Tuesday, June 05, 2007

The Conscious Lovers (1722)--Richard Steele

Though the reputation of this play traditionally has been as a transitional piece between the more ribald productions of the Restoration era and the insipid sentimental drama that dominated through most of the 18th century, I thought it was rather enjoyable. The main characters are upright and decent without however being prudish, dull, sluggish or unsexy, which makes for a very admirable picture of humanity, albeit a difficult one to actually pull off in all its aspects. We last encountered Steele (on this site) as the decidedly junior partner of the Spectator writing team. I found his contributions to that paper so lackluster in fact that I had very little expectation that his play would bear any mark of a talented or superiorly intelligent writer at all that I was surprised by how competent, and if I may say so, mature his composition was here.

I have before offered my opinion in these pages both that the personality of our current age seems to be marked by a particularly strident worldliness, as well as that it bears some similiarities to that of the period of the reign of Queen Anne and the Hanoverian succession in which Steele flourished. Steele does not strike me as being by nature of the worldly or pragmatic type of author or man, but the atmosphere of his time seems to have inclined him to respect and submit to the prevalent status of these attitudes in his writing. In The Conscious Lovers, the result of this is largely positive. The action of the play centers upon a love quadrangle in which two of the principals, though in love with other people, have been contracted to marry each other by their families. Though the marriage is not what either desires, the betrothed do not express any idea of its being outrageous, and seek a means to avoid it without openly defying the duty owed to their parents; if this last cannot be found, each maintains that he will submit to the terms of the arrangement contracted for them. Such jokes as are made at the expense of the custom, the professions that profit handsomely from it, etc, are light, and while they hint at the absurdity and mockery of the ideal of marriage that this custom makes, it is done carefully and cynically enough to insinuate that the author has no real problem with it if it is what the ruling powers desire. Here is a selection of quotes:

The son of Lord Bevil to his father--'For as you well judge, a woman that is espoused for a fortune is yet a better bargain if she dies; for then a man still enjoys what he did marry, the money, and is disencumbered of what he did not marry, the woman.'

The same, later on, as the hour of the wedding approaches--'If the lady is dressed and ready, you see I am. I suppose the lawyers are ready too.'

The lady Lucinda(the betrothed of Bevil Junior)`s maid, Phillis, explaining to her lady why she allows her footman boyfriend to *kiss* her--'...we poor people, that have nothing but our persons to bestow or treat for, are forced to deal and bargain by way of sample, and therefore, as we have no parchments or wax necessary in our agreements, we squeeze with our hands and seal with our lips to ratify vows and promises.'

The fop Cimberton (being wooed by Lucinda`s mother to marry the daughter in opposition to the father`s wishes) affecting to be turned on (there is a good fortune at stake) by the womanly form of Lucinda, to her mother--'Madam, there is no reflection, no philosophy, can at all times subdue the sensitive life, but the animal shall sometimes carry away the man.'

I am surprised that the BBC Masterpiece Theatre/Historical drama division has not done more with the enormous quantity of material afforded by the Restoration and 18th century theater. This would seem to be an obvious step for them, having (incredibly) nearly exhausted the 18th and 19th century English novel, and wrestled with Shakespeare seemingly to a point of cinematic and audience fatigue as well. Of course a taste and enthusiasm for this often coarse and comparatively outrageous time period would have to be cultivated in the audience but that is what these types of productions most excel in. The gallery of fops, rogues, loose women, drunkards, sword brandishers would be a transition from their more sedate, measured and psychologically complex descendants who constitute the current favored programming, but if some engaging and interesting actors, who respected and could take up the spirit of the material without being concerned to be cheeky or demonstrate how cool, clever, etc they are, could be found, I have no doubt it would succeed.

In act IV the witty Phillis observes to her lover, who is showing a lack of daring and ardency in relation to a potentially dangerous scheme that might win her to him utterly, that 'we hear every day of people's hanging themselves for love, and won't they venture the hazard of being hanged for love? Oh! Were I a man--`

There is a spinster aunt/chaperone to the marriageable young ladies in the play, which is a stock character in this genre of the theater, however, this one is notable for her revelation of her age, which happens to be 34!

It took me a long time, and the reading of many Restoration dramas to realize that the fop characters who are ubiquitous in these plays constitute one of the more solid blocs of blatantly homosexual characters in all of canonical literature. It is hard to gage how hip to this the authors of the time actually were because the subject, certainly as moderns would think about it, is never alluded to. The much ridiculed Colley Cibber, at least, whom Pope made the king of the dunces, one would like to think had no idea what his stock fop character Sir Novelty Fashion was really about. Nonetheless the whole parade of Lord Foppingtons and Fopworths and Cimbertons who populate these comedies are probably the most flaming gang ever to appear in the pages of anything, and really they don`t make any sense otherwise. This whole race of character is entirely given over to fancy dress, headgear, attending the theater and other fashionable haunts, expresses little romantic interest in women apart from trying to connect with a fortune, shuns horsemanship and country pursuits entirely, does not appear to carry, or at least certainly to relish using, weapons, and endures endless ridicule from the more conventional male characters, and some of the women, all of which strikes the reader as an improbable state for any semi-intelligent man to wish to persist in, until the obvious explanation offers itself. It also explained a question that pops into my head from time to time, which was, who and where were all the flagrant homosexuals in the 1700s? particularly in England, which seemed to have fewer religious/musical/artistic societies vis-a-vis the continent for men of those inclinations to take refuge in.

Richard Steele did not have a great work ethic and was encumbered with debt most of his adult life, to the point that he had to finally leave London altogether and take refuge in Wales, which was even more of a career killer in the 1720s that it is today. Most accounts of him inform the student that he was devoted to his `beautiful wife`. I tried to find a picture of her, but was unsuccessful.

Tour. Steele was a native of Dublin, being born in Bull Alley, near St Patricks Cathedral (where Swift was dean and is buried; Anglican). He was buried with his beautiful wife in St Peter`s Church in Carmarthen, Wales, which church, and these graves in them, still stand. There is a well known painting by Constable of the view of London (the dome of St Paul`s being prominent) from Steele`s cottage at 94 Haverstock Hill in Hampstead, which is now of course an outlying and totally built-up part of the city but especially in Steele`s time was a country village. I do not know what the view is like now (the cottage is gone), though apparently there is at least a Sir Richard Steele pub in the area. Perhaps it is not worth going to as a tourist, but I must say if I could wake up tomorrow morning and go have lunch at it the prospect would be most delightful to me.

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