World Literature

Sir George Etherege

 

BORN: 1636, Maidenhead, England

DIED: 1692, Paris, France

NATIONALITY: British

GENRE: Drama

MAJOR WORKS:

The Comical Revenge; or, Love in a Tub (1664)

She Would if She Could (1668)

The Man of Mode; or, Sir Fopling Flutter (1676)

 

Overview

George Etherege had a gift for sharp and satiric social observation, but he also had an indulgent streak and an indifferent work ethic. He was one of the great British Restoration period dramatists. He had an expert touch with portraits of vain social show-offs, witty urban gentlemen on the make, and duplicitous young women plotting to get their man. In some ways, however, his greatest character was the persona he created for himself—a diplomat and gentleman of the court with a taste for the fast life.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

A Murky Background. Etherege remains a shadowy figure for biographers. He left only three plays and a handful of poetry, and most of the information about him comes from letters written long after he ceased writing for the stage. Etherege’s father was a landowner and a court loyalist, and after he died, George was raised by his grandfather. To provide for him, his grandfather apprenticed him in 1654 to an attorney. Etherege later studied law in London, but he left the profession in 1663 and began working on his first play. He may have traveled in France during this time.

Charles II had only recently been restored to power in England, following the rule of the strict Puritan leader Oliver Cromwell following the English Civil War, which had culminated in the overthrow and execution of Charles I in 1649. Cromwell had restricted theatrical productions as morally unhealthy, among other efforts at regulating what he and his followers saw as the sinfulness of life in England. When Charles II returned to England after his exile in France, however, he brought with him the French court tastes for extravagance, clever conversation, flirtation, and comic theater. England celebrated his return, and the period dominated by the distinctly un-Puritan character of his reign is known as the Restoration (1660-1700).

Etherege quickly became a player in Charles II’s court. William Oldys wrote that Etherege was one of ‘‘those leading Wits among the Quality and Gentry of chief rank and distinction, who made their pleasure the chief business of their lives.’’ The Comical Revenge, Etherege’s first play, probably premiered in March of 1664. One of the crew recalled it as being more successful than any preceding comedy. Its success opened doors for Etherege, and he was soon established as one of the witty group of courtiers including Sir Charles Sedley and John Wilmot, earl of Rochester. King Charles himself attended the opening of Etherege’s next play, She Would If She Could, on February 6, 1668. This play, which critics have generally considered superior to The Comical Revenge, generated less interest at the time. Samuel Pepys's diary contains the following description of the premiere: ‘‘Lord, how full was the house and how silly the play, there being nothing in the world good in it and few people pleased in it.'' The poorly prepared production may well account for the indifferent reception of She Would If She Could, which was later quite popular with audiences and critics alike.

Etherege's standing at court, established by two plays and a group of aristocratic friends, was further confirmed by his appointment in 1668 as secretary to Sir Daniel Harvey, England's ambassador to Turkey. He accompanied Harvey to Constantinople (now called Istanbul) from 1668 to 1671, and, upon his return to London, Etherege seems to have taken up the easy, directionless life he had left. Etherege wrote to his friend Henry Jermyn in 1688, ‘‘I need not tell you I have preferr'd my pleasure to my profit and have followed what was likelier to ruin a fortune already made than make one: play and women. Of the two the Sex is my strongest passion.’’

Warned by the careless productions of She Would If She Could, Etherege seems to have taken pains to ensure that his third and last play, The Man of Mode, fared better. The first recorded performance took place on March 11, 1676. The main character, Dorimant, is probably modeled on the fashionable and notorious Earl of Rochester, a new friend of Etherege's. Rather than being inspired by the play's success to further write for the stage, however, Etherege continued to pursue the pleasures of the court in the company of Rochester and others. There are reports of pranks and tavern brawls. In 1679, Etherege was nonetheless thought respectable enough for knighthood, which he may have purchased rather than earned in order to marry a rich widow, Mary Arnold.

Etherege was appointed as a diplomat to Germany soon after his marriage, and he lived there much as he did in London, continuing to indulge his passions for gambling and women. He had dancing and fencing instructors and enjoyed what opera and other music was available. He gave some time to tennis and more to hunting, but how much he gave to business is debatable. Etherege’s final years are even more obscure than his first. He left Germany for France early in 1689, but little else is known after that. The place and date of his death are unknown, although research points to Paris in 1692.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Etherege's famous contemporaries include:

Rory O'More (1620-1655): Irish nobleman and the main organizer of the 1641 Irish Rebellion, the event that sparked the Eleven Years War.

Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658): Puritan leader of the of the Parliamentary forces which rebelled against King Charles I in the English Civil War. After having the king executed in 1649, he claimed absolute power and appointed himself Lord Protector for Life.

Margaret Cavendish (1624-1674): Cavendish was one of the most prolific, ambitious, and thoughtful writers of the period. Her Sociable Letters (1664) gives a vivid, first- person account of her remarkable times.

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679): English philosopher and father of Materialism, or the reduction of all events and thoughts to the effects of physical motion. He argued for a clean break between philosophy and theology.

Samuel Butler (1612-1680): English poet best known for his mock-epic poem Hudibras, which satirizes the hypocrisy of the Puritans.

