The Trope of Masquerade in “The Rover” and “Marriage A-la-Mode”
In England, the Baroque was a partly useful concept when discussing about the Restoration Comedy. The English theatres were closed for 18 years, during the English Civil War and English Commonwealth. They were reopened in the Restoration of Charles II (1660). During this period, the Restoration Comedy and tragicomedy appeared and were a massive success. “During the Restoration period successful performances made carefully planned use of the three hours or so that audiences could spend at the playhouse – from the “first music,” which summoned the spectators to their seats, to the announcement of the next day’s offering, which ended the performance by inviting them back.” (Roach, 2005: 33). They showed “the seamy sexual side of the smooth social world” (Alexander, 2000: 160). My aim in this paper is to analyze and compare the trope of masquerade (disguise, dissimulation, carnival) in Aphra Bhen’s The Rover (1681) and John Dryden’s Marriage A-la-Mode (1673).
The tragicomedy plot, however, suffers a structural split: one that is the platonic, idealistic and heroic (representing the tragic part of the plot) and the other that is anti-romantic, pragmatic and comical (that is the comic side of the plot). The masquerade in Dryden’s Marriage-a-la-Mode is expressed by the: controversial dramatic plot, Baroque mixture of heterogeneous elements, thematic disjunction and formal symmetry. In Behn’s The Rover by the cross-dressing and “subversive mimesis”, role reversal and the suspension of hierarchical structures, prenuptial agreements and provisos and by the performing identities: female wits and reformed liberties. “The spirited action of the Restoration theatre is perhaps epitomized in Act I, scene 2 of Aphra Behn’s The Rover (1677), when the “wild” Helena, on probationary leave from a convent, gleefully preparing her disguise for carnival, speaks decisively in the imperative to her tempted but more timorous companions: “Let’s ramble.” “(Roach, 2005: 33).
In her Restoration Comedy, The Rover, the women use the masquerade in order to hide their true identity and to emphasize their subdues sexuality. The men use this to their advantage, uncovering a darker side of their nature, practically erasing the boundaries between prostitutes and women of quality. “Behn’s play is set in Spanish Naples during the 1650s. It focuses on the courtship of Florinda by the English cavalier, Colonel Belvile, who fell in love with her in Spain and followed her back to Naples.” (Corman, 2005: 63). Their marriage is opposed by Pedro, her brother, who wants her to marry Don Antonio. “The love interest of Florinda and Belvile drives much of the action, including the parallel courtship of their friends Valeria and Frederick, and a considerable amount of the fast-paced intrigue, trickery, and disguise so important to the success of the play.” (Corman, 2005: 63).
The third relationship that is “far more lively and engaging” (Corman, 2005: 63) is her sister’s, Hellena (who was intented to be a nun) with Willmore. Hellena sees nunnery as something that is the complete opposite of what she wanted, so she chooses to adopt the gypsy mask and embrace the liberty that it offers. Willmore, “the title-character and friend of the other “banished cavaliers””(Corman, 2005: 63) directly proportional with the aspirations of the Carnival, is the rover of the play. He only seeks carnal pleasure but still ends up in a “happy ending”. He shifts between her and Angellica Bianca (the courtesan who sells herself for a thousand crowns). He sleeps with Hellena in exchange to his promise of staying loyal to her and almost rapes Florinda when drunk. “The balance between the serious, high-toned lovers, Florinda and Belvile, and the wilder, wittier Hellena and Willmore best exemplify a standard structural unit in the comedy of the period, one that would become still more popular by the end of the century.” (Corman, 2005: 64). In the end, Hellena is cleverly manipulating the love game by cross-dressing as a boy and professing her love to Willmore. She is only able to do this because her masquerade allows her to. Thus, she is able to experience an identity which is more “male”. This gives her more power and authority in the play than she would had had if was she only portrayed as herself. The same happens to Florinda, when she joins the Carnival to seek Belvile dressed as a gypsy. The ending is a happy one for almost everyone: Florinda marries Belvile, Hellena marries Willmore and Valeria (kindswoman to Florinda) marries Frederick, Lucetta manages tos teal Blunt’s money and Angellica Bianca remains a single widow.
Aphra Behn seems to critique how woman who do not want to adhere to their pre-planned destinies are automatically seen as prostitutes “Why must we be either guilty of fornication or murder if we converse with you men?” . The Carnival becomes a way to distribute the sexual double standards used by men to judge a woman. Thus the masquerade challenges the individual and social identities of women’s (sexual) liberty and domination by men or patriarchal means. It is associated with social change, Behn dramatizing the role reversal and the suspension of hierarchical structures, prenuptial agreements and provisos.  Helena, Act I, Scene II, 208-209
John Dryden (1631-1700) was a poet, literary critic, translator and playwright. His Marriage A-la-Mode (1673) was first performed in London by the King’s Company. The play set in Sicily and follows two plots: “the versified “high” plot dealing with problems of state and love for the pastorally named Leonidas and Palmira, alongside the prose “low” plot dealing with the adulterous inclinations of the no less pastorally named but much less pastorally inclined Dorinda, Melanthia, Rhodophil, and Palamede.” (Munnus, 2005: 148). It is “one of the last plays to deal with the subject of restoration until the revival of the topic during the last years of Charles’s reign” (Hughes, 2008: 205).
The first plot concerns the love story of Leonidas and Palmyra who were separated from their parents as infants and were raised by Hermogenes, who kept their past secret. When recognized by the usurper-King Polydamas, Hermogenes declares that Leonidas is Polydama’s son. Leonida’s new position as prince forbids him to marry Palmyra. The two lovers refuse to stop seeing each other and so Palmyra is sentenced to death. In that moment Hermogenes declares the truth: Palmyra is the child of Polydamas and Leonidas is his son. Palmyra is declared princess but is once again forbidden to mary the man she loves. Hermogenes finally admits the whole truth: Leonidas is the son of the rightful king. So Leonidas starts a rebellion against Polydamas, wins, and declares himself king and is finally permitted to marry Palmyra. “The error corrected, he returns to being a fisherman’s son, is privately identified as the true king, and finally manages to declare his identity publicly as he is on the point of being executed.” (Hughes, 2008: 206). The whole situation that Hermogenes created is a dissimulation which could have been easily avoided, but then it would not be a tragicomedy.
“In the complementary comic plot, two bored couples seek to enjoy each other’s partners.” (Hughes, 2008: 205). It mixes with the first, concerns Rhodophil and Palamede. Rhodophil is in love with Palamede’s fianc?e Melantha and Palamede falls in love with Rhodophil’s wife Doralice. “One man has tried to compensate for the tedious immutability of his wife by serial sexual fantasy, successively imagining her in bed as every beauty in Sicily. The marriage falters when all attractive women have been used up.” (Hughes, 2008: 205). The two couples carefully plan their meetings, choosing even the same places and using the same tactics. When their actions are finally discovered, Palamede and Rhodophil decide to stick with their rightful claims, so Palamede amicably divorces his wife and manages to win the heart of Melantha.
The “carnivalesque” (English term used to translate the words of the Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin) is adapted in many ways. He traces its origins to the back to the Feast of Fools, a medieval festival held by the sub-deacons of the cathedral. Bakhtin also believes that the carnival affects everyone, altering their behavior. Everyone is a participant in the carnival. In conclusion, the trope of masquerade in the two plays are radically different. In Aphra Behn’s the women use mask, cross-dressing and the Carnival in order to enjoy a little more liberty than their woman status would normally allow. The rover itself is a masquerade manifestation because of all the actions committed. In John Dryden’s, the masquerade is portrayed by the mixture of the two plots and the preposterous ways the conflicts are resolved.
 Helena, Act I, Scene II, 208-209
Alexander, Michael: “A History of English Literature”, Macmillan Press, 2000, pp. 160
Corman, Brian: ‘Comedy’ “The Cambridge Companion To English Restoration Theatre” edited by Deborah Payne Fisk, Cambridge University Press, 2005, pp. 63-64
Hughes, Derek: ‘Restoration and settlement: 1660 and 1688’ “A Companion to Restoration Drama” edited by Susan J. Owen, Blackwell Publishing, 2008, pp. 205-206
Roach, Joseph: ‘The performance’ “The Cambridge Companion To English Restoration Theatre” edited by Deborah Payne Fisk, Cambridge University Press, 2005, pp. 33
Munns, Jessica: ‘Change, skepticism, and uncertainty’ “The Cambridge Companion To English Restoration Theatre” edited by Deborah Payne Fisk, Cambridge University Press, 2005, pp. 148
Sexism in Hangover Square
Patrick Hamilton represents women in such a misogynistic manner in Hangover Square that we do not get insight on a single positive portrayal of a woman that George, the novel’s protagonist, meets on his journeys. Instead, we only hear a remotely positive attitude about a woman when we either hear about George’s Aunt at the beginning of the novel or about George’s sister, who has died; even then, neither of these two women are met directly by the reader. Mainly, the representation of women is portrayed through Netta. Through Hamilton’s use of free direct discourse, the reader may assume that the ideas in the narrative are unbiased and separate from George’s thoughts because the novel is not written in first person. We think that we are outside of his consciousness; however, the narrative shows us insights into George’s thoughts, which in turn provoke the reader to empathize with him and understand his opinions. Because of this design, the reader’s opinions of Netta and the other women in the novel are crafted to encourage negative thoughts on women.
The first woman we meet in the novel other than George’s Aunt is the woman on the train who joins George in his compartment. George has not even spoken to this woman before, nor has he ever seen her before, and we are instantly met with a ‘cold woman’ who ‘rudely and ruthlessly seized’ the handle of the door. This tells the reader that George’s attitude to women is not a positive one; this woman merely opened the door to a compartment to sit down, and George finds the maneuver insulting and intrusive. This woman, ‘apparently of the servant class’ (p.26), is portrayed as common and rambunctious, similar to the way in which the group of girls in Brighton are portrayed further into the novel. We learn that another woman standing on the platform wearing a hairnet had been ‘intentionally’ (p.27) trying to hurt George by making him think of Netta, as if women are constantly out to ‘torture’ (p.27) him and purely exist to cause him pain. Hamilton directly informs the reader of George’s feeling of deeply-felt pain and torture merely at the slight thought of Netta; this is the fault of two strangers who, in reality, did not do anything at all wrong.
When we do meet Netta, as George arrives at Netta’s flat in Earl’s Court, we are also met with George’s fear of her. Netta’s ‘loveliness’ is described as a ‘weapon from the arsenal of her beauty.’ This statement shows how George sees their relationship as a war or a game, in which he is losing due to his weaknesses being among her ‘weapons.’ His love for her makes him weak, and the fact that this is revealed to the reader shows that he is aware of his love and weakness. This depiction of something essentially positive (her ‘loveliness’) being compared to a ‘weapon’ shows how Hamilton creates a misogynistic narrative in the respect that women are destructive and pernicious. Furthermore, the characters’ greeting is referred to as a ‘game of calling people by their surnames.’ This description gives a feeling of coldness, and the reference of their relationship being a game suggests that perhaps George is aware of the fact that is losing this game or war but does not take it so seriously; he is so infatuated with Netta that he makes the negative aspects of their contact seem less real by referring it something that is ‘just a game.’ Hamilton thus shows the reader that even though George loves Netta, there is also an underlying hatred which the reader too is mean to intuit.
