BORN: 1677, Londonderry, Ireland
DIED: 1707, London
GENRE: Poetry, drama
Love and a Bottle (1698)
The Constant Couple (1700)
The Recruiting Officer (1706)
The Beaux Stratagem (1707)
George Farquhar. © Topham / The Image Works
A notable dramatist of the Restoration period, George Farquhar was instrumental in reforming the theatrical practices of his age. For the most part, his most famous plays, The Recruiting Officer and The Beaux Stratagem, maintain the witty, vulgar, cynical, and amoral tone characteristic of Restoration drama, also known as comedy of manners. However, Farquhar’s work demonstrates a natural humor, warmth, and joy for life that the writing of his contemporaries lacked. Because of the lighthearted and somewhat idealistic remarks in his plays, Farquhar is considered by some to have signaled the end of Restoration comedy by moving toward sentimental drama.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
The English Restoration. Farquhar was born at a time when England had only recently recovered from a violent civil war, during which the ruling English monarchy was removed from power. In its place, a commonwealth led by Puritan military commander Oliver Cromwell was created. Under Cromwell’s strict rule, theaters throughout England were closed down due to their alleged debasement of moral values. When the monarchy was finally restored to power in 1660 under the rule of Charles II—hence the term ‘‘Restoration’’—theaters were once again opened, and the exuberant feelings of the day made their way into the comedies that became popular during that time.
Born in Londonderry, Ireland, Farquhar’s education began with his attending the Londonderry Free Grammar School under the instruction of Ellis Walker, an educator who acquired local fame for having his students perform the comedies of Terence, an ancient Roman writer, and William Shakespeare. In 1694 Farquhar entered Trinity College in Dublin as a sizar, or a student who performs menial duties for a small allowance, but his studies ended abruptly in 1696 when he left Trinity without a degree. Some biographers speculate that he may have been expelled from the college.
Accidental Stabbing. Farquhar joined Dublin’s Smock Alley Theatre, where he became acquainted with stage life and began a lifelong friendship with the Irish actor Robert Wilks. Farquhar was a poor actor who had a thin voice and occasionally suffered from stage fright. His acting career ended in 1697 after he accidentally stabbed and seriously injured a fellow player during a dueling scene. Nonetheless, his theater experience proved invaluable in helping him gain an understanding of both the potential and the limitations of the stage.
Encouraged by Wilks to try writing comedies, Farquhar traveled to London and contacted Christopher Rich, manager of the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane, where Farquhar’s first play, Love and a Bottle, was successfully produced in 1698. Early audiences treated the play with good-natured praise. Compared to Farquhar’s later comedies, Love and a Bottle seems old-fashioned in its determination to be bawdy, its reliance on stock characters and plot devices, its harsh treatment of the cast mistress, and its focus on sexual pursuit. With this first drama, Farquhar tested his theatrical skills, but he created little that was new or influential.
Attempt at Fiction Writing. The year his first play appeared on stage, Farquhar was not yet completely committed to drama as a vocation, for he anonymously published a novella, The Adventures of Covent-Garden, a few weeks after Love and a Bottle opened. The Adventures of Covent-Garden was supposedly based on Antoine Furetiere’s Scarron’s City Romance, Made English (1671). None of Farquhar’s early biographers attributed the novella to him. In 1795, Isaac Reed reproachfully noted in his copy that Farquhar plagiarized a bit from it for The Constant Couple. Indeed, Farquhar’s novella introduced plots and dramatic theory that he expanded in later works. Leigh Hunt, who had acquired Reed’s copy, was the first to recognize that Farquhar himself was the author of the novella. Hunt said Farquhar was the author described in the novella as ‘‘a young gentleman somewhat addicted to poetry and the diversions of the stage.’’
Fame The success of Farquhar’s second play, The Constant Couple; or, a Trip to the Jubilee, affirmed Farquhar’s ability as a playwright. It features the character of Sir Harry Wildair, played by Wilks, whose tremendous popularity inspired Farquhar to write Sir Harry Wildair: Being the Sequel of the Trip to the Jubilee. An unexpected failure, it received little critical attention and was the first in a series of unsuccessful productions. In 1703, likely supposing she was wealthy, Farquhar married a widow who, he soon discovered, was penniless. Farquhar left London the following year to accept a commission as a lieutenant of Grenadiers in the army. Farquhar’s service on a recruiting campaign in England’s west country inspired one of his most famous pieces, The Recruiting Officer—an immediate success upon its production in 1706. Despite his revived fame, the final years of Farquhar’s life were marred by poverty and failing health. Living in London, Farquhar received enough financial support from Wilks to work on his last play, The Beaux Stratagem. Completed in only six weeks, it is regarded by many to be Farquhar’s finest work. In 1707, shortly after The Beaux Stratagem was staged, Farquhar died of tuberculosis at the age of twenty-nine.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Farquhar's famous contemporaries include:
Barthold Heinrich Brockes (1680-1747): This German poet translated Alexander Pope's Essays on Man into German.
