History of Western Theatre: 17th Century to Now/Early English 18th

Though weaker than the best of Restoration comedies, early 18th century British comedy features John Gay (1685-1732) with "The beggar's opera" (1728), the Irish-born George Farquhar (1677-1707) with "The beaux' stratagem" (1707), Susanna Centlivre (1670-1723) with "A bold stroke for a wife" (1718), and Richard Steele (1672-1729) with "The conscious lovers" (1722). Gay offers a rough satire of robbers and law agents secretly protecting and profiting by their robberies and Farquhar sparkling wit in a manner reminiscent of Etheredge. Steele's approach is softer and at times more sentimental, but with clever wit.

Tragedy is capably represented by Joseph Addison's (1672-1719) "Cato" (1713), based on the life of Cato the Younger, Stoic philosopher and political opponent of Julius Caesar.

John Gay wrote one of the most famous comedies of the late 18th century, "The beggar's opera". Portrait by an unknown artist

"The beggar's opera"Edit

"The beggar's opera". Time: 1720s. Place: London, England.

"The beggar's opera" text at http://www.bibliomania.com/0/6/2/1088/frameset.html

Polly and Lucy beg for Macheath's life. Painting by William Hogarth (1697-1764)

Peachum is at the same time head of organized crime and one who profits from bribes when criminals are caught. When Mrs Peachum informs him of a possible love-match between the leader of a band of robbers, Captain Macheath, and his daughter, Polly, he is alarmed: "Gamesters and highwaymen are generally very good to their whores, but they are very devils to their wives," he says. Polly tries to reassure him, but is interrupted by Mrs Peachum, who has discovered she is already married to Macheath: "Can you support the expense of a husband, hussy, in gaming, drinking, and whoring?" she asks. The parents decide to arrange for Macheath's capture and execution by the law, but Polly discovers the plan and warns Macheath Peachum is preparing evidence against him. To counter this, he proposes to his band of outlaws: "Make him believe I have quitted the gang, which I can never do but with life. At our private quarters I will continue to meet you. A week or so will probably reconcile us." However, one of his mistresses, Jenny Diver, jealous of Polly, helps Peachum capture him. "You must now, sir, take your leave of the ladies," Peachum says. "And, if they have a mind to make you a visit, they will be sure to find you at home." At Newgate prison, Lucy Lockit, daughter of the jailor and pregnant with Macheath's seed, rails on him: "How can you look me in the face after what hath passed between us? See here, perfidious wretch, how I am forced to bear about the load of infamy you have laid upon me! Oh, Macheath, thou hast robbed me of my quiet. To see thee tortured would give me pleasure." When he denies being married to Polly, she softens. Meanwhile, Lockit and Peachum agree to go halves in his execution. Lockit declares to his daughter: "Look ye, there is no saving him. So I think you must even do like other widows- buy yourself weeds and be cheerful." But Lucy will not, until interrupted by Polly's arrival, whose bad timing Macheath curses. Both women rage and complain: Polly: "Oh, how I am troubled!" Lucy: "Bamboozled and bit!" then turn against each other. Peachum takes his daughter away, while Lucy steals her father's keys, permitting Macheath to escape, which disappoints the father: "If you would not be looked upon as a fool, you should never do anything but upon the foot of interest. Those that act otherwise are their own bubbles," says he to her. "You shall fast and mortify yourself into reason, with now and then a little handsome discipline to bring you to your senses." Lucy intends to do more: poison Polly, but is unable to. Both women are sad to see Macheath recaptured. To console his daughter, Lockit says: "Macheath’s time is come, Lucy. We know our own affairs; therefore, let us have no more whimpering or whining," as does Peachum to his: "Set your heart at rest, Polly. Your husband is to die today." In the condemned hold, both women mourn for him, but are abashed on seeing four more women appear with babes in arms, all Macheath's, so that he now wishes to be executed to escape from them. However, because the day of execution falls on a holiday, he is reprieved and reunited with Polly.

George Farquhar described the plots of a master and his servant to obtain both wife and money. Portrait by an unknown artist

"The beaux' stratagem"Edit

"The beaux' stratagem". Time: 1700s. Place: Lichfield, England.