Further on in the novel, the narrative briefly switches from George’s insights to Johnnie’s, and we learn about his view on Netta and women in general; despite Netta being ‘decidedly attractive’ he does not actually like the look of her. She is described as ‘ill-natured’ and ‘ungracious’ and is then associated with women that used to come up to the office ‘in shoals’. This image gives women an animalistic characteristic (a shoal of fish), and with the connotation of fish suggests that they are perhaps simple creatures with little intellectual capacity and poor memories. Because Johnnie has an ‘extensive knowledge’ of different types of women and their ‘modes of behaviour,’ the reader would perhaps be more inclined to trust his opinion; it is weighted with more validity and justification. The women are also described as having their ‘nails dipped in blood and their faces smothered in pale cocoa’ (p.104). Their nails are painted red, but the use of the word ‘blood’ has connotations of danger, destruction and sinister. If Hamilton had simply used the word ‘red,’ it would have been more ambiguous; it could have meant danger but it could have also meant sex and lust. However, by using ‘blood,’ the author directly connotes specific ideas of danger, which foreshadow Netta’s death.
Hamilton also describes the manner in which the women’s foundation or ‘pale cocoa’ is deposited on their faces, and by describing it as ‘smothered’ suggests an unsightly application of such make up. The reference to ‘cocoa’ could perhaps be a reference to racial prejudice, which would suggest women’s inferiority, especially as the time when the novel was written was a time of considerable prejudice and segregation with regards to people who were not white and were thus considered inferior. On George’s trip to Brighton, he comes across a group of ‘violent girls’ who work in a cigarette factory in London. Instantly we are met with ‘girls’ as opposed to ‘women,’ a new clue which suggests the immaturity and inferiority of the girls. They are described as going about ‘in threes or fours’ as if they are a species of animal whose nature is being described. Their ways of ‘sprawling’ and ‘permeating’ suggest an untidy and inelegant manner, as they ‘affect the quality’ of the town. They are seen as lacking class, as ruining and spoiling a good town because they are loud and trashy, ‘bold’ and ‘violent.’ Moreover, we learn about Eddie Carstairs’ opinion on women when he, George, and Johnnie are having a conversation. He essentially says that their sole purpose is to please men; if a woman doesn’t give a man what is desired, then a man should ‘throw her out the window.’ This opinion objectifies women and suggests that they are nothing but sexual objects to be used as men please. Eddie’s joke about throwing them out the window is ironic, since Netta hasn’t given George what he wants (which is actually her love); earlier on in the novel, when he considers different methods of killing her, he even thinks of pushing her out of the window.
The fact that only Netta gets a voice in the novel is key; however, even then her voice is heard through George’s perceptions. The novel seems to portray women at large as an inferior class whose purpose is simply to please men, and after numerous references to women being prostitutes and animal-like, we discover that these women are nothing but irritating objects to Hamilton’s men. After all, the only two women who are positively portrayed in the novel are George’s family members, whom he seemed to have a certain degree of respect for, but not a great deal of it (since they do not get as much of a voice as any male character in the novel). Even Peter, whom George he deeply dislikes, gets more of voice than any woman in the novel. Thus, Hamilton’s view on women seems to be extremely negative, and this negativity is prominently portrayed throughout Hangover Square.
Static in Motion: Examining the Complexities and Contradictions of Lopakhin in The Cherry Orchard
A notoriously psychological composer of satire and comedy, Anton Chekhov employs The Cherry Orchard as a case study of an ensemble of ludicrous characters united in their inability to transform their behaviors or identities. Each character appears suspended in his/her separate concerns, each so self-absorbed that he/she is rendered ineffectual in saving the estate and orchard; the characters appear doomed to remain forever as they are: Trofimov the student, Gaev the silenced, Firs the slave, Lyubov the gullible, etc. In contrast, Lopakhin is driven by motivations of action and change: though his father was born a peasant and his grandfather a serf before him, Lopakhin has risen above poverty and become even richer than the aristocrats who once owned his family. By this virtue, he represents the new wealth of Russia in an increasingly democratic and middle class society. However, Chekhov reveals that despite his wealth and appearance, Lopakhin remains painfully bound to his identity as a peasant, static despite his role as a major force of action throughout the play. Each aspect of his character is shaped by his peasant mentality, including his pessimism about life, desire to succeed in business, and hypocritical attitude towards transcending class positions.
Chekhov wastes little time establishing Lopakhin as a character entrapped in the past. In the play’s first monologue, Lopakhin displays incredible self-awareness and self-deprecation as he recounts his transformation from a peasant boy whose father beat him into a successful business man in a three-piece suit and fancy shoes. Despite this triumph, he recalls the expression that he is “a silk purse from a sow’s ear” (Act 1, line 29); that is, he reveals the inherent contradiction of his being, that it’s impossible to make something of true quality from poor materials (i.e. an aristocrat from a peasant). To further drive home this point, Lopakhin despairs: “I read through this entire book and didn’t understand a word of it” (Act 1, lines 34-35). Despite his wealth, Lopakhin lacks the culture and education required to truly rise above his peasantry, openly dismissing the success of his present and future beyond the realm of mere aesthetics. It’s interesting that he makes little effort to hide his shame and dismay concerning his origins, an attitude which reflects upon this plain, straight-talking and summative style of speech (from which we draw a stark contrast from the obscure references in other character dialogues). Save a few quips and remarks, Lopakhin’s tangents repeatedly relate to his father or his peasant status, suggesting he is a character with a metaphoric chip on his shoulder who works hard to prove himself when even he admits the effort is futile.
Lopakhin’s fatalistic attitudes towards his identity are contrasted sharply with his optimistic ambitions in the realm of business. Unlike his origins, he has power and control over wealth, seeking to depart at least aesthetically from his past through clever planning. Due to his skill, he could be seen as the would-be hero of the play; he is prepared to save the family from their debts, generously loaning them $50,000 to start up their consolidation of the orchard’s land into summer homes. He even identifies with the family and takes their plight personally–especially that of Lyubov, who showed him kindness during his days as a peasant. He cries “I love you like my own flesh and blood… more, even, than my own flesh and blood, (Act 1, lines 277-278),” later grouping himself with the family’s lot by saying “unless we come up with a plan, unless we reach a decision” (lines 328-329). The use of “we” is very interesting here, since this displays genuine concern and identification with a class whom he can identify with on a financial, but not personal, level. His dialogue is often short, quipped, sarcastic or humorous when responding to the tangential dialogue of other characters, and he constantly glances at his watch to suggest his social discomfort in matters non-related to business. He is a character motivated not so much by deep-vested personal interest in the family, but rather to see the land developed into one reflecting his vision of “wealth, prosperity, [and] happiness” (though he ignores the more social ramification of replacing the grandeur of the orchard with ordinary housing (Act 1, line 358)).
“You only have to try to get something done to realize how few honest, decent people there are in this world,” he at one point laments (Act 3, lines 343-344). Here, his pessimism about life rears itself to criticize the household itself. However, it’s very interesting to note that he’s criticizing them for the very reasons he criticizes himself: lack of self transformation and movement. For the family to react to the selling of the estate would imply a change within themselves, from passive to proactive, from personal irresponsibility to responsibility. However, aristocracy is stereotypically defined as possessing such qualities; hard work and effort is left to the lower classes. Lopakhin exclaims “I can’t live without work, I don’t know what to do with my hands…they’re hanging there, as if they belonged to someone else” (Act 4, lines 37-39). In contrast, the practice of aristocracy is idle hands. Lopakhin repeatedly labels himself as ‘just a peasant’ unable to shake the habits of his past, yet he faults the aristocracy by not, in a sense, becoming peasant-like by laboring and earning their wealth. He desires them to change in a way that he has already deemed impossible, though in previous parts of the play he was quick to remind characters of their “place.” (For example, he chides the maid Dunyasha for dressing attractively and reminds Trofimov that he will always be a student.)
Finally, despite his distaste for their inaction and apathy, Lopakhin takes great pains to help the family. As a reader I cheered in the scene in which he begs Lyubov to action, warning “either I’m going to burst out sobbing, or screaming, or else I’m going to fall on the ground, right here in front of you. I can’t stand it any more! You’re driving me mad!” (Act 2 lines 164-166). Indeed, he echoes the sentiment of the audience that Lopakhin has clearly formed a plan to save the orchard, that he has repeated this plan several times, and that these pleas have fallen upon deaf ears. From this, we gather that Lopakhin is a genuinely good man, a man of business savvy that could have likely easily scammed the family out of their estate if he so chose. It was only after all his methods of persuasion failed that he acquired the estate, bidding a ridiculously high $90,000 over the previous debt. That he would pay so much displays the heavy symbolic value he weighs in transcending the peasantry of his past. “Here comes the new master, the owner of the cherry orchard!” he cries in glee, comically knocking over a candlelabrum (Act 3, lines 406, 407). Though he now owns the property, this comedic moment reveals that he is a clumsy master of its aristocratic connotations.
Ultimately, though Lopakhin drives the plot of the play by pushing for action and buying the estate, his identity remains unchanged by the acquisition. Like the other characters, he is merely a piece in the mosaic of suspended characters, unable to change the fundamental aspects of himself that make him forever a peasant. Even after Lopakhin’s grand standing of the achievement, he reveals that he will not even be staying at the estate, but rather going off to further business (Act 4 lines 34-35). In the end, his victory has accomplished little.
Chekhov’s Innovation in the Cherry Orchard
When Anton Chekhov began his play The Cherry Orchard in December 1902, he intended it to be a farce in four acts. Having written it during a particularly awful bout with emphysema, it took almost a year for him to send it out to Stanislavski and the Moscow Art Theatre, where it had been eagerly anticipated. Stanislavski, in Chekhov’s opinion, took the play too far. He had dashed off a telegram to Chekhov saying, “Just read play…shaken…cannot come to senses in unprecedented ecstasy…sincerely congratulate author genius.” This disgusted Chekhov – why should a farce evoke such a visceral reaction? (Hingley, New Life, 300) The answer soon became clear. Stanislavski was determined to stage the play as a realistic and tragic ode to the dying upper class, when in fact, this was not even close to what Chekhov had intended.