Isaac Watts (1674-1784): Watts was an English songwriter who penned over seven hundred hymns.
Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741): An Italian priest, Vivaldi was also a preeminent and prolific Baroque composer known for his work The Four Seasons.
Anne Marie of Orleans (1669-1728): Queen of Savoy and Sardinia, Anne Marie of Orleans was also the grandmother of King Louis XV of France.
Jiang Tingxi (1669-1732): This Chinese painter edited the encyclopedia Complete Collection of Ancient and Modern Writings and Charts.
Ludvig Holberg (1684-1754): Holberg was a Norwegian historian and playwright who is considered the founder of Danish literature.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
The life of a soldier has long been the subject of literature, art, and, more recently, film. Here are some other works about the lives of soldiers:
The Iliad (twelfth century BCE), an epic poem by Homer. This classic tale of the Trojan War focuses on the dispute between Greece's greatest warrior, Achilles, and his commander, Agamemnon.
The Barracks Thief (1984), a novella by Tobias Wolff. Wolff describes the lives of paratroopers in training to join the Vietnam War.
All Quiet on the Western Front (1929), a novel by Erich Maria Remarque. This famous novel about a German soldier serving during World War I is one of the most widely read war novels of all time.
Black Hawk Down (2001), a film directed by Ridley Scott. Based on a true story, this movie tells the story of an elite group of soldiers who have been sent to Somalia to capture a corrupt warlord.
Jarhead (2003), a memoir by Anthony Swofford. Swofford describes his role as a sniper in the First Gulf War.
Works in Literary Context
Critics stress Farquhar’s importance as a transitional figure in English literary history. He began his career during a time when Restoration drama was extremely popular, but critics of the morality embodied by these plays were also gaining prominence. Jeremy Collier’s A Short View of the Profaneness and Immorality of the English Stage (1698), for instance, attacked the lax morality and sexual attitudes in Restoration drama. Scholars have noted that although Farquhar is usually identified with writers of the comedy of manners, he stands apart from them in several significant ways.
Moving Beyond Restoration Drama. Farquhar’s early comedies, Love and a Bottle, The Constant Couple, and Sir Harry Wildair are similar to other Restoration dramas in that they are bawdy in tone and tend to focus on sexual intrigue. They also contain intricate plots that involve mistaken identities, multiple disguises, and trick marriages, all of which provide a sharp contrast to the simple story lines of fellow Restoration dramatists such as John Vanbrugh. In addition, the dialogue in Farquhar’s plays, though lively, lacks the witty, cynical hardness of comedies of his contemporaries William Wycherley and William Congreve. While still an important trait, wit in Farquhar’s plays is less apparent and is often secondary to plot and character, with comedy achieved through situation and natural plot progress rather than through daring wordplay.
Farquhar’s later plays, The Inconstant and The Twin Rivals, diverge even more from the comedy of manners form, for they follow Aristotle’s belief that comedies should instruct their audience by rewarding virtue, chastising vice, and laughing at weakness. The Recruiting Officer and The Beaux Stratagem, Farquhar’s most celebrated plays, also reflect this new moral dimension, only their morality is less forced and more natural as a result of Farquhar’s portrayal of provincial life and country manners.
Furthermore, Farquhar’s characters in his later plays differ from the heartless rogues of Restoration drama in that his country maids, innkeepers, and highwaymen are genteel instead of crude and are presented in a sympathetic light. Contributing to an atmosphere of unaffected cheerfulness and freshness, their vivacity, openness, and unpredictable behavior render them more realistic than traditional character types of Restoration drama. Even Farquhar’s treatment of the common Restoration theme of marital incompatibility sets him apart from his predecessors. In The Beaux Stratagem, for example, Farquhar resolves the couple’s conflict by introducing a separation by mutual consent or divorce, a serious note that also suggests equality of the sexes.
