Appearance and Staging of The Relapse; or Virtue in Danger

In John Vanbrugh’s The Relapse; or Virtue in Danger, Act I, scene i. plays a crucial role in establishing the theme of appearance versus reality. Because this play is a continuation of Colley Cibber’s Love’s Last Shift, it is imperative that the first scene of the opening act has the ability to stand on its own. Therefore, in order to exude the themes of duplicity and manipulation, deceit and denial, it is essential that the casted actor and actress know not only how to act, but how to act within an act. In addition, by focusing specifically on the tone and the word choices Vanbrugh utilizes for the dialogue between Loveless and Amanda in the opening scene, the audience can readily detect the ultimate fate of the couple’s marriage. Lastly, by choosing the perfect setting for which the opening scene occurs and by directing the physical movements and facial expressions desired from the actors, the new rendition of Vanbrugh’s The Relapse will not only be a success, but will enable the audience to develop a deeper understanding of the characters and the motivations behind their actions in less than 150 lines. As the curtains open, the lights should be affixed upon a handsome looking man in his late twenties. Wearing clothing not as royal as the king or as disheveled as a beggar, this man must have an uncomfortable look in his appearance, not fitting in the role he is playing. Similarly, surrounded by shelves and shelves of thickly bound novels, the man should be sitting in an armchair with a novel in his hand, but his eyes shifting from one object to the other. Immediately, the appearance and the setting of the opening scene should radiate a sense of discomfort and unsuitableness. Assuming that a majority of the audience has not seen Cibber’s Love’s Last Shift, Loveless, husband to Amanda, must not appear to be the fully unkempt rake from the inception or the fully refined and reformed gentleman at the end. By allowing the setting and the initial perception of the actor to become the foundation of The Relapse, there is room for growing validity in the actors’ verbal exchanges. As Loveless opens with a soliloquy, he declares, “How true is that philosophy which says / Our heaven is seated in our minds” (I. i. 1-2)! With the help of the uncomfortable manifestation in which Loveless displays through his actions and speech, the audience can infer that Loveless is not only sitting in a room he is not fully accustomed to, but he is also partaking in something he has rarely done before, reading. Furthermore, Loveless betrays him desires to the audience by revealing to the audience of “all the roving pleasures of [his] youth/ (Where nights and days seemed all consumed in joy,/ Where the false face of luxury / Displayed such charms” (I. i. 3-6). Unconscious of his vulnerability to the audience, Loveless is mentally and emotionally reflecting on “the raging flame of wild destructive lust” while verbally seeking innocence by deeming his thoughts as “a warm pleasing fire of lawful love” (I. i. 15-16). By showing the contradictions between what he says and how he feels as well as emphasizing the inability to blend with his surroundings, the audience can see that Loveless is trying to talk himself out of what he loves. As the title of the play will suggest, Loveless has already relapsed in his mind and his heart. In fact, the reality is that Loveless does not find the life of “moment’s peace” to be exhilarating and prefers to engage his mind “musing on [his] happy state / and full of grateful thoughts” (I. i. 9, 20-21). The language of the opening scene is vital because it reveals both Loveless’s actions and his habitual nature. In addition, by manipulating the setting and the dress of the actor with the character’s dialogue, the scene takes full advantage of the character’s natural role as a rake. When Amanda walks on stage, she should bring no surprises or excitement. Although the actress playing Amanda should be young, in her early twenties, and attractive, she cannot be exceedingly beautiful. In addition, the actress playing Amanda should have a calm gait and plain, simple attire. By doing so, no new feelings are incited for Loveless, allowing their marriage to appear monotonous and habitual. In the exchange between the married couple, the word “heaven” is repeated over five times, disclosing to the audience that their love may extend beyond reality. There is a play on appearance versus reality in this exchange; although the perfect and divine nature of heaven is used to delineate the relationship between Loveless and Amanda (appearance), religion itself is detached from their relationship (reality). In addition, when Amanda enters the stage to meet Loveless, there should not be an interruption to Loveless’s thoughts. He verbally tells Amanda “You find me musing on [his] happy state / And full of grateful thoughts to Heaven and you” but his thoughts have not departed from “roving pleasures” (I. i. 20-21, 2). Similarly, when Loveless woos Amanda by saying “The largest boons that Heaven thinks fit to grant / To things it has decreed shall crawl on earth / Are in the gift of women formed like you,” the actor must act with deceit, almost imagining that the person he is wooing is not Amanda, but one of the “wild destructive lust” (I. i. 28-30). In order for the relationship to appear duplicitous and manipulative, both the actor and the actress must exaggerate their movements and speech. Every time the word heaven is used, the actors should be exaggerating their physical interactions with each other by drawing themselves closer to each other, climaxing when Amanda says, “There let [their love] grow forever” (I. i. 39). Unfortunately, the downhill deterioration of Amanda and Loveless’s marriage begins all too soon after the farfetched exchanges of Heaven granting them forever growing love. Amanda should be slowly pulling away from Loveless’s caress as she comments, “’Twere all the heaven I’d ask. / But we are clad in black mortality, / And the dark curtain of eternal night / At last must drop between us” (I. i. 42-45). Amanda seems to acknowledge in the futility of their relationship by disclosing the inevitability of “that mournful separation” (I. i. 47). Because Loveless is the deceiver, the actor who plays his role