The differences in the viewpoints of Chekhov and Stanislavski became particularly widened when The Cherry Orchard went into rehearsals. As the play began to receive publicity, Chekhov became increasingly unhappy with the tragic overtones. In a letter to his wife Olga, he wrote, “Why do they persist in calling my play a drama on the posters and in press announcements? Nemirovich and Stanislavski absolutely do not see in my play what I actually wrote and I am ready to give my word in any terms you wish that neither of them has ever read my play attentively.” (Benedetti 190) When Chekhov finally arrived, he found his play in a mess of depression and melancholy. He tried to fix it, leading Stanislavski to say that “the blossoms had just begun to appear when the author arrived and messed up everything for us.” (Simmons 612) Chekhov was appalled to see that the brief fourth act he had written dragged on for a weepy, mind-numbing forty minutes. However, both Chekhov and Stanislavski felt it necessary to concede some ground on their respective viewpoints, just to keep rehearsals going. As a result, both became skeptical about the possibility of the play becoming a success. To a friend, Chekhov wrote, “I expect no particular success…the thing is going poorly.” (Priestley 58) Upon opening the play, Chekhov’s attitude had not changed – in a letter to a friend, he writes, “My play was performed yesterday and therefore I am not in a particularly bright mood today.” (Magarshack, A Life, 382)
Some of Chekhov’s irritation could be attributed to the impatience of a dying man, yet he had grounds for his argument. As The Cherry Orchard went into rehearsals, Chekhov quarreled with Stanislavski and Nemirovich-Danchenko over the interpretation of the play. “Why,” he wrote to Nemirovich, “do you say there are many weepy people in my play? Where are they? Varya’s the only one, and that’s because she’s a crybaby by nature. Her tears are not meant to make the spectator feel despondent. I often use “through her tears” in my stage directions, but that indicates only a character’s mood, not actual tears. There’s no cemetery in the second act.” (Karlinsky 460) On the subject of tears in a comedy, Donald Rayfield notes that Ranevsky, Anya, Varya, Gaev, and Pishtchik all cry, but they cry “for the wrong reasons, at the wrong time. The music of the play does not harmonize with their tears: the ball in Act 3 is a series of quadrilles and waltzes of comic irrelevance.” (Evolution, 220)
Given the circumstances of late nineteenth and early twentieth century Russian history, it is tempting to see the play as a dismal story of loss, and Madame Ranevsky and her family as victims of the uprising of the industrial classes. When the play opened in January of 1904, the Socialist movement had already begun to gain momentum in Russia. A year earlier, Lenin had published his revolutionary pamphlet What Is To Be Done?, as well as his text State & Revolution, both of which called for an elite party of educated rebels who would act as a vanguard of the working class. He had also called on the Russian Social Democratic Workers Party to help establish a provisional revolutionary democratic dictatorship for the proletariat. In this context, one could interpret the play as either a revolutionary call to arms or a touching ode to a class doomed to brutal extinction. ` Yet Chekhov asserted that the work must be taken as a whole. Lopahin, who buys the estate, is not a typical “evil landlord” who is ruthlessly evicting the family from their comfortable lifestyle. Trofimov, although a revolutionary, is also a disillusioned and cynical student, blinded by hopeless adoration; and Ranevsky is a self-indulgent elitist who participates fully – although passively – in her own demise.
Even this wreck that dominates the play is only another step in the great scheme of history. Chekhov sets his play against Tsar Alexander II’s serf emancipation of 1861, which was also feared as an oncoming disaster that would swallow up the nation. (Hirsch) Yet in this play, as in all of Chekhov’s works, life goes on – a barely perceived, yet deeply experienced, pattern of hopes and disappointments, of comings and goings. Had Chekhov had a sophisticated literary terminology with which to work, he might have used the term “dark comedy”, or “problem play” to describe The Cherry Orchard (as Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure has more recently been noted.) (Moorty, par. 1)
The Cherry Orchard was not a comedy in the sense that comedies are normally seen. Rather, Chekhov had his own brand of comedy. In ancient Greek theatre, the word “comedy” meant a concern of the daily lives of ordinary people, as opposed to tragedy, which was built around great beings who had lost everything due to fate. Aristotle himself noted that comedy was “an imitation of characters of a lower type who are not bad in themselves but whose faults possess something ludicrous in them.” (Magarshack, Dramatist, 272) The Cherry Orchard certainly fits as a comedy in this mode of thinking – although somewhat aristocratic, the loss of the orchard is due to their own mishandlings, rather than fate.
However, The Cherry Orchard sometimes straddles the fence between comedy and pathos – the deciding factor being whether we as the audience sympathize with the characters’ problems. We see the crossover into pathos within the character development of Madame Ranevsky. She is a sympathetic character, and this places her near the category of tragic hero, because she is not a part of the irony that keeps us relatively distant from the other characters. But at the same time, our emotional involvement overall is different than that of a tragedy. This has to do partly with the overall impact we see the characters’ actions having on their society. If you consider Romeo and Juliet, the deaths of the star-crossed lovers shake Verona to the core and force the Montagues and Capulets to reconsider their grudge. As a result, the society completely changes their development. In a comedy, the protagonists have no such power, since they deal with the trappings of everyday people. This relative sinking into oblivion in The Cherry Orchard is what caused publications such as The Daily Express to bash the play as a “silly, tiresome, boring comedy…There is no plot. The cherry orchard is for sale, and certain dull people are upset because it must be sold.” (Rayfield, Cherry Orchard, 23)
It also must be noted that much of Chekhov’s humor does not effectively translate into English. This may be one reason foreign audiences have a difficult time seeing The Cherry Orchard as a comedy. No translation has been able to successfully capture Epihodov’s line in Act One when he presents a bouquet of flowers to Dunyasha. He means to say, “Allow me to communicate with you,” but the Russian word is prisovokupit, which is a play on words with the word sovokupit, which means “to copulate.” (Rayfield, Cherry Orchard, 52-3)
To Soviet audiences in the 1930s, the triviality of the family’s problems in The Cherry Orchard made it difficult for them to see anything but comedy in the play. Even after the Soviet Union had collapsed, satirist Viacheslav Pietsukh has a character in one of his works say, “Ditherers, bastards, they had a bad life, did they? I’ll bet they wore excellent overcoats, knocked back the Worontsoff vodka with caviar, mixed with lovely women…philosophiz[ing] from morning to night for want of anything to do – and then they say they have a bad life, you see? You sons of bitches ought to be in a planned economy… they’d show you what a cherry orchard was!” (Rayfield, Cherry Orchard, 21) And in this sense, the Soviets are right. Although the end of the play isn’t very cheerful, Ranevsky is alive and healthy. She is also probably better off than she had been, with the opportunity to start a new future with a new lover in Paris.
One can argue that Lopahin, the descendant of a serf, is better off, as well. At the end of the third act, he proclaims, “I have bought the estate where my father and grandfather were slaves, where they weren’t even admitted into the kitchen….All must be as I wish it. Here comes the new master, the new owner of the cherry orchard!” He is hopeful, with a newly acquired sense of confidence. Even Anya reminds her mother that “a new life is beginning”; and Gaev responds, “Everything is all right now. Before the cherry orchard was sold, we were all worried and wretched, but afterwards, when once the question was settled conclusively, irrevocably, we all felt calm and even cheerful.” This is all more that could be said for the worried masses that crowded in to see the play as a means to forget their sobering existences.
This ability to move forward is a perfect example of the Chekhovian comedy, which again, hailed back to the Greeks. The way Chekhov saw it, comedy had more to do with the idea that there was an opening towards the future which tragedies (and especially the Greek tragedies) couldn’t provide. (Gilman 200) Stanislavski, however, disagreed. In an October 1903 letter to Chekhov, Stanislavski informed him that The Cherry Orchard was, in fact, a tragedy, “regardless of what escape into a better life you might indicate in the last act.” Chekhov knew very well that Stanislavski could not be swayed – Stanislavski was too firmly rooted in tradition. Chekhov could not make it to Moscow for rehearsals until well after they were underway; by the time he arrived, he was too sick to put up much of a fight. (Magarshack. A Life, 380)
The characters in The Cherry Orchard are by nature comic characters. The definition of “comic character” was one thing that Stanislavski didn’t understand. He saw the comic character as someone who was supposed to keep the audience laughing at all times, but that was not always the case. For example, Falstaff is undeniably a comic character, but his fall in Henry IV is one of the most tragically moving scenes in the play. The same is true in The Cherry Orchard – although we, as the audience, feel sympathy and compassion for Ranevsky (and other characters, to a lesser extent), we must still see that they are essentially comic characters. All of the characters in the play, with the possible exception of Anya, have a ridiculous sense to them that define them as comic characters.
Where, then, do we see these comic elements in the characters? One major example is Gaev, Ravensky’s brother. To him, life is just about as serious as the billiards games he plays in his head. (Even more amusing is the fact that Gaev’s billiards games make no sense – Chekhov himself admitted he knew nothing about the game.) One of the most famous exchanges in the play is Gaev’s ode to the cupboard in Act One. This tearful monologue is so absurd that one can’t help laughing at it. Gaev’s comedy is further accentuated by his candies. In Act Two, he notes that he’s eaten all of his substance in sugar-candies. This is a symbol of his childish views in life, something that we would most definitely not see in a tragedy. It is obvious that Ranevsky herself has not matured, either. When her husband and son had died, she left Russia with her lover, leaving Anya and Charlotta behind. She returns to her lover, who has been unfaithful and spent all of her money. She is inherently controlled by her wistfulness, looking out at the garden from her nursery. Nostalgically, she says, “I used to sleep here when I was little…(cries). And here I am, like a little child.” This, of course, is what Chekhov is getting at. Gaev and Ranevsky have not changed, but the world definitely has. They are children in a world full of, and made for, adults. For the most part, they aren’t even aware of reality; and even in their moments of self-awareness, they lack the means to come to true grips with their reality. Whether or not lack of maturity is a tragic flaw is a debate left to the reader. As noted earlier in this essay, I suggest that it is not. Using the classical model as an example, immaturity doesn’t have the same sympathetic pull that other tragic flaws do (as seen in Othello or Hamlet). Again, the English translation does not help to convey these immature qualities. Ranevsky’s first line upon entering is, “The nursery!” (“Detskaya!”) This is linguistically closer to the words for “childhood” (detstvo) and “childish” (detsky) in Russian than in English. (Golub, 18)
The audience should see Charlotta in a comic light as well. She doesn’t say much, but when she does, it usually doesn’t pertain much to the matter at hand. We see this at the beginning of the play when the travelers enter. As Ranevsky is reminiscing about her childhood in the home, Charlotta turns to Pishtchik and says, “My dog eats nuts, too.” It may be a continuation of a conversation which started offstage, but to the audience or reader, it seems like a random statement. Charlotta can be sympathized with as well – she notes that her parents are dead and she feels alone in the world. However, Chekhov does not develop her character deeply enough for the audience to get too attached to her. She is well known for her tricks – in one scene, we see her performing a card trick; later, she shows off her ventriloquist talents. Chekhov was adamant about Charlotta’s role as a comic character – in a letter to Nemirovich he says, “Charlotta is an important role…Muratova might be good, but she’s not funny. This is Ms. Knipper’s role.” (Karlinsky 462)
Even the smaller characters are rife with comedy. Semyenov-Pishtchik is a broad comic figure, as his name implies. Magarshack notes that the first half of his name is “impressively aristocratic and the second farcical – its English equivalent would be Squeaker.” (Dramatist 284) He completely misses jokes and laughs in the wrong place; he even forgets that the house has been sold and promises to stop by on Thursday when the family is just about to leave. Epihodov (or “two and twenty misfortunes”) is another smaller comic character. He is the classic klutz – a man in squeaky boots who drops flowers on the floor, falls over chairs, and crushes a hatbox by putting a suitcase on top of it. He even seems to embrace these calamities, thinking that the nickname has been given to him in affection. He is pedantic and often smug, a man who prides himself on being cultured and is yet unsure whether or not he should shoot himself. His physical awkwardness is a reflection of his master Gaev’s lack of self-discipline, and he is a microcosm of the entire family, the most absurd traits of which are brought together in him.
