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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VIII. The Age of Dryden.

V. The Restoration Drama

§ 19. Etherege and his Place in the History of Restoration Drama

But it was well that, before these general French influences had made themselves felt, a new dramatist, also schooled in France, began in his productions to give expression to the contemporary ideal of polite society and to adapt to the changed conditions of the moment the most persistent form of drama, the comedy of manners. Of the earlier life of Sir George Etherege, we know next to nothing. It has been inferred from an allusion by Dryden, that Etherege was born in 1634 and, by means of other inferences, that he came of an old Oxfordshire family. It seems unlikely that Etherege was ever a student at either university; but his easy conversancy with French and the ways of the French capital point to a long sojourn in Paris. The first work of Etherege was The Comical Revenge, or Love in a Tub. It was published in 1664 and may have been produced for the first time late in the previous year. This comedy was an immediate success and Etherege found himself, in a night, famous. Thus introduced to the wits and the fops of the town, Etherege took his place in the select and dissolute circle of Rochester, Dorset and Sedley. On one occasion, at Epsom, after tossing in a blanket certain fiddlers who refused to play, Rochester, Etherege and other boon companions so “skirmished the watch” that they left one of their number thrust through with a pike and were fain to abscond. Etherege married a fortune, it is not certain when, and, apparently for no better reason, was knighted. On the death of Rochester, he was, for some time, the “protector” of the beautiful and talented actress, Mrs. Barry. Ever indolent and procrastinating, Etherege allowed four years to elapse before his next venture into comedy. She Would if She Could, 1668, is a better play than The Comical Revenge, and such was the popular expectation of it, when produced, that, as Pepys tells us, though he and his wife were “there by two o’clock, there were one thousand people put back that could not have room in the pit.” Unhappily, success was partially defeated, because, adds Pepys, “the actors … were out of humour and had not their parts perfect.” Etherege now doubled his former period of indolence and silence, and, eight years later, in 1676, doubtless stung by a deserved rebuke in Rochester’s Session of the Poets, produced his last and best comedy, The Man of Mode, or Sir Fopling Flutter. Of the later years of Etherege, we know much, owing to the existence of one of his Letterbooks, kept by his secretary at Ratisbon, where he was English resident from 1685 to a time early in 1689. From certain allusions, Etherege has been supposed to have held similar posts elsewhere, in Sweden and, possibly, in Turkey. But, of this, there is no proof. The particulars of his life in an uncongenial diplomatic exile need not concern us. His correspondence, which included letters to and from Dryden, is full of life and gossip about the wits of his time, all of it expressed with the gaiety, candour and foppish wit of which Etherege, in his plays, is the acknowledged master. Etherege is supposed to have died, about 1690, at Paris. Handsome, witty, brave, profligate though he was, and, perhaps, as has been charitably suggested, having but a weak head for wine, the story that “Sir George Etheredge died by falling down stairs in a drunken fit,” rests solely “on the authority of a friend of the family,” repeated by Oldys.

Different opinions have been broached as to the place of Etherege in the history of restoration drama, although no two much at variance can be held by those familiar with the spirit, gaiety and brilliancy of the prose dialogue of his comedies. The discovery of more than one copy of an edition of The Comical Revenge, dating 1664, has brought Etherege’s claim to the introduction of rimed couplets as a regular dramatic metre on the restoration stage into direct competition with that of Orrery. Although Etherege abandoned this innovation in his other two comedies, wisely writing them in prose, in which he is at his best, this fashion of distinguishing more serious and elevated scenes and passages of a comedy by couching them in heroic couplets was continued by certain of his fellows. But the authority of the writer, who has urged the above-mentioned claim on behalf of Etherege, further invites us to assume that he “loitered long enough in Paris” after the first rush of the royalists homewards “for Molière to be revealed to him,” and that, with a new idea thus formed “of what comedy ought to be,” he returned to England and “founded English comedy as it was successively understood by Congreve, Goldsmith and Sheridan.” Now, indubitably, Etherege had none of his happy, conscienceless art from Jonson. With the making up of his personages out of changes on a single humour, strained and contorted, Etherege discarded any pretensions to the knitting together of a plot. He also discarded literary as well as dramatic constructiveness, and it is not impossible that Molière pointed him the way to a freedom from rule which Etherege pressed to licence. But the merit of Etherege seems to lie less in his eschewing the moribund fashion of Jonson’s humours, than in a certain natural genius whereby he was able to put upon the stage a picture, very little heightened, of the roistering, reckless idleness and licentiousness that actually characterised the brilliant, graceless fops whose society he frequented. “The man of quality, who can fight at need with spirit and verve, but whose customary occupation is the pursuit of pleasure without dignity and without reflection”—this is Etherege’s theme; it is his very self, recurring in Sir Frederick Frollicke, in Courtall and Freedom, “two honest gentlemen of the town,” in She Would if She Could and in the masterly circle of fops—Dorimant, Medley, Bellair and Sir Fopling Flutter—each one of them equally “the man of mode.” “Nature, you know,” says Etherege of himself, “intended me for an idle fellow, and gave me passion and qualities fit for that blessed calling; but fortune has made a changeling of me and necessity forces me to set up for a fop of business.” As to the women of Etherege, they are fashionable, extravagant, witty as the men and as bold in their intrigues and amours; there is no maiden’s blush among them. They are such, in a word, as the restoration rakes and roués knew them.

Attention has been called to Etherege’s graphic touches of scene, costume and place in the gay little west-end that knew him. He is at home in Mulberry garden, a place of public resort and entertainment, with bordered alleys and adjacent arbours in which to eat syllabub and to carry on “hazardous flirtations” like those of Mistress Ariana and Mistress Gatty, two naughty runaways from chaperonage; or, again, in the shop of Mrs. Trinket in the New Exchange, a species of Arcade, whither ladies go a-shopping for “a few fashionable toys to keep ’em in countenance at a play or in the Park,” and where gallants “scent their eyebrows and periwigs with a little essence of oranges or jessamine,” as did Courtall while waiting for lady Cockwood. But the superlative quality of Etherege as a writer of comedy is the ease and naturalness of his prose dialogue, which, almost uniformly witty and, at times, really brilliant, is seldom overdone and unsuited to his personages, as is not infrequently the case with Congreve. The very frivolity of Etherege disarms criticism. Who would break a butterfly on the wheel? For the time, English men and women in good society had lapsed into an excess of gallantry, enjoying their orgy with incorrigible frankness and abandon, and avowing their enjoyment with incorrigible flippancy and shamelessness. In Etherege, comedy, for the moment, touched nature once more, for such was nature in the society of the restoration. Congreve is remote and studied in comparison, for he wrote of these things when in actual life they had come to be mitigated by a measurable return of public manners to healthier conditions; while, as to Sheridan, equally a disciple of Etherege, his comedies in fact only perpetuated a picture of life that had long since ceased to be much more than a brilliant tradition of the stage.