must be able to be simultaneously sarcastic, yet charming. Amanda, on the other hand, is intelligent yet insecure. Therefore, the actress playing her role must not be domineering and self-righteous, but must possess both intelligence and a sense of fear and self-denial when questioning her husband’s faithfulness. From the once seemingly affectionate and loving exchange between a husband and a wife now surfaces the harsh reality of a relationship built upon “rocks of reason” (I. i. 55). Also, within this conversation, there needs to be focus on Amanda’s ability to manipulate as well, though her manipulation result in sorrow and grief. Amanda’s utilization of guilt is a weapon of her manipulation. After claiming the certainty of a division between them, Amanda must look away from Loveless sorrowfully as she says, “Perhaps that pain may only be my lot;” but turn to him once more with the slightest tone of accusation saying, “You possibly may be exempted from it: Men find out softer ways to quench their fires” (I. i. 50-53). By questioning Loveless’s constancy simply by generalizing men as having the ability to find another female replacement, Amanda, in effect, is able to extract from Loveless the foundation of his love for her: “You’ll find ‘tis built upon a steady basis – / The rock of reason now supports my love” (I. i.54-55). If logic and reasoning are the only means by which Loveless is married to Amanda, then the truth has been revealed and there is no more hope for this marriage. In addition, knowing that the character Amanda plays is that of a submissive wife, she does not have any power or control over Loveless. In fact, Amanda’s fears are made so transparent for the audience that sympathy is aroused toward her while condescension and contempt for Loveless. Therefore, the actress must reveal her truest self – exposing to the audience her love for Loveless and her fears of his infidelity in their marriage. As Amanda confesses with parallel statements of, “I know its false insinuating pleasures; / I know the force of its delusions; / I know the strength of its attacks; / I know the weak defence of nature; / I know you are a man – and I – a wife,” her voice must be crying out in desperation, her body becoming weaker and weaker after each “I know” (I. i. 65-70), her knees touching the ground as she accepts her position as the subservient wife. Loveless, on the other hand, is roused to his feet in anger upon hearing his wife’s fears and confession that she “is uneasy at your going to stay so long in Town” (I. i. 65). The role of the authoritative and the submissive can be portrayed by the actor and actress’s bodily physique. Amanda must have a fragile and innocent appeal to her; Loveless should appear arrogant and self-righteous. The words Loveless uses in response to Amanda include banish, traitors, arms, destructions, roving, bankrupt; these words show the harshness and coldness Loveless feels toward his wife. On stage, Loveless must rise in anger, his speech becoming more agitated, as he defends himself by saying “I have never thrown one roving thought that way” (I. i. 89). The actor must also be standing over the actress, exuding a sense of authority and power in the hands of a man. Knowing from the very beginning that the character, Loveless, does not belong in the countryside, there also needs to be a sense of urgency in his speech that reveals his desire to leave ‘Town’ and go to London as well. Ultimately, Loveless once again betrays his inner desires for sex with other women with his air of pride. Although he uses “honest conscience [as his] witness to never have thought of other women, his rhetoric are all indicative of sex as he references to “old cast mistress” and his “former boon companions” (I. i. 108). What appears to be honest conscience is in reality a mere reflection of Loveless’s inner desires. Towards the end of this act, Vanbrugh uses short, staccato lines in the back to back exchange between the couple; Loveless and Amanda are both engaged in an unbridled rage and ruthless contempt has been made exceptionally clear in the language structure. Throughout the argument, the two actors should be facing each other at a short distance away. Although the argument is tense, the actor playing Loveless must stand firm in his belief that Amanda’s distrusts of his faithfulness are wrong. In order to portray the anger on stage, not only must this exchange happen in rapid succession between Amanda and Loveless, they need to physically exaggerate their bodily movements to show anger and frustration. Although Loveless will remain cold-hearted even when the act ends, Amanda’s voice must be brought to a whimper after Loveless screams, “Fie, fie, Amanda! It is not kind thus to distrust me” (I. i. 127). Whereas Loveless’s fears are founded on distrust, Amanda’s are “founded on [her] love” (I. i. 128). There is a collision of faithfulness and infidelity, love and deceit. As the act concludes, Amanda’s last lines, “’Twould be a weakness in my tongue / my prudence could not answer / If I should press you farther with my fears; / I’ll therefore trouble you no longer with ‘em,” depict her ultimate surrender to her husband’s infidelity (I. i. 136-140). Unable to persuade Loveless to stay with her in the countryside, Vanbrugh limits the female voice in communication to man, suggesting that the only hope for Amanda now is in a higher power of God. The first act of John Vanbrugh’s The Relapse; or Virtue in Danger is extraordinarily powerful in its ability to disclose characters’ motives and inner desires to the audience. In addition, not only is this opening scene captivating, it does not rely on luxurious staging or lighting. Because this play has a focus on appearance versus reality, through the means of dress and setting, the audience is able to acknowledge the ways in which the actors manipulate and deceive. From setting the stage to appear unfitting for Loveless to clothing Amanda in a simple night gown, the audience is able to detect the incompatibility of the married couple. Relying on the actors’ tone and body movements to betray their own selves, the audience can see through the actors’ deceits and self-denial. Ultimately, it is through the careful and well thought-out intertwining of the script and the acting that will determine the success of The Relapse.