The one discordant character in The Cherry Orchard is Firs, the old servant who represents the old way of life. When he is left behind at the end, the residents of the house have effectively dropped their aristocratic ways for a new life. One common misconception is that Firs’ final action of lying on the floor is representative of his death. David Magarshack is quick to point out that just because Firs lies on the floor doesn’t mean he’s dead – that “would have introduced a completely alien note in a play which Chekhov never meant to be anything but a comedy.” (Dramatist 285-6) I introduce him just to point out that although he appear somewhat tragic, he exists primarily as a symbol of the old way of life and not as a separate entity to be considered under the same set of characteristics as the other characters. But even some productions play him as a hopeful character – one production by the Utah Shakespeare Festival did just that. (Moorty, par. 3)
However, it is important to note that The Cherry Orchard is not a comedy simply because of the large number of comic scenes and characters. John Reid notes that the comedy lies in Chekhov’s attitude towards the subject – and that attitude is “chiefly determined by the author’s emphasis upon survival and the acceptance of change.” (par. 4) Reid then goes on to point out that “the comic detachment of Chekhov’s treatment allows the audience to recognize, for example, the Ranevskayas’ infantilism, or, the immature idealism of Trofimov’s revolutionary rhetoric – but, at no point, does the diagnosis allow the audience to simplify that subtle juxtaposing of conflicting attitudes and feelings.” (par. 4) The point is, Chekhov is deeper than a quick scan or first viewing would reveal. In my research, I did manage to find one production that was praised overall for its comic characters. This was performed by a touring company of the Moscow Art Theatre in the summer of 1964, which played a repertoire of Gogol’s Dead Souls, Pogodin’s Kremlin Chimes, and The Cherry Orchard. The tour venues included, among others, New York, London, and Tulane University. Harold Hobson of London’s Sunday Times wrote, “If there is inspiration in the London Theatre, it is to be found in the Moscow Art Theatre’s ‘Cherry Orchard’.” The New Yorker’s Edith Oliver had this praise to offer Angelina Stepanova, who played Charlotta: “..as Charlotta, the lanky, nutty governess and amateur conjurer, Angelina Stepanova gives the only legitimate performance of this part I’ve ever seen, making this mysterious woman’s loneliness as important as her freakishness, and at the same time retaining all the comedy of the role.” Oliver concludes her review with a general comment about the comedy of the entire play: “So much of The Cherry Orchard has gone almost unnoticed in other productions of it. In this vigorous, thorough, and subtle one, the details are all brought to light – the nuances of feeling, the bits of high and low comedy, the clues to personality….And the details are the play.” (Edwards 282-85)
However, the tragic translation has, for the most part, become tradition. This is the most disconcerting part about Stanislavski’s flawed interpretations of Chekhov’s plays (and particularly, The Cherry Orchard.) This idea was further enhanced by writers such as George Bernard Shaw, who, in his preface to Heartbreak House (in a reference to The Cherry Orchard) wrote, “Chekhov, more of a fatalist than Tolstoy, had no faith in these charming people extricating themselves. They would, he thought, be sold up and sent adrift by the bailiffs; therefore, he had no scruple in exploiting and flattering their charm.” (Magarshack, Dramatist, 387) This opinion, although far from the truth, probably shaped England’s attitude towards the play more than any other critical study. Author Dorothy Sayers defended Chekhov, pointing out that “the tragedy of futility never succeeds in achieving tragedy. In its blackest moments, it is inevitably doomed to comic gesture.” (Sayers 324) At this point in time, The Cherry Orchard is nearly universally accepted as a tragedy, and to attempt to revive it as a comedy would seem almost futile. But unless we can do so, it will never truly be Chekhov’s play.
Benedetti, Jean. The Moscow Art Theatre Letters. 1991, Routledge, New York.
Edwards, Christine. The Stanislavsky Heritage – Its Contribution to the Russian and American Theatre. 1965, New York University Press, New York.
Gilman, Richard. Chekhov’s Plays: An Opening Into Eternity. 1995, Yale University Press, New Haven.
Golub, Spencer. The Recurrence of Fate: Theatre & Memory in Twentieth-Century Russia. 1994, University of Iowa Press, Iowa City.
Hingley, Ronald. Chekhov: A Biographical and Critical Study. 1966, Barnes & Noble, Inc., New York.
Hingley, Ronald. A New Life of Anton Chekhov. 1976, Oxford University Press, London.
Hirsch, Francine. The Russian Empire. Lecture – History of Soviet Russia (History 419). 1/23/2004, University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Karlinsky, Simon, and Michael Henry Heim. Anton Chekhov’s Life and Thought – Selected Letters & Commentary. 1973, University of California Press, Berkley.
Kernin, Alvin B., ed. Character and Conflict – An Introduction to Drama. 1963, Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., New York. *Also, this is my source for the text of The Cherry Orchard. Spellings of characters’ names are taken from this translation, except when I’m directly quoting a text.
Magarshack, David. Chekhov: A Life. 1952, Grove Press, New York.
Magarshack, David. Chekhov the Dramatist. 1952, John Lehmann Ltd., London.
Moorty, S.S. The Cherry Orchard: The Glory of the Past. 2000. Bard.org. 4/15/2004
Priestley, J.B. Chekhov 1970, A.S. Barnes & Co., Inc., Cranbury, New Jersey.
Rayfield, Donald. The Cherry Orchard – Catastrophe and Comedy. 1994, Twayne Publishers, New York.
Rayfield, Donald. Chekhov: The Evolution of His Art. 1975, Harper & Row Publishers, Great Britain.
Reid, John. Vishnevyi sad (The Cherry Orchard). 2004. The Literary Encyclopedia. 4/15/2004
Sayers, Dorothy. The New Statesman and Nation. Feb. 27, 1937, p. 324.
Simmons, Ernest J. Chekhov: A Biography. 1962, Little Brown, Boston.
How Chekhov United Two Opposing Genres of Comedy and Tragedy in the Cherry Orchard
Anton Chekhov fought with the famed Stanislavsky over staging his play The Cherry Orchard as a tragedy. According to Chekhov, the play about a well-to-do family forced to surrender its home and orchard to a man who began life as a mere serf on their estate was intended to be viewed strictly as a comedy. Historically speaking, comedy and tragedy are the oldest genres of drama and can typically be differentiated according to their endings: a comedy ends happily, while a tragedy has a much more downbeat resolution. Chekhov claims he wrote The Cherry Orchard to be performed as a quite specific subgenre of comedy, a farce. What differentiates farce from other types of comedy is the introduction and utilisation of a more broadly-based humor, eccentric occurrences, and occasionally bawdy content. Konstantin Stanislavsky, famous for inventing “The Method” school of acting, ignored the declared authorial intent, and instead, foreshadowing the New Criticism around the corner, chose to stage the play according to his own interpretation of it as a tragedy (Haslam 24). Stanislavsky’s choice became the standard method for producing The Cherry Orchard, as later directors have shied away from the considerable problems associated with staging the play according to its author’s vision. The primary obstacle that blocks the route toward audiences watching The Cherry Orchard as a farce is that the strict adherence to Greek definitions of tragedy precludes exploration of the play’s political idealism as comedic.
Tragedy has come to be classified as a drama that follows the downward spiral of a character who, while noble, also is plagued by what has come to be known as the tragic flaw or, as Aristotle described it, hamartia. Hamartia is not so much a character flaw as it is an error in judgment that sends the hero on his course to a tragic ending (Aristotle 27). Tragedy differs from comedy not just in how events play out, but also in how the characters are presented, and this may well be the crux of the argument over whether a presentation of The Cherry Orchard as farce would undermine the stark political ideals of many of its characters. Tragic characters are dignified through elevated poetry and great scenes of tragic import that lead to the one thing that a comedy is not expected, though occasionally does, contain: catharsis. Catharsis is a Greek dramatic term that has come to mean a spiritual cleansing. In its original meaning, however, Aristotle created the term as a response to Plato’s fear that poetry led men to act irrationally. Aristotle posits that through catharsis people can treated to a harmless expurgation of pent-up emotional unrest via fictional representations of profound psychological anxiety (Aristotle 27). That is heady stuff, and reveals clearly the importance to the Greeks of delineating between comedy and tragedy. The problem in regard to Chekhov is that The Cherry Orchard does not snugly conform to the ideals of Aristotelian tragedy, yet nevertheless presents characters who do exhibit hamartia in the sense that their own lapses in judgment result in what to them is a tragic ending rather than a happy ending. In addition, while the play’s resolution cannot truly be described as cathartic, it does retain the power to invoke the sense of pity that is also an integral element of tragedy (Haslam 46). Further complicating the issue is that, unlike most tragedies, the humor of The Cherry Orchard is undeniable, although this humor is only obvious in short passages.
The question that must be considered in light of the fact that The Cherry Orchard has now been well-established as a tragedy is whether the comedy succeeds in undermining the tragic realism and political idealism that vital to contemporary enjoyment of a play that, apparently, is capable of being performed both as farce and as tragedy. Returning to Aristotle, the definition of a comedy differs from a tragedy through such means as comedy being merely an imitation so feared by Plato. The primary Aristotelian differentiation between tragedy and comedy meets at the crossroads of hamartia. The infamous tragic flaw is rarely discovered in comedy; in its place Aristotle finds ludicrous faults of a much lower order (Cooper 5-8). The difficulty that comes with viewing the political seriousness of The Cherry Orchard is probably due, at least in part, to this mistaken assumption that comedy is a lower order than tragedy. Indeed, contemporary critics have coined a new phrase to allow for comedic elements to be introduced into the tragic milieu: tragicomedy. Aristotle would no doubt find this disturbing. It is equally disturbing from a modern perspective that, while more open to allowing comedy to contain profound themes, is still universally resistant to conferring the same weight upon pure comedy as upon pure drama.
The traditionally Aristotelian comic character is designed with the intention of drawing laughs, but even in Greek comedy satire was the predominant genre. Satire works best when it is applied through a deadpan imitation of seriousness; attempting to satirise, for instance, an Ingmar Bergman film by replacing his stark imagery, long takes, and sparse dialogue with the manic elements of farce would result in utter failure. The Cherry Orchard succeeds in infusing the serious with the comical by delivering itself as comedy without compromising the seriousness of the characters who spout political ideals. As one instance, the ending of the player is neither fully comic nor fully tragic; Ranevsky is arguably in a better condition at the play’s conclusion than she was at its origin. She has been allowed the opportunity to do what few characters in a tragedy are allowed: to eschew the mistakes of her past and move on. Ranevsky is second only to the orchard itself in importance and the sympathy she quite naturally draws comes very close to ascribing certain elements of the tragic hero to her. There is some legitimacy to this concept structurally as well since the play’s forward motion follows her journey. Political idealism succeeds very often in drawing sympathy; it just as easily draws laughter. Chekhov’s brilliance is in creating a play that dares to challenge both perspectives on the validity of idealistic hope.
