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

VI. The Restoration Drama

§ 23. D’Urfey

Another camp-follower was Thomas D’Urfey, a French Huguenot by descent and a habitant of Grub Street by profession, who turned his hand to prose or verse, composed songs, elegies, and panegyrics, wrote tales, tragical and comical, contrived operas and pantomimes, satirised ministers, cultivated the friendship of kings, changed his politics as he changed his coat, and left behind him a vast number of boisterous farces and bombastic melodramas. A scurrilous fellow in his life and speech, he was the familiar friend of all, was called “Tom” by high and low, and for nearly half a century played a part in the life of his time. Addison remembered “King Charles the Second leaning on his shoulder more than once, and humming over a song with him.” He was important enough to incur Buckingham’s disfavour, and lives undeservedly in the distich:

  • And sing-song D’Urfey, placed beneath abuses,
  • Lives by his impudence, and not the Muses.
  • His more serious plays, mere burlesques of tragedy, are in “Ercles’ vein.” The Siege of Memphis and The Famous History of the Rise and Fall of Massaniello may scarcely be matched, for sheer fustian, in English literature. Thus it is that Genovino, the Jesuit, apostrophises the friends of Massaniello:
  • Shout on, ye sons of clamour, louder still,
  • And fright the Grandees with obstreperous noise,
  • Whilst I secure in Darling Policies
  • Am pleased with the success of my Designs
  • Against this vile ungrateful City Naples.
  • For two parts, of five acts each, D’Urfey sustains his rant at this high level, interrupting it, characteristically, with songs. The fourth act opens with a fisherman’s rousing chorus, and the serious business of the fifth act is pleasantly beguiled by an encounter, in amœbean strains, between two fish-fags. Thus, the method and temperament of D’Urfey are sufficiently displayed, and a mere glance at Massaniello will explain why his friends vastly preferred his songs to his tragedies.

    The plays which he dignifies by the name of comedy are, one and all, the broadest of broad farces. There is no trick of the time which he does not employ. The thinnest disguises are sufficient to deceive his simple heroes. His country squires are guilty of wilder antics than any devised by Vanbrugh. As he borrowed from his contemporaries, so his poor treasury of wit was rifled by his successors. Madam Fickle, in the comedy of that name, gave Farquhar a hint for the lady Lurewell of The Constant Couple, and the well-deserved misfortunes of Beau Clincher and Old Smuggler owe something to the disaster which overtakes Beauford and Brainworm in The Virtuous Wife. Many years later, in 1709, D’Urfey astonished the town with a play of a wholly new pattern. It was called The Modern Prophets, and was described by Steele as “a most unanswerable satire against the late spirit of enthusiasm.” The writer

  • “had by long experience observed,” wrote The Tatler, “that, in company, very grave discourses had been followed by bawdry; and therefore has turned the humour that way with great success, and taken from his audience all manner of superstition, by the agitations of pretty Mrs. Bignell, whom he has with great subtlety, made a lay-sister, as well as a prophetess.”
  • Of the virtues which should grace a comic poet D’Urfey had none. He showed not even a passing interest in human character; he knew no other wit than horseplay. In brief, save in the writing of songs, he was a man of very slender talent, and it is a high tribute to his amiable qualities that his memory has been so long and so clearly preserved.