 

Works in Literary Context

Restoration Comedy. Until recently, Etherege has been considered one of the inventors of a genre known variously as the comedy of manners. This type of play is reflective of the lightheartedness of the era that produced it. After years of imposed seriousness during the Purtian rule of Oliver Cromwell, high society was eager for some naughty fun. Etherege’s work, like other Restoration-era comedies, suited the tastes of theater-goers. His plays feature explicit sexual situations, drunkenness, rowdy violence, feasting, and revelry—with little worry about morals.

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Etherege's heroes are far from being paragons of moral virtue, but it is hard not to admire them for their wit, charisma, and sheer audacity. Following are some examples of works containing either audacious or notably foppish characters.

''Satire Against Mankind'' (1675), a poem by John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester. Wilmot, who was good friends with Etherege, wrote biting satires of human hypocrisy while developing a reputation in the court of Charles II as a libertine.

The Scarlet Pimpernel (1905), a novel by Baroness d'Orczy. This adventure tale set during the French Revolution features a character with a secret identity: to the public he is an insufferable fop of an English baronet, but in private he is the audacious hero known as the Scarlet Pimpernel, famous for his daring rescues of condemned French aristocrats.

Elmer Gantry (1927), a novel by Sinclair Lewis. A smug, womanizing college football player notices the power and money that evangelical preachers are making, so he decides to become one himself, destroying anyone who gets in his way. He is exposed as a fraud, but the publicity only gives him greater status.

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003), a film directed by Gore Verbinski. This adventure film features the memorable antihero pirate Captain Jack Sparrow, a man without a social compass, who swaggers and bluffs his way in and out of several tight spots on the high seas.

 

Works in Critical Context

The Man of Mode. Moral issues tended to dominate critical discussion of Restoration comedy up through the middle of the twentieth century. Characters like Dorimant in The Man of Mode are seen on the one hand as accurate representations of a court wit of the period, and on the other hand as dangerous role models who can have a bad influence on the behavior of audiences and readers.

In the 1700s, critics such as Samuel Johnson and Thomas Macaulay took the high moral road in condemning Etherege’s work, fearing the dangers of ‘‘mixed characters’’ on impressionable young minds. Indeed, this was a view that was common up to the early twentieth century. In 1924, Bonamy Dobree remarked that Etherege took no positions, and that his plays were ‘‘pure works of art’’ rarely appealing to the intellect and not to be taken seriously.

There have been attempts, especially during the 1950s, to claim great philosophical significance for Etherege’s plays, especially The Man of Mode. John Palmer summarizes a century of defense when he calls Etherege an artist who ‘‘accurately reflected this period in his personal character, and received a sincere impulse to reflect it artistically in his comedies.... His plays are morally as well as artistically sound. He felt and saw the comedy of contemporary life; and he honestly sought and found the means to express it.’’

 

Responses to Literature

1. Do some research into what the words ‘‘rake’’ and ‘‘libertine’’ meant in the period of 1660-1700. What does a ‘‘rake’’ believe, what are the social origins of this type of person, and how is this character type represented in Etherege’s plays? How does a ‘‘rake’’ compare to a ‘‘fop’’?

2. What is a ‘‘double entendre,’’ and what is its comic effect? How and why does Etherege use it in his comedies?

3. How relevant is Etherege’s life as a context for his writing? Do you feel that Etherege wrote with insight about the people and society he knew best, or did he write an idealized version of people and relationships that were always outside of his own circle and situation? Is it relevant that Etherege did not write about many things he knew from his own life, such as his diplomatic work?

4. William Shakespeare was known for writing plays that appealed to all the social levels of English society. How do Etherege’s plays compare in this way? Were they meant to be successful with all types of audiences? If so, how? If not, how do you think this has affected his popularity among modern audiences?

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Bear, Andrew. ‘‘Restoration Comedy and the Provok’d Critic.’’ In Restoration Literature: Critical Approaches. Ed. Harold Love. London: Methuen, 1972.

Hawkins, Harriett. Likenesses of Truth in Elizabethan and Restoration Drama. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972.

Holland, Norman H. The First Modern Comedies: The Significance of Etherege, Wycherley, and Congreve. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1959.

Hume, Robert D. The Development of English Drama in the Late Seventeenth Century. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976.

Huseboe, Arthur R. Sir George Etherege. Boston: Twayne, 1987.

Powell, Jocelyn. ‘‘George Etherege and the Form of a Comedy.’’ In Restoration Theatre. Eds. J. R. Brown and B. Harris. London: Arnold, 1965.

Weber, Harold. The Restoration Rake-Hero: Transformation in Sexual Understanding in Seventeenth-Century England. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1986.

Zimbardo, Rose. A Mirror to Nature: Transformation in Drama and Aesthetics 1660-1732. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1986.

Periodicals

Bracher, Frederick. ‘‘Etherege as Diplomat.’’ Harvard Library Bulletin 17 (January 1969): 45-60.

Berman, Ronald. ‘‘The Comic Passions of The Man of Mode.’’ Studies in English Literature 10 (Summer 1970): 459-468.

Corman, Brian. ‘‘Interpreting and Misinterpreting The Man of Mode.’’ Papers in Language and Literature 13 (1977): 35-53.

Macaulay, Thomas Babington. ‘‘Comic Dramatists of the Restoration.’’ Edinburgh Review 72 (January 1841): 490-528.