This duality is represented no better than in the character of Boris Simeonov-Pishchik, who in contemporary terms is a tragicomic character. While his pleas throughout the play are presented as comedy, what lies beneath that veneer is a very serious, even tragic, situation. This is Chekhov finding the core connection that ties tragedy to comedy, with boundless enthusiastic optimism as the ribbon. What makes the scenes involving Boris asking Ranevsky for help in getting out from under his debt avoid real tragedy is not necessarily because they are presented comically, but because the comedy serves to further underline the double-edged sword of an idealistic outlook. Consider the following lines spoken by Pishchik: “My father, may he rest in peace, liked his little joke, and speaking about our family pedigree, he used to say that the ancient Simeonov-Pishchiks came from the horse that Caligula had made a senator. But you see, the trouble is that I have no money. A hungry dog believes only in meat. I’m just the same. All I can think of is money.” Surficially those words are comical, supporting the farce that Chekhov saw as the play’s driving comic force. At the same time, however, there is universality to his words than speak of generations people of all classes who find themselves in sudden economic uncertainty. Within that division of the funny and the serious is an even greater dramatic contradiction within the play that has led to the century-long debate over whether The Cherry Orchard is a farce or a tragedy.
Few things in life can provide the opportunity for elevating the dignity or stripping the dignity away from a person than idealistic values. Chekhov consistently does both within the same character or situation by first allowing the audience to feel empathy toward a character and then introducing comedy to show the slippery quality of idealistic beliefs. Take as one instance the way that Chekhov treats the character of Gayev, a supposedly elegant patrician. The traditional view of such a character type is forever tainted in the scene in which Gayev is forced to deflate his fa?ade and demand that his sister make the choice between him and a lowly footman. Further corrupting the idealistic view of a certain kind of citizen that Gayev is supposed to represent is the fact that he becomes an official at the bank despite the fact that it appears he is entirely incapable of holding such a job of grave responsibility for any length of time.
The Cherry Orchard clearly takes place within a period of time that is ripe for tragedy, as Russian aristocrats and landed gentry began to face up to the coming revolution. Obviously, the play should not be viewed in Marxist terms since Chekhov was hardly a Marxist, but the metaphorical bananas he tosses toward political idealism does force one to confront and decide which side of the class warfare should be viewed most heroically. Chekhov almost certainly did not intend for The Cherry Orchard to be viewed as an outright indictment of the upper class to which he belonged, but the fact that he viewed his play as a farce may well be an indication that he was ahead of his time in viewing the ability of comedy to make revolutionary points that would get lost in the emotional pathos that is difficult to avoid in a tragedy. The tragedy of those characters in the play comes about from their lack of adaptability. Anyone holding fast to political idealism in which the worst character flaw is the inability to change with the times can be forgiven for seeing more humor in this situation than tragedy.
Aristotle. Aristotle’s Poetics. Trans. George Whalley. Ed. John Baxter and Patrick Atherton. Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 1997
Cooper, L. An Aristotelian theory of comedy, with an adaptation of the poetics, and a translation of the tractatus coislinianus’. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1922.
Haslam, S. Anton Chekhov, The Cherry Orchard. In R.D. Brown and S. Gupta, Eds. Aestheticism and modernism. London: Routledge, 2005.
Ben Johnson’s “Volpone” and “Epicene”
I desire / the learned and charitable critic to have so much faith in me / to think it was done of industry.
–Ben Jonson, lines 110-112 of the prefatory epistle to Volpone
Ben Jonson’s play Volpone, or “Sly Fox,” was performed for the first time on stage in London in 1605. It marked a moment of both critical and popular success for Jonson that led into a decade of his greatest accomplishments as a playwright. The next Jonson play to be produced was Epicene, or “The Silent Woman,” in 1609; the two plays, interestingly juxtaposed in chronology, also share an oddly similar dramatic arc, at least up until their respective denouements. Essentially, both plays are driven by trickery (or, as Jonson’s Volpone terms it, by “gullage” (V.xi.12)) utilized for the sake of financial or sexual gain, though often just for amusement, as well. Yet in Volpone, the tricksters, though initially successful, are discovered and punished quite severely, while in the later Epicene, all deception pays off quite thoroughly and without any significant setbacks. Why, then, does Jonson choose to so unreservedly penalize one set of con artists while rewarding the other trio devoted to an analogous occupation? And why, still, when the means and ends of the two groups are, at least on the surface, so similar?
Volpone focuses on the aging, avaricious, titular Venetian magnifico, or nobleman, and his schemes to increase his already extensive wealth. He does so by pretending to be on his deathbed while his very adept and perceptive “parasite” (I.i.68), Mosca, coordinates the comings, goings, and gift-giving of three other noblemen. Each of the noblemen are led to believe that they, in return for their fawning gifts, will be named the heir to the supposedly dying and decidedly childless Volpone and that their gifts “shall then return / Tenfold upon them” (I.i.80-81). A subplot subsequently reveals that Volpone’s lust extends to fleshier targets than just gold, and Mosca manages to arrange for one of the three noblemen to offer up his wife, Celia, the aim of Volpone’s desires. The arrangement fails due to the resistance of the virtuous woman and the unexpected intervention of Bonario, the son of one of the other noblemen. Nonetheless, Mosca artfully inveigles all three of the would-be heirs in the ensuing, embarrassing, and perjury-ridden courtroom scene in which they turn on son, wife, and self at Mosca’s mere suggestion. The ploys of Volpone and Mosca, from that point, devolve into mere harassment of these “gulls” in Act V. Volpone, exercising little foresight and in a state of questionable sobriety, decides to have it declared that he has died, telling Mosca to present himself as the heir, merely to “torment ’em more” (V.iii.106).
Epicene similarly deals with an issue of inheritance as far as the major arc of the drama is concerned. In this case, though, it is the supposed heir, Dauphine, who along with a pair of friends, Truewit and Clerimont, propels the action of the play by attempting to foil his uncle’s efforts at marriage for the sake of subsequently siring a child. The birth of a legitimate son to Dauphine’s uncle, Morose, would disinherit Dauphine. Nevertheless, the trio’s methods are rarely direct and are more often, like in Act V of Volpone, focused on merely harassing and distressing the other characters, particularly Morose. With Truewit at the helm, the trio tricks a number of characters into self-degradation and humiliation, either for the trio’s amusement, the sexual advancement of Dauphine, or both. Furthermore, much of the action occurs, by design, in the home of the reclusive and noise-hating Morose, to whose house they diverted a party for the explicit purpose of tormenting him with “so many several noises” (II.vi.37).
So, while the position of the deceivers is, in some respects, reversed in Epicene (from old man deceiving potential heirs to potential heir deceiving old man), the ultimate goal of tricking people out of their wealth remains, and on the broadest scale the trajectories of the stories are therefore more or less the same. Similarly, a significant subplot in the overriding arcs of both plays focuses on Volpone and Dauphine, the intended beneficiaries of the trickeries, achieving their sexual aspirations through the wiles of their colleagues. And, finally, both Epicene and Volpone are rife with nearly meaningless and unnecessary aggravation of many of the participants in the play at the hands of the two groups of tricksters.
Yet, these preceding paragraphs have only sought to deal with the main and rising actions of the two plays, since the comparison does not hold true through their denouements. The consequences of the actions of the two gulling groups are radically different, despite any parallels present in their crimes. On the one hand, Mosca and Volpone are ultimately charged with fraudulent impersonation and with imposture, respectively, and they are sentenced with the equivalent of death sentences. Mosca, “being a fellow of no birth or blood” (V.xii.112) is condemned for having donned the “habit of a gentleman of Venice” (V.xii.111), even at his master’s behest, in order to appear as Volpone’s heir. Volpone is punished for having gained “by feigning lame, gout, palsy, and such diseases” (V.xii.121-122). That Mosca was also guilty of extortion and Volpone of attempted rape matters less, since they were never charged with those crimes and there was little evidence that would have fully upheld any claims to their effect. Still the question remains: why does the scythe of judgment land so squarely on both of their necks for seemingly harmless crimes?
The severity of the punishment for Mosca and Volpone contrasts starkly with the manifold successes of Truewit, Clerimont, and Dauphine. That trio succeeds in gaining a guarantee for Dauphine’s inheritance, in humiliating myriad characters without gaining their animosity, and in winning the affection of every desirable woman for Dauphine to the point where “they haunt [him] like fairies and give [him] jew-/els” (V.ii.46-47). (In contrast, Volpone is reduced to a failed attempt at rape, which in many respects serves as an early indicator of his impending downward spiral.). The trio in Epicene gets off scot-free. Yet, were they not equally guilty of impersonation, fraud, and extortion as well?
Essentially, it would seem that, from a broad view, the first two-thirds of the plots indicate or suggest a nearly equal culpability for both groups of con artists, or at the very least a less fundamentally abrupt difference in their consequences. However, the texts themselves do provide a number of instances or circumstances that make the action seem less implausible and somewhat justifiable, if not altogether satisfying. And if the actions of the trio in Epicene are not altogether different in kind from those in Volpone, then they are at least different in degree. It is also quite clear from the prefatory material of the two plays that the author, Jonson, has fairly distinct end goals for the two plays and that his hand will, if necessary, force the action to fit his needs or desires (an attribute that is fairly common in the unpredictable and often jarringly angular trajectories of Jonson’s plots).
In an edition of Volpone published about a decade after its initial stage production, Jonson includes a rather long prefatory epistle that dedicates the play to the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, thanking the institutions for their support. He then goes on to condemn anonymous contemporary colleagues, claiming: “it is certain… that the too much license of poetasters in this time, hath much deformed their mistress” (prefatory epistle, 12-14). He defends his play and his goal to act as “a teacher of things divine no less than human, a master in manners” (28-29). More notably he asserts the fact that Volpone is a morality play — a play that will “inform men in the best reason of living” (108) for “the office of a / comic poet [is] to imitate justice and instruct to life” (120-121). So, in this play, Jonson has made it his explicit task to “mix profit with your pleasure” (Prologue, 8), but more significantly to hold off those critics of his unwitting colleagues and, by extension, theater and poetry in general, against the claim that poets and playwrights “never punish / vice” (prefatory epistle, 115-116). Jonson punishes vice in Volpone even if it means the loss of verisimilitude, believability, the understood laws of comedy, and an audience-friendly happy ending.
