fleay contends that it is the earliest of the extant dramas, and says: “Dekker’s influence is more clearly visible in it than in the other plays.” He means that the gaiety and lightness of touch which we have noted as Dekker’s rather than Jonson’s are very noticeable in the play. But the prologue, composed by Brome for a revival of the play, states that it “past with good applause in former times”; adding that

  • It was written when
  • It bore just judgment and the seal of Ben.
  • We must suppose, therefore, that Dekker’s influence was subordinate to Jonson’s, and that Brome himself was unconscious of the force of the former. Its strength was due to its suitability to Brome’s temperament. The lines prefixed to The Northern Lasse were the last we have from Dekker’s pen; he probably, died before the end of 1632.

    In his plots, Brome is apt to be over-ingenious, so that the action of his plays is either obscure or too episodical. It is the merit of The City Witt that its episodes are all held together by one central idea which is clear and simple, so that the play is wellknit and easily keeps the attention of the spectator to the end. A young citizen, Mr. Crasy, by his kindness and easy-going disposition, has involved himself in many difficulties, and discovers that his fair-weather friends all fall away when he asks for their help. He disappears, therefore, and returns disguised, with the object of bringing his false friends to book for their meanness. The play is a lively and laughable protest against worship of rank and money, and has in it a true breath of that unworldly spirit which is conspicuous in Dekker’s best plays. The protest is all the more effective as coming from the tradesman’s level. In that age, the development of trade brought with it new temptations. Dishonest speculation and the making of fortunes by all sorts of trickery were becoming common. At the same time, the new devices by which bankruptcy was made profitable were scorned by old-fashioned tradesmen. Crasy declares

  • I must take nimble hold upon occasion
  • Or lie for ever in the bankrupt ditch
  • Where no man lends a hand to draw one out.
  • I will leap over it or fall bravely in ’t,
  • Scorning the bridge of baseness, composition,
  • Which doth infect a city like the plague,
  • And teach men knavery that were never born to ’t.
  • His troubles are largely due to the odious malice of his mother-in-law, Mistress Pyannet Sneakup, who illustrates the evil effect upon tradesmen’s wives of the degenerate times. Her son-in-law asks gently, “May not an honest man—,” when he is taken up by the irate lady—
  • Honest man! Who the devil wished thee to be an honest man? Here ’s my worshipful husband, Mr. Sneakup, that from a grasier is come to be a Justice of Peace: and, what, as an honest man? He grew to be able to give nine hundred pound with my daughter; and what, by honesty? Mr. Sneakup and I are come up to live i’ th City, and here we have lyen these three years; and, what? for honesty? Honesty! What should the City do with honesty, when ’t is enough to undoe a whole Corporation? Why are your wares gumm’d; your shops dark; your prices writ in strange characters? what, for honesty?
  • This “woman of an eternal tongue, this creature of an everlasting noise” is the most considerable character in the piece; but Sarpego is equally good in another direction. We have already touched upon him. His sudden scraps of Latin are very comical—“O Dii! Quem video? Nonne Mr. Sneakup?”— any one wonders how far they were followed by the audience. Some of his paraphrases are very happy—“Tempora mutantur; the town ’s ours again”; “Lupus in fabula; the devil ’s in the woman’s tongue”; “Sic transit gloria mundi; the learned is coney-caught.” The briskness and bustle of the play are maintained to the end, and, if it were not for the absence of Mrs. Tryman from the list of dramatis personae, the dénouement would be a complete surprise. Crasy’s honesty, his “unsuspicious freeness” and “most easy goodness” flavour the play and convince us that Brome, with all his grossness, was unsophisticated.