Home  »  Volume VIII: English THE AGE OF DRYDEN  »  § 21. Love and a Bottle; The Constant Couple; The Recruiting Officer; the Beaux’ Stratagem

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

VI. The Restoration Drama

§ 21. Love and a Bottle; The Constant Couple; The Recruiting Officer; the Beaux’ Stratagem

If you would understand his plays, you must perforce know something of his life. Born at Londonderry in 1677, he went, in 1694, to Trinity college, Dublin, composed a Pindaric ode at fourteen, and, though intended for the church, found his way easily to the stage. To be an actor was his earliest ambition, and he appeared at the Smock Alley Theatre in the part of Othello. The discomfiture caused him by stage-fright was greatly enhanced by an accidental wound which he inflicted on a fellow-player, and he gladly took the advice of Robert Wilks, who remained his lifelong friend, and who played the chief part in all his plays save one, to write a comedy. So it was that, in 1698, he came to London with Love and a Bottle in his pocket, and made an instant conquest of the theatre. The comedy, which has little to commend it save a vivid sense of life and movement, is, doubtless, autobiographical. Farquhar himself must have sat for Roebuck, the young Irishman freshly arrived in town, and it is easy to believe that the artifice wherewith Lyrick, the dishevelled poet, escaped his creditors, was part of Farquhar’s own experience. The dramatist, in brief, whose youth would excuse grosser absurdities than are here exhibited, displays more energy than skill. His comedy is crude and filled with crudities, but a bluff sincerity shines through it all, and it is not surprising that an audience, accustomed to disguises as the traditional trappings of the stage, should have received it with favour.

A year later followed The Constant Couple, or a Trip to the Jubilee, which owed something of its plot to an imitation of Scarron’s City Romance, entitled The Adventures of Covent Garden, justly ascribed to Farquhar, as has been said, by Leigh Hunt. This comedy, a clear advance in workmanship, was hailed as a masterpiece with acclamation. Though it is not free from artifice, it is far better constructed than Love and a Bottle, and its hero, Sir Harry Wildair, appeared a beau of a new breed to a generation sated with Foppingtons. He has honour and courage, he has lived abroad, and he does not bound his horizon, like Sir Novelty Fashion, with the creations of his tailor. And Clincher, the false beau, the discreet Colonel Standard, and lady Lurewell herself, though not quite unknown to comedy, have something in them of the blood and bone of human kind. In 1701, Sir Harry Wildair appeared in another play, of which he is the eponymous hero, and renewed his career of wit and cynicism. Truly “the gentleman from France,” as Farquhar called his Wildair, enjoyed the freedom of the British stage, and brought fame if not wealth to the author of his being.

Thereafter came two failures, and then, in 1705, a piece of good fortune sent Farquhar on military duty to Shrewsbury. His recruits, as he tells us, were reviewed by his general and his colonel, and could not fail to pass muster. More than that, he brought back with him a comedy, The Recruiting Officer, which he dedicated “to all friends round the Wrekin,” and which, for him, was the beginning of a new drama. Henceforth he has done with the town and its gallants for ever. The example of Congreve and Vanbrugh compels him no more. He takes for his material the episodes of a broader life, and helps to bridge the chasm which lies between the comedy of manners and the English novel, upon whose beginnings he had a profound influence. He has done what he could to make an end of disguise, though Silvia must perforce put on the breeches. The most of his characters are natural men and women, not above nor below the stature of mankind. His soldiers, as has been pointed out, are no longer milites gloriosi, pale reflections of Bobadill, but such as himself, whom he paints as Captain Plume, and his comrades. Costar Pearmain and Thomas Appletree are true men of the soil. Even Silvia is far remote from the fine ladies who for twenty years had railed and bantered on the stage. “The common jealousy of her sex,” as Plume says, “which is nothing but their avarice of pleasure, she despises.” In brief, Farquhar had at last found his way. He had put a new set of characters in a new scene. He had added something fresh to the material of comedy.

A year later was played The Beaux’ Stratagem, in construction as character the masterpiece of its author. Full of the gaiety and bustle of the road, it depicts the life of taverns and the highway. Here are travellers burdened with trunks and bandboxes. There is Boniface to fleece them, with his gag and his cunning, and Gibbet to take what Boniface has left. The whole comedy moves in an atmosphere of boisterous merriment. Aimwell and Archer are beaux drawn from the life, not taken from a comedy, generous, gallant, and light-hearted. And Cherry and her catechism; is there not humour there? Throughout the play, Farquhar criticises life in a humaner fashion than any dramatist since the author of The English Traveller. He does not possess the artistry of Congreve; he was, perhaps, a beginning of the sentimental comedy, of that passion to be both merry and wise which has been the ruin of our stage; but he looked upon life with the eye not of Will’s coffee-house but of a man, and the result is that The Beaux’ Stratagem is not indelibly marked with the date of its birth.

His muse was happier than his life. An ill-provided pocket could not keep pace with the joyousness of his heart. A lack of pence interrupted the course of his harmless pleasures. He took delight always in fresh scenes and quick impressions; the pictures of Holland, which he drew in his letters, prove how well he understood the art of travelling; and, held fast in the bonds of penury, he was seldom able to escape from Covent Garden. If misfortune was abroad, it was certain to fall on him. A noble patron persuaded him to pay his debts by the sale of his commission, promising him another: that other never came. In 1703 he married a lady who pretended to be a fortune, and who, for love of Farquhar, had concealed her poverty. Here was a plot which might have served him for a comedy, and which, with him cast for the chief rôle, could have had only a tragic ending. Being Farquhar, he harboured no resentment for the trick that had been put upon him, but “behaved to her with all the delicacy and tenderness of an indulgent husband.” Nothing could daunt the brave serenity of his spirit. If he clung to the gaiety of the beau, he never knew the beau’s cynicism. He has sketched himself in a page which you may well believe is without flattery, and he confesses himself so great an epicure that he “hates all pleasure that’s purchas’d by excess of pain.” He, at any rate, did not accept Sir Harry Wildair’s theory of life.

  • “I would have my passion,” he writes in a passage of evident sincerity, “if not led, at least waited on by my reason; and the greatest proof of my affection that a lady must expect is this: I would run any hazard to make us both happy, but would not for any transitory pleasure make either of us miserable.”
  • It was not within his compass to make them both happy. His friend Wilks, missing him at the theatre, discovered him lodged in a back garret in St. Martin’s Lane. He advised him to write a play which should be instantly put upon the stage. “Write!” says Farquhar, “it is impossible that a man can write common sense who is heartless, and has not a shilling in his pocket.” Wilks gave him twenty guineas, and, in six weeks, The Beaux’ Stratagem, that marvel of merriment and good-humour, was finished. It hints by no sign that the author wrote it with “a settled sickness upon him,” nor “that before he finished the second act he perceived the approaches of death.” It was produced on 8 March, 1707, and Farquhar lived just long enough to hear of its triumphant success. A last note to the friend of his brief life, Wilks, was found among his papers:

  • Dear Bob, I have not anything to leave thee to perpetuate my memory, but two helpless girls; look upon them sometimes, and think on him who was to the last moment of his life thine, G. Farquhar.
  • An epilogue fittingly spoken by a gallant man whose life was in dire conflict with his theory of living, and whose courage, in suffering, sustained him to the end.