The prefatory material in Epicene, while similarly asserting a desired end of both “profit and delight” (Another, 2), appears to show much less concern for the conveyance of a moralistic theme. Morose is the only character who suffers a real, tangible loss, and his worst crime is a desire to shun the world and gain an heir. So, if morals are to be gleaned from this play, it is that one should not live reclusively. While not an altogether ridiculous point for Jonson to make, it seems unlikely that an anti-antisocial idea was what drove him to create this play. In fact, given the final turn of the play, in which Morose is discovered to have married a cross-dressing boy of Dauphine’s choosing, the play is reduced to a farce and carries little weight in the realm of morals. And even Jonson is clear that “The ends of all who for the scene do write / Are, or should be, to profit and delight” (Another, 1-2). So, while Jonson is aware that he “should be” providing profit to the public, and while maybe that thought lingers in the back of his mind, his primary aim is indicated in the first Prologue as desiring to provide entertainment “fit for ladies; some for lords, knights, squires, / [But also,] some for your waiting-wench, and city-wires, / Some for your men and daughters of Whitefriars” (Prologue, 22-24).
In Epicene, when Truewit tricks two of the cocksure knights into symbolically and publicly castrating themselves (by giving up their swords) and severely discrediting their own titles, he attributes the trick to Dauphine. The collegiate ladies don’t see “Dauphine’s” trickery of the two knights as malicious or knavish, though it seems thoroughly cruel, but they praise his wit and cleverness and are immediately attracted to him. The success of the team of con artists in Epicene is based on their mutual respect and friendship, allowing for true teamwork to emerge.
In contrast, despite Volpone’s claim that he wished he could “transform [Mosca] to a Venus” (V.iii.104) to have him as a sexual companion as well, he is only impressed by his lackey insomuch as Mosca continues to be profitable and subservient. It is an isolating greed that has always existed between the two that allows for Mosca’s treacherously insatiable avarice to allow everything they’d worked at to unravel. Mosca, the true wit of Volpone, incurs the most disdain when found out “t’have been the chiefest minister” (V.xii.108), and he consequently suffers the harshest punishment.
Thus, it becomes clear that Jonson’s purpose with the two plays was distinct: Volpone served as an anti-greed moralistic guide and Epicene as a long-winded farce on an English society that only valued wit. So, even if the two plays seem to have similar arcs and mirrored actions, it is clear from a close examination of the individual contexts of the plays that the consequences will differ.
And while it is the natural inclination of the viewer or reader to root for the hero — even a villainous one if he possesses some admirable qualities, as Mosca clearly does — it is only with resistance, with an overcoming of odds, that our blood pressures are raised and our interests are piqued. Therefore, there is something satisfying about the rape of Celia being foiled by Bonario, as it presents a resistance to the daunting and unwavering guile of Mosca, a stutter-step on his way to an expected victory. But it ultimately proves to be more than a stutter-step, and while he initially overcomes the minor and attention-grabbing setback, the avoidable and ridiculous unraveling of his machinations in Act V is disappointing. It is disappointing, but it is necessary in the greed-punishing world that Jonson has constructed in Volpone.
At the same time, the infallibility of Truewit et al.’s endeavors leads to an empty feeling at the end of the play since these beguilers faced no worthy opponent and merely succeeded in making fools out of people who were already quite foolish (even named LaFoole!). Yet, Jonson’s purpose with Epicene was not to instruct as much as to entertain — the play is, of course, a farce. So, while the inevitable success of each of Truewit’s plots grows cumbersome, especially since the plots themselves aren’t even necessary for the end-goal of the play (except maybe to aggravate Morose into a frenzy so that he will say yes to anything), their success is necessary given the overall wit-rewarding morality of Epicene’s world. Fundamentally, in Volpone Jonson’s goal is to glorify widely held virtues and punish vice; the play’s morality is hinged on the punishment of avarice and lust. In contrast, in Epicene the goal is to entertain and delight, and so the morality is hinged on rewarding wit and cleverness.
The Ethical Problematic of Comedy Elements in “The Alchemist” by Ben Jonson
It does not seem a viable course of action to try to apply our modern developed ethics to a 16th Century mindset such as that which yielded Jonson’s The Alchemist. For example, as a civilisation would all at the very least, feel uncomfortable taking Kastril’s lighthearted oaths to violently ‘touse,’ his sister as a mere comedic off-hand comment. It is safe to say that such themes of abuse are no longer a valid market for 21st Century comedic material. As The Alchemist contains material so blatantly ethically problematic such as Mammon’s genuine desire to have other men’s wives as his ‘cuckholds,’ or Dol being forced to ‘suckle,’ men at Face’s behest, the matter appears very black and white. If produced in the 21st Century, it would contain unacceptable themes.
The Alchemist could be easily considered an amoral work in any period. From the offset, anyone watching The Alchemist would come expecting to witness despicable cruelty. Jonson writes that his characters are ‘diseased,’ fully admitting them to be morally reprehensible. Furthermore, Jonson himself insists that the reader find their own message within it in the Prologue, hoping the ‘doers,’ shall recognise their own ‘natural follies,’ rather than make any attempt himself to promote an underlying moral. Consequently, it is arguable that trying to read morality into The Alchemist is counterintuitive to Jonson’s own intentions – only through demonstrating unadulterated realistic immorality would we be able to recognise and apply ‘fair correctives,’ to our own vices. However the sins of the gulls are punished in such an extreme and comedic way, it seems more probable that The Alchemist is a parody of the moralising tragedy or fable, rather than having a primary directive as a moral work itself. Therefore, in this essay, instead of considering The Alchemist too cruel to be a comedy, I shall argue that it is rather too cruel not to be a comedy.
When one considers a few of Jonson’s contemporaries, multiple plays labelled at the time as tragedies have a strong potential for a comedic telling. Doctor Faustus was promoted as a tragedy; however, many of the scenes especially in the first half of the play are presented in a lighthearted tone at odds to their subject matter. Recall the personification of the relatively pleasant Seven Deadly Sins, Gluttony asking Faustus: ‘bid me to supper?’ or the absurd Lechery proudly stating: ‘the first letter of my name begins with L.’ This atmosphere which is akin to a circus of sins, combined with the free way Faustus exclaims ‘Great thanks, mighty Lucifer!’ in the same scene places this play at odds with the values of the Christian audience. There is no chance that there will be a satanist in the 16th Century audience, and anyone who is not a satanist can easily laugh at how foolish and inconceivable Faustus’s attitudes are. Indeed, this scene could be comparable to Mammon’s monologue in Act II Scene II, elucidating how he would revel in each of the Seven Deadly Sins if he had the stone, from desiring to eat the ‘unctuous paps of a fat pregnant sow,’ to castrating the ‘town-stallions,’ he envies. Similarly, the intense violence of Cyril Tourneur’s The Revenger’s Tragedy is such a far cry from the possible ethical values of the audience that it is easy to view it as a black comedy. The bastard son Spurio has to but open his mouth and speech along the lines of ‘adultery is my nature,’ or claim that the ‘best side’ of the world is the ‘worst side to heaven,’ renouncing any attempts to reach salvation in a faustian manner. Mammon, Faust and Spurio have such a casual attitude towards sin, they are a safe target for comedy which could be considered cruel or violent, as one would be hard-pressed to find an Elizabethan or Jacobean who would defend their actions.
Hamlet is remembered as a tragedy because its messages of suffering contain universal appeal and the protagonist’s doubt could be applied to a majority of any given audience. We have all felt the ‘calamity,’ of life, the ‘pangs of despised love,’ or indeed any of the wide range of torments Hamlet highlights in his famous third soliloquy. In short, we can conclude that it is easy to laugh at the sufferings of characters we hold no personal sympathy towards, and easy to empathise with characters like us, and the more vice and cruelty a play contains, the more likely there is to be a discrepancy between the values of the readers, and the values of the characters within. Unlike Hamlet, and like Doctor Faustus and The Revenger’s Tragedy, The Alchemist contains protagonists whom the rich Blackfriars audience would have difficulty relating to. From the very first scene we learn the social status of the venture tripartite – Dol as a ‘bawd,’ Face ‘so poor, so wretched,’ with only ‘a spider,’ for company, and Subtle as a miscreant from ‘Pie Corner,’ a location in the poorest ward of London outside the city walls. Subsequently the Blackfriars audience would fail to extrapolate a personal connection to the cozeners, and this safe social distance between the audience and venture tripartite would allow the audience to laugh at their exploits without any personal issues being touched.
The issues with The Alchemist’s cruelty for the Blackfriars audience would be most noticeable in the treatment of the gulls, whose characteristics could potentially cut closer to the bone for the wealthy theatre-goers. Each one of the gulls is well-to-do – even the poorest, Drugger, can afford to spend a ‘portague,’ for Subtle’s services. Referencing the prologue again, Jonson outlines that he hopes to ‘better men,’ who recognise their own follies in these characters, and the tone of ‘to the reader,’ highlights a clear difference between ‘reader,’ and ‘understander.’ Which one of the gulls one could potentially see oneself in is a personal matter, but each theatregoer can at least comprehend Mammon’s desire for escapism in his fantasy universe highlighted in Act II, seeing Face as his ‘Zephyrus,’ who will blow him into a better world. If one were to recognise a vice in one of Jonson’s characters and subsequently in oneself, what would the consequence be? It is conceivable that one would still find the events surrounding this character comic, because their punishments for their vices are often disproportionate to the offense.
Read as black comedies or not, The Revenger’s Tragedy and Doctor Faustus are certainly tragedies in their ending, wherein the sinners are punished. Vindice, having murdered, accepts that he must die too. Faustus not only is carried away to Hell, but also faces crippling mental torment, wishing that he could live in Hell ‘a hundred thousand,’ years if there was still the chance he might ‘at last be sav’d.’ These punishments feel proportionate to the offenses committed by the transcendent sinners. However, in The Alchemist, all characters other than Face and Lovewit receive fairly large punishments for relatively small offences. For merely feeling dissatisfaction with his work and a desire to win at games, Dapper is locked naked (save for the ‘petticoat of fortune’) in ‘Fortune’s privy lodgings,’ for a good fifth of the play. Cruellest of all is perhaps Act IV Scene I, in which Mammon is presented with Dol as a genuine love interest. This man who is so pitiful and lonely he believes his only path to success in the world of romance would be to make ‘eunuchs’ of all other young men, and yet Face convinces him that Dol is ‘nobility’ and encouraging his delusions by exclaiming that Dol is ‘very like,’ the ‘Austriac princes.’ Although Mammon does not have a tasteful vision, he has not committed any morally punishable offence. He even gives her his diamond ring, wishing to make her the ‘lady of the philosopher’s stone’ in a genuine wedding, showing he is capable of acting in a manner which passes as honourable. Kastril especially is not guilty of anything besides countryside naievety, and has his sister stolen from him. The gulls in The Alchemist are the victims of psychological cruelty that far exceeds a just punishment for their undesirable characteristics. Such disproportionate punishments make The Alchemist ethically unrealistic. We can laugh at the extremity of the gulls’ sufferings, because no matter how many vices we might share with a particular gull, their grief is so elaborately constructed by the venture tripartite, it is implausible such events could happen to us. Easily can we laugh at the suffering of characters we cannot relate to.