"The beaux' stratagem" text at http://www.bibliomania.com/0/6/87/1879/frameset.html

Aimwell's hand is held by the kindly Dorinda. Drawing of the 1736 edition of "The beaux' stratagem"

Alternating between master and servant from town to town, Aimwell and Archer, fortune-hunters, arrive in Lichfield. Mrs Sullen complains to her sister-in-law, Dorinda, of her husband's ill treatment, often arriving drunk at four in the morning and sullen all day. To Mrs Sullen: "there’s no form of prayer in the liturgy against bad husbands." Though her dowry brought him 10,000 pounds, her husband is "a sad brute". Perhaps she can make him jealous with Count Bellair. Gibbet, seemingly an officer-of-the-law but in reality a robber, speaks to the innkeeper, Boniface, who reveals that he may have detected criminals in the house. When asked how he could guess, Boniface answers: "Why, the one is gone to church," to which Gibbet retorts: "That’s suspicious, I must confess." Archer woos Boniface's daughter, Cherry, who opines that should they marry. She says she will bring him 2,000 pounds, actually 200 pounds entrusted to her by Gibbet. At church, on seing Dorinda, Aimwell "read her thousands in her looks, she looked like Ceres in her harvest-" Mrs Sullen and Dorinda approach Archer to learn more about Aimwell, then Mrs Sullen arranges to have her husband hear when Count Bellair decides to seduce her. To Count Bellair she is "a prisoner of war". As Bellair gets bolder, Squire Sullen advances with drawn sword while his wife draws a pistol, informing her husband that all this was done for the benefit of making him jealous. Meanwhile, Archer calls on Lady Bountiful, mother to Mrs Sullen, to help Aimwell, pretending to have been taken ill near the gate of her house. Aimwell is brought in, helped by Dorinda, whose hand is pressed hard, which Lady Bountiful ascribes to "the violence of his convulsion-" Aimwell courts Dorinda to the extent that she begins to daydream: "if I marry my Lord Aimwell, there will be title, place, and precedence, the park, the play, and the drawing-room, splendour, equipage, noise, and flambeaux.— Hey, my Lady Aimwell’s servants there!— Lights, lights to the stairs!— My Lady Aimwell’s coach put forward!— Stand by, make room for her ladyship!— Are not these things moving?" to which Mrs Sullen is moved to weep. That night, Archer comes out of her closet and takes her by the hand, but she is unable to fulfill his wishes, declaring: "I am a woman without my sex." Instead, she cries out. Scrub, her servant, comes in, shouting loudly that thieves have entered the house, whereby she now clings to Archer for protection. When Gibbet enters, he is taken prisoner by Archer, who with Aimwell rescues Lady Bountiful and Dorinda from Gibbet's henchmen. Archer presses Mrs Sullen for his reward but is interrupted by the arrival of Mrs Sullen's brother, Charles. Meanwhile, Aimwell is about to carry off Dorinda, but feels constrained by her goodness to admit he is "no lord, but a poor, needy man." Not so, for Charles brings word that Aimwell's brother is dead, and he the lord of a large estate. For his part, Archer gets half his wife's fortune and a letter from Cherry stating that her father, in league with the house-thieves, has escaped, but not before she secured his money and more. For his part, Charles proposes a divorce for his sister and husband, which they agree on, with Sullen losing her fortune at the hands of Archer, who delivers his stolen papers to Bellair.

Susanna Centlivre described the difficulties encountered by a man to satisfy four guardians of the woman he wants to marry. 18th century engraving from a print

"A bold stroke for a wife"Edit

"A bold stroke for a wife". Time: 1710s. Place: London, England.

"A bold stroke for a wife" text at


Fainwell must feign to be four different men to satisfy four guardians. Drawing by William Hogarth (1697-1764)
Richard Steele described the confusions arising from pre-arranged marriages. Portrait by Jonathan Richardson (1665-1745)

"The conscious lovers"Edit

"The conscious lovers". Time: 1720s. Place: London, England.