The Alchemist could be considered a farce of a moral tale, wherein the consequences of the smallest vice are extreme. The moment Mammon starts to feel lust for Dol, Face arranges for ‘thunder’ to come and destroy his rooms ‘in fumo.’ Therefore I argue that if the cruelty was lessened, the humiliation of the gulls any less ludicrous, The Alchemist would resemble more strongly a moral tale in which characters meet a divinely predetermined fate for their sins. If Kastril was defeated in a humiliating duel, if Mammon caught a disease from a bawd, it could seem a similar cruel inevitability of fate to the damnation of Faustus. instead they are caught up in the fantastical web of alchemy, and receive harsh punishments ungrounded in reality and different from any Pardoner’s Tale-style of traditional divine cruelty tailored to the individual sin. Therefore it is the wanton, burlesque cruelty itself which separates The Alchemist from a fable or tragedy and safely establishes it as a comedy.
Sweet Charity: How Pro-feminist Concepts Are Captured in This Musical Comedy
A musical comedy, “Sweet Charity,” based on [,featured] book by Neil Simon, earned nine Tony awards since its premiere on Broadway over 50 years ago. Originally choreographed and directed by the world-famous Bob Fosse, the musical is centric in the experiences of Charity Hope Valentine—a hostess at a dance club stuck in the innards of New York City, in the sixties.Subtle feminist motifs arise as the job description of Valentine and her friends are expressed in the musical.
Valentine and her friends are to make small talk, dance and smile at the “big spenders” of the dance club. The women are grabbed and objectified by the “big spenders” of the club, and they dream of escaping these circumstances.
However, Charity remains naïve about the men she is involved with throughout the musical.The cast enthusiastically portrays each of their own characters individuality. This is most true in the dance number “Rhythm of Life,” that ultimately changes the ambience into a groovy, trippy scene. Charity continues to execute her own performance amid the other talented dancers and singers.
In addition, we continue to see gender dynamics throughout this number as “Big Daddy” leads the scene.As we close the first act, we experience the full throttle of Patti Garwood’s orchestra. The orchestra also perfectly couples the big fosse dance numbers.
The lighting showcased the dancers at their height, furthering the dazzling aura that the director intended. I would not deem Valentine “woke” as they say. Although, I did mention how I had seen feminist motifs exemplified in certain scenes, Valentine’s character in itself should be considered pre-feminist. At the end of the musical, Charity is pushed into a lake by her boyfriend, Oscar, who ultimately cannot love her back because of her profession.
The closing scene does not offer any tangible analysis surrounding sexuality, sex work and/or sex workers that would otherwise make it a pro-feminist musical. The closing of the play, feels as if Charity was being punished for wanted to give up her lifestyle for an exclusive relationship with Oscar. The play does not celebrate Charity’s promiscuity as a rebellious archetype to the status quo, but rather deems her not worthy of love because of her past with numerous lovers.
I would recommend this musical to anyone who enjoyed up-beat, dance heavy performances in the style of the 1960’s. In this particular performance Anne Horak plays Charity Hope Valentine and Alex Goodrich plays Oscar Lindquist. Outstanding performances go to Natonia Monet playing Helene and the whole ensemble cast. Directed and choreographed by Alex Sanchez and score by Cy Coleman, Sweet Charity will run until the 28th of October at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, Illinois.
The Mask of Marriage: Virtue, Honor, Reputation and Female Identity in the Sexual Economy of the Rover
In The Rover, Aphra Behn illustrates a world in which sex and economic exchange unite under the mandates of the patriarchy. In such a society, sexuality is commodified, and a woman is either sold into the marriage market (by her family, in an effort to secure wealth and class status), or she sells her own marketable wares to the highest bidder. Female identity, then, is also bound up in matters of sexuality. Who one is as a woman is linked to the (constructed) role or station she occupies in society — a role or station, that is, which is itself defined by a particular kind of sexual activity or expression. All of these markers are, of course, ultimately subject to the determining male gaze: a woman is who or what she is perceived to be. The Rover, therefore, suggests that “female identity” is quite a fluid concept, varying along the spectrum of sexually-based perception and economic function. In a society where the line between “kept woman” and “woman of quality” is so potentially ambiguous, so thinly drawn (since both “types” are implicated and active in the sexual market economy), virtue, honor and reputation play a significant role in making this distinction. For the plays three main female characters, Angellica, Florinda and Hellena, their loss, temporary absence and maintenance of “honor,” respectively, illustrate the importance of virtue in the market economy. Ultimately, Hellena will embody the lessons about virtue modeled for her by Angellica and Florinda, thereby creating for herself a life that celebrates and echoes the spirit of Libertinism.
As a courtesan, Angellica Bianca enacts a sexual economic and social role in which her virtue, both in terms of her “honor” and “virginity,” holds no value. Sex, not virtue, is the commodity that belongs to and defines the “prostitute.” Angellica relies heavily on her sexual credit, on men believing her sales pitch and buying her goods, to make her own living and to carve out her appropriate space in society. She has no time for foolishness such as love, stating that she is both “resolved that nothing but gold shall charm (her) heart” (II.i.135-136), and thankful to have been born under a “kind but sullen star” that has kept her from falling in love (II.i.139). When Angellica first appears in the play, she is a famous courtesan whose very image arrests the attention of Naple’s male population. Upon seeing her picture Angellica’s form of self-promotion/advertisement, Willmore comments, “How wondrous fair she is” and curses the “poverty” that prevents him from affording her price, a poverty of which he “ne’er complain(s) but when it hinders his approach to beauty which virtue ne’er could purchase” (II.i.102-105). From Willmore’s language, it is clear that Angellica is conceived of as an object of “purchase” distinctly outside the realm of “virtue.” “Purchase” and “virtue” are binary terms – if Angellica embodies market value, she must necessarily lack “honor” value.
What happens, however, if Angellica wants to take back the honor she relinquished as a prostitute? What if she wants to explore love – explore “relationship” possibilities outside a life of paid sexual service? She encounters such a desire – and dilemma – in the rake figure of Willmore. When Willmore convinces Angellica to sleep with him for free, she essentially surrenders the “market power” her position as a courtesan has afforded her. Her value is not in virtue, but in sex. However, when she offers that sex for free, she loses her influence as a prostitute. In her soliloquy, Angellica confesses:
In vain, I have consulted all my charms, In vain this beauty prized, in vain believed My eyes could kindle lasting fires. I had forgot my name, my infamy, And the reproach that honour lays on those That dare pretend a sober passion here. Nice reputation, though it leave behind More virtues than inhabit where that dwells, Yet that once gone, those virtues shine no more. (IV.iii.396-405)
In her role as a courtesan, Angellica had in essence insulated herself from the “reproach” of the mainstream public. In her context, quarantined from “that general disease of (her) sex so long” (II.i.137-138), protected in what she later calls her “innocent security” (V.i.270), she had found a place of acceptance insofar as she was idolized, lusted for and doted upon. However, once she offers her heart to Willmore, who does not dote on her, who is false in the “vows” he initially swears (II.ii.148), she is exposed to the judgments and expectations of a different value system. In this context, she is reminded of her “infamy,” her questionable reputation and how no one would take seriously her desire for love (the “sober passion here”). Angellica’s soliloquy also reveals her awareness of how dearly a good reputation is valued, for it emphasizes how much such a reputation “costs.” In adopting a “nice reputation,” one abandons (or “leaves behinds”) less-honorable “virtues”; that is, virtues that are more in line with the Libertine spirit: bawdiness, “saltiness,” fun, freedom, etc. However, “once gone” the qualities of a good reputation – honor, purity, virginity – are forever lost and leave no trace of the “bolder” virtues they supplanted, for both sets of virtues “shine no more”.
More importantly, however, Angellica is here realizing that she cannot recover and the honor she would need to secure love. She echoes this understanding in a speech to Willmore later in the play, where she says:
But when love held the mirror, the undeceiving glass, Reflected all the weakness of my soul, and made me know, My richest treasure being lost, my honour, All the remaining spoil could not be worth, The conqueror’s care or value. Oh how I fell, like a long worshipped idol, Discovering all the cheat. (V.i.268-279).
In her prostitution, Angellica had been continually shielding herself against feelings that would have interfered with het trade. Once unguarded, Angellica is confronted with hard truths exposed (“reflected”) in the “undeceiving glass” of her unreciprocated love for Willmore. Her romantic desires lay bare all the “cheat(s)” of her profession, the vain “charms” and “prized beauty” mentioned in the earlier soliloquy. More tragically for Angellica, however, is the recognition that her “richest treasure” had not been her good looks or sexual appeal, but her “honour.” Without that virtue, all she has is body, the “remaining spoil”. However, it is the body with the virtue that is “worth/The conqueror’s care (and) value.” “Value” here is multivalent: it means both market or economic value, as well as the love and respect awarded a woman of good repute. In both economies then, the one of commodity exchange and the one of care, Angellica is denied space once she expresses her love for Willmore. Without the mark of honor, a woman in subject to base treatment and ill regard, as evidenced by Florinda when she temporarily “loses” her virtuous distinction.
Unlike Angellica, Florinda is a “woman of quality,” an upper-class Spanish lady who has retained her good reputation. However, she is still a member of the sexual economy in that she finds herself a begrudging participant of an arranged marriage. Her father “designs” for her to marry the “rich old Don Vincentio,” (I.i.16-17), a relic of Spanish Imperialism (having made his money plundering Spanish colonies) who will increase Florinda family’s wealth and social standing. Florinda, however, dreads a possible future as the wife of Don Vincentio, calling him a “hated object” (I.i.19) on whom the qualities she recognizes as her marketable goods, her “youth, beauty and (initial) fortune” (I.i.74), would be wasted. Hellena agrees that Don Vincentio would be an inadequate lover, commenting that he is too old to reproduce with Florinda – able to “perhaps increase her bags, but not her family” [I.i.84]) and “figuratively” identifying his sexual defects through the metaphorical image of his “foul sheets” (i.i.115). The other man in Florinda’s family, her brother Pedro, also views her and her unspoiled sexuality as a potential bargaining chip. He would like her to wed Don Antonio, who is both Pedro’s good friend and the viceroy’s son. Therefore, Pedro might be motivated by some sense of male camaraderie, but is more likely advocating for his chum in order to increase his own political influence and status. In either circumstance, Florinda’s romantic wishes are completely ignored, for she has fallen in love with the Englishman Belvile. During a street-masquerade, disguised by her vizard, she freely makes a promise with Belvile to meet her later that night. Ironically, it is this disguised exchange that will lead to the obfuscation of her honor and confusion surrounding her chaste identity.
Florinda leaves the carnival scene to await Belvile in a garden for their arranged rendezvous. Unexpectedly, however, she encounters the rakish Willmore, who does not recognize her as “Florinda,” a decent woman and his friend’s love interest. As far as he is concerned, she is simply a beautiful woman alone at night, and thus suspect for being both unaccompanied and a wanderer in the dark. Therefore, she must be a prostitute, and Willmore accordingly declares her, in sexual excitement, to be “a very wench!” (III.v.16). An attempted rape scene proceeds, with Willmore pressuring Florinda to consummate their meeting hastily – for, in pausing too long, she would be allowing a quick “accident” to become a blamable act of “willful fornication” [III.v.35-38]. She could claim rape but, as Willmore points out, who would believe her intentions as being “honorable”? “Why, at this time of night,” he asks, “was your cobweb door set open, dear spider – but to catch flies?” (III.v.53-54). Not only does Willmore’s question/accusation rob Florinda of any redemptive virtue, it also inverts the rape scenario by painting Florinda as the predacious party, with the “spider” catching “flies” in her “cobweb”. It is not until Belvile enters and recognizes his lover that Florinda’s identity as a “lady” is affirmed. Furious at the shame and harm that might have come to Florinda, Belvile wonders how Willmore could have mistaken her for a prostitute: “Coulds’t (thou) not see something about her face and person, to strike an awful reverence in thy soul?” (III.vi.23-24) No — apparently in the dark of night, to male eyes blind with lust and desire, there is nothing innately glowing about a female’s virtue to distinguish her from an “errant harlot” (III.vi.20). In the unrecognized figure of Florinda, Willmore simply saw “as mere a woman as (he) could wish” (III.vi.25). This episode of mistaken identity confirms Angellica’s observation that, indeed, once the title of “good reputation” is lifted, its associated virtues in women “shine no more.”
In a rather tragicomic turn, Florinda finds herself in a similar situation later in the play, when she accidentally wanders into Blunt’s chamber. Recently robbed and humiliated by a prostitute pretending to be a lady, Blunt sees in Florinda the opportunity to avenge his embarrassment: “(I) will be revenged on one whore for the sins of another” (IV.v.52). Thus, he and Frederick attempt to entrap Florinda in forced group sex. It is not until Florinda gives Blunt a ring, showing him a physical representation of her virtue, offering a token of value rather than demanding one it as a prostitute would, that the men question their assumptions. “I begin to suspect something;” says Frederick, “and ‘twould anger us viley to be trussed up for a rape upon a maid of quality” (IV.v.123-125). These rape scenes and the rapidity with which they transpire, underscore the extreme fluidity of female identity. Although ostensibly out of place, “formally” incongruous in a comedy, they are significant for the way they demonstrate how deeply the “female self” is enmeshed in matters of sexual activity and male perception. Clearly, “honor” is not an innate quality, but one that must be corroborated by social status. This is precisely the “social” game that Hellena will play in order to ensure her happy ending.
From the lessons modeled for her by Angellica and Florinda, Hellena understands the importance of female honor. Like her counterparts, Hellena is implicated in the economic exchange between the sexes, fully recognizing and appreciating the value of her quality wares. In the first scene of the play, for example, Hellena speaks of herself as a rare-find object d’art, “fit” for love. She asks Florinda, “Have I not a world of youth? A humour gay? A beauty passable? A vigour desirable? Well shaped? Clean limbed? Sweet breathed?” (I.i.38-40). In possession of these traits, it seems Hellena has appraised herself to be quite a catch, placing a high value on her contribution to the sexual market. It is this recognition of herself as commodity that motivates her decision to play the field before leaving for the nunnery and beginning “her everlasting penance in a monastery” [I.i.135]. She sets her sites on the Libertine Willmore, whom she meets in disguise at the street-masquerade. Her intentions, her priorities, are rather ambiguous. Whereas Florinda adores Belvile and Belvile alone, with a desire to ultimately marry the Englishman, Hellena may be more interested in extending the moment of flirtation, the space of play and experimentation represented by the masque. “Is there no difference between leave to love me, and leave to lie with me?” she asks Willmore, who is anxious to have her in his bed (I.ii.189-190). This is perhaps Hellena’s attempt to prolong the thrill of the carinvalesque, and evidence of how she is a type of female rover. For Hellena, the best way to extend Saturnalia is to don the mask of marriage.
In order for Hellena to be accepted by her social context while in a contradictory pursuit of multiple love experiences, she must retain her virtue. By the end of the play, she is anxious to secure Willmore’s marriage vow, which, as a rake, Willmore is of course disinclined to offer. But her wish for marriage stems not out of a desire to share some intimate, monogamous bond with the tamed Libertine. Evidence of this can be found in her objection to Willmore’s proposition of sex without/before marriage:
‘Tis but getting my consent, and the business is soon done. Let But old gaffer Hymen and his priest say amen to’t, and I dare lay My mother’s daughter by as proper a fellow as your father’s son, Without fear of blushing. (V.i.424-427)
From this language, which undermines the “religiousness” of the marriage sacrament with its allusion to the pagan god Hymen, it seems that Hellena’s motives for marriage have little to do with some need to be “virtuous” in the pious, Christian sense. Rather, Hellena understands how the institution of “marriage” would bless, or “say amen to”, her name. Functioning as a cloak protecting her honor before the judgmental eyes of the patriarchy, the label of “marriage” would afford Hellena the opportunity to have varied sexual relations, if this is indeed her desire, as her intentions remain ambiguous, reflecting the openness and limitless options she wants from life. In this way, marriage acts as the ultimate disguise. It places a permanent mark of virtue upon a woman, allowing her the sexual freedom of a Libertine without fear of losing her honor and facing the misfortune experienced by the non-virtuous, “fallen” prostitute figure of Angellica. That Angellica is simply rushed off the stage at the end of the play, unable to join the inner-circle of the “good” characters, unable to be involved in the resolution of the comedic plot, is a formal parallel to her narrative of “ostracism” in 18th-century patriarchal society.
Because the women in The Rover speak of themselves as commodified objects, content to be agents or members of the sexual economy, it seems that Aphra Behn is not launching a full critique of the patriarchy in her play. Additionally, the fact that Willmore is included as one of the characters in the happy restoration of peace in the comedy, suggests that Behn is also not condemning Libertinism. Instead, her play demonstrates the role of the woman in Libertine society. Angellica, Florinda and Hellena all represent ways that women can negotiate their role within the mandates of a patriarchal context — either successfully (Florinda, Hellena) or tragically (Angellica). The most successful character, Hellena, seems able to reconcile her honest desires with social expectation. She, as a female rover, plays the system and can be both free and accepted, both sexual and virtuous, and live the kind of robust life that Aphra Behn – in this way a Libertine herself – fully endorses.
humour as the backbone of The Country Wife
As a Restoration Comedy humour is central to Wycherley’s play. Like many other Restoration Comedies The Country Wife is characterised by farcical humour that runs throughout the whole play, generated through wit, sexual innuendo and a great deal of dramatic irony. However, Wycherley’s use of humour serves more than simply the creation of entertainment for the audience. Through the use of humour Wycherley addresses some of his key thematic concerns, ultimately providing a damning indictment on the state of this “diseased” Restoration society. The social mores and values of Wycherley’s stereotype characters are constantly mocked, thus while Wycherley creates entertainment through this humour he also forced his contemporary audience to evaluate the values that were at the heart of their society.
Wycherley’s use of humour as a means of entertaining as well as addressing key thematic concerns can be seen through the character of Pinchwife. This is as through Wycherley creating humour at Pinchwife’s expense he is able to put forward the idea that city husband’s play a large role in their own cuckolding. This is an idea central to the play, as a key theme of Wycherley’s is discussing why marriage as an institution had become so diseased. Wycherley uses humour as a tool to put this idea forward in Act V scene II where Pinchwife unwittingly hands his wife over to Horner, securing his cuckolding. The humour is created through the dramatic irony that Pinchwife believes he is handing over his sister not his wife, however the audience know otherwise, and know he is securing his own fate with this action. Thus when Pinchwife says to Horner “The last time, you know, sir, I brought you a love letter. Now you see a mistress.” there is huge dramatic irony which generates humour, particularly due to the fact the Pinchwife’s use of the word “mistress” to describe his own wife. Yet Wycherley’s humour does more than just entertain. The fact that Pinchwife literally hands his wife over to Horner is hugely symbolic, and develops Wycherley’s idea that the Husbands to a large extent cause their own cuckolding. Thus Wycherley uses comedy as a tool to show the audience his ideas about the problems within the marriages of the Restoration society, and to demonstrate his idea that in many ways the husbands are to blame.
Humour through dramatic irony such as this is a key feature of the play, however, equally significant in the generation of humour throughout the play is Wycherley’s use of sexual innuendo and double entendre. In many cases this humour does seem to be for the sole purpose of entertainment and to generate laughter through the outrageous nature of the innuendo. Yet even some of Wycherley’s crudest humour has deeper underlying thematic concerns that he is addressing. This can be seen for example in Act IV scene III between Horner and the “Virtuous Gang”. Following Horner outrageously having intercourse with Lady Fidget under Sir Japer’s nose without him realising, the audience sees that China becomes a euphemism for these sexual relations. Thus the audience see humour created through the use of this euphemism in front of Sir Jasper without him realising. This can be seen for example with Lady Fidget’s statement that “we women of quality never think we have China enough.”. Humour is created as she is openly talking about extramarital sexual relations right in front of her husband, yet he as the stereotypical fool cannot see it. However, once again we see that Wycherley uses humour to develop other key thematic ideas. This is as through this innuendo sexual relations are debased into something as basic as “china”. Thus by comparing sexual relations to such an inanimate object Wycherley conveys a sense that such sexual relations are very cheap and meaningless. Thus again he can be seen to be using humour to address his thematic ideas. Moreover the use of dramatic irony makes the audience to an extent complicit in what is going on, as they unlike Sir Jasper, understand the double entendres. Thus Wycherley forces the audience to contemplate whether they can actually accept what is going go, thus using humour to pose key questions to the audience.
Wycherley also uses humour to mock the vices of his own contemporary audience. This can be seen most pertinently through the character of Sparkish. Wycherley portrays Sparkish as he stereotypical “fop” who believes himself to be far more intelligent, and possess far more wit than he actually does. The audience sees through his language and the contrast between him and the real “wits” of Horner, Harcourt and Dorilant that he is a ridiculous character, and one who is deservedly mocked. However, Wycherley makes clear that Sparkish is representative of many of his own audience, whom like Sparkish are far too concerned with their outward appearance and others’ perceptions of them. This is shown clearly through the meta-theatrical element to Sparkish’s speech when he says he “would not miss a chance to sit in wits row”. For a contemporary audience there would have actually been those who considered themselves “wits” sitting in some equivalent to the “wits row” that Sparkish speaks of. Thus by Wycherley presenting Sparkish as this ridiculous character he not only creates humour, but poses the question to his audience of whether those among them who consider themselves “wits” are genuinely so, or whether they are more like Sparkish.
When assessing the overall role of humour in The Country Wife one has to accept that it is used for more than the simple generation of laughter. Of course as a Restoration Comedy the farcical humour is at the heart of the play. However, in many ways Wycherley went beyond the works of his contemporaries in his use of humour to actually critique the Restoration society and its vices. For Wycherley humour is a tool that transcends the entertainment of his contemporary audience and challenges them to question societal values.