"The conscious lovers" text at http://www.archive.org/details/consciouslovers00steegoog

Sir John Bevil has arranged for this son to marry Lucinda, daughter of a wealthy merchant, Sealand, but neither party wish to marry the other. Bevil Junior loves another, Indiana, his father's ward, but has not yet revealed his love to her in deference to his father's wish, who saved this woman from the clutches of the brother of a pirate who had kidnapped her at sea. Lucinda is loved by Myrtle, who is gladdened by Bevil Junior's promise of helping him marry her. Bevil Junior suggests that Myrtle disguise himself as a lawyer to slow down or confound Sealand's design to marry his daughter, which he readily accepts. Though loving Bevil Junior, Indiana is wholly unable to find out whether he loves her. Meanwhile, Lucinda's mother has in mind another match for her, her wealthy cousin, Cimberton, which Lucinda abhors. To her disgust, he eyes her body with approval, lauding "the vermilion of her lips", "the pant of her bosom", "her forward chest", to which she exclaims: "The grave, easy impudence of him!" and "The familiar, learned, unseasonable puppy!" The disguised Myrtle is successful in impeding the progress of Mrs Sealand's unwelcome plan. But he is not happy on discovering that Bevil Junior has been corresponding with Lucinda, meant to secure their agreement in not marrying. Deeply suspicious, he challenges his friend to a duel until finding out the truth. Still worried, he dons a second disguise, as Cimberton's cousin, and is introduced as such to Mrs Sealand, though revealing his true self to Lucinda. Meanwhile, curious to meet Bevil Junior's charge, Sealand visits Indiana, who tells her story, in particular her frustrations in regard to her protector's ambivalence towards her: "What have I to do but sigh, and weep, to rave, run wild, a lunatic in chains, or, hid in darkness, mutter in distracted starts and broken accents my strange, strange story!" Sealand is stunned to discover that she is his daughter from a previous marriage, captured along with his wife by a pirate at sea. As a result, he asks his sister to run at once to young Bevil: "Tell him I have now a daughter to bestow which he no longer will decline, that this day he still shall be a bridegroom, nor shall a fortune, the merit which his father seeks, be wanting." When Cimberton discovers that only half of Sealand's dowry is available, he rejects Lucinda, now free to marry Myrtle.

Like Shakespeare, Joseph Addison delved into ancient Roman history to write one of the best tragedies of the 18th century. Portrait by Godfrey Kneller (1646-1723)


"Cato". Time: 1st century BC. Place: Rome, Italy.

"Cato" text at http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Cato,_a_Tragedy



Cato's suicide depicted by Charles Le Brun (1619-1690), 1646

After defeating Pompey's army at Pharsalia, Julius Caesar arrives in Rome as a conqueror. He finds resistance in Cato the Younger, who recommends to Caesar's messenger: "Bid him disband his legions,/Restore the commonwealth to liberty,/Submit his actions to the public censure,/And stand the judgment of a Roman senate." The Numidian prince, Juba, once conquered by Caesar, proposes to Cato to arm Numidia in defense of the Roman senate, to which he responds: "And canst thou think/Cato will fly before the sword of Caesar?" Hoping to obtain from Caesar the hand of Cato's daughter, Marcia, in marriage, Sempronius encourages his troops to rebel against Cato, fortified by Syphax' Numidian troops. Meanwhile, Cato's sons, Marcus and Portius, are rivals for the same woman, Lucia. Unconscious of his brother's feelings, Marcus asks him to speak to her on his behalf, but Lucia's choice is Portius, though she proposes to postpone progress of their relation while "a cloud of mischief" hangs over them all, to which Portius grievingly submits. Sempronius' rebellion is turned away by the mere presence of Cato confronting the rebels. Disguised in Juba's dress, the angry Sempronius gains access to Marcia's chambers in the hope of carrying her away, but is surprised and killed by Juba. Marcia enters grieving for what she thinks is the fallen Juba, overheard by him, thinking first she is speaking of Sempronius, until he hears her say to his joy: "Marcia's whole soul was full of love and Juba." In defense of Rome against Numidian troops, Marcus blocks Syphax' path, but both are killed in battle. Cato admires his son's death: "Welcome, my son! Here lay him down, my friends,/Full in my sight, that I may view at leisure/The bloody corpse, and count those glorious wounds." Yet Caesar's march is inexorable. In despair, Cato falls on his sword after recommending Juba to Marcia, Portius to Lucia. In grief over the loss of his father and his country's woes, Portius concludes thus: "From hence, let fierce contending nations know/What dire effects from civil discord flow:/'Tis this that shakes our country with alarms;/And gives up Rome a prey to Roman arms;/Produces fraud, and cruelty, and strife,/And robs the guilty world of Cato's life."

Last modified on 25 February 2014, at 17:29