Legacy. Farquhar’s drama is marked by its movement away from the over-the-top, overtly sexual humor of Restoration drama. He is credited with extending the range of Restoration drama by introducing country settings, manners, and characters, aspects that were later adopted and perfected by Oliver Goldsmith and Richard Sheridan. Because of his changes, one senses that Farquhar has a greater interest in the humanity of his characters and avoids simply using them as props for his humor. He analyzes characters as much as situations, just as the twentieth-century dramatist George Bernard Shaw does. In fact, pointing out that the naturalism and simplicity of Farquhar’s plays are distinctly modern, Bonamy Dobree proposed that Farquhar was ‘‘the Shaw of his time.’’
Works in Critical Context
Critical response to Farquhar’s work has never been unanimous. In his short career, he produced several plays that received high praise, but many others went virtually unnoticed by his contemporaries. As time passed and aesthetic sensibilities changed, critics began to appreciate the humanity of Farquhar’s characters. Nonetheless, most of these early critics still felt that Farquhar’s drama was best seen as a part of—not separate from—Restoration drama and judged him accordingly. It is only within the last one hundred years that Farquhar has been evaluated as a transitional figure who contributed to the evolution of drama at the end of the Restoration period.
Pretended Impostors. Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer and The Beaux Stratagem were tremendously popular with contemporary audiences and have been long acknowledged as Farquhar’s greatest works. Eighteenth-century critics and dramatists extolled these plays for their sentiment and humanity, proposing that Farquhar was the founder of a new and possibly superior form of comedy. Romantic critics Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt, and Leigh Hunt held Farquhar in high esteem and were the first to classify him with Restoration writers, defining him in relationship to that group’s achievements. Even so, Hazlitt praised Farquhar’s heroes for their honesty, asserting that unlike the common Restoration rakes, ‘‘they are real gentlemen, and only pretended impostors.’’
Wholesome, if Not Decent. Hunt, along with Alexander Pope, found the natural language in Farquhar’s plays ‘‘wanting in an air of good breeding’’ and suggested that it lacked the polish and glitter of Restoration comedy. Nonetheless, Farquhar’s depth of feeling, theatrical skill, and diverse characters prompted Hunt to pronounce him, in comparison with other Restoration dramatists, ‘‘upon the whole, the truest dramatic genius, and the most likely to be of lasting popularity.’’ Critics of the Victorian era were generally hostile to the writers of Restoration drama because of its bitter satire, lascivious wit, and hedonistic values; however, these critics tended to view Farquhar favorably because he engendered greater morality in his plays. Edmund Gosse commented that ‘‘Farquhar succeeds in being always wholesome, even when he cannot persuade himself to be decent.’’
Diabolical Fire. Exalting the humor of situation above that of wit and emphasizing plot above dialogue, Farquhar’s comedies contributed an unsurpassed freshness, deep perception of human nature, and imaginative liveliness to the English stage of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Comparing Farquhar to other playwrights of his time, William M. Thackeray concluded in the nineteenth century that Farquhar was ‘‘something more than a mere comic tradesman: [he] has a grand drunken diabolical fire in him.’’
In the twentieth century, scholars discussed Farquhar’s comedies independently from Restoration drama. William Archer even asserted that Farquhar rebelled against Restoration comedy. Several modern critics concur with Archer, but also blame Farquhar for adulterating the comedy of manners and ushering in sentimental comedy. They assert that his works stand between these two dramatic periods without committing to either one and therefore come across as confused and inconsistent. John Palmer has argued that, because he ‘‘never really discovered in his art a neutral territory where the values he borrowed were reconciled with the values he contributed,’’ Farquhar helped bring about the demise of the English comic spirit. Recent criticism is more positive, noting that Restoration drama was already in decline by the time Farquhar began writing and that he was correct to seek out a new form.
Responses to Literature
1. One critic said that Farquhar’s characters were ‘‘real gentlemen, and only pretended impostors.’’ What do you think this critic meant when he said this? How can one be a ‘‘pretended impostor’’? Support your response with examples from one or two of Farquhar’s plays.
2. Describe a comedic plot in one of Farquhar’s plays. Rewrite this plot for a modern audience. To understand how to do this, you might consider reading Jane Austen’s Emma or watching the film Clueless, which is an adaptation of Austen’s classic novel for a modern audience.
3. Read William Wycherley’s The Country Wife, a quintessential Restoration-period drama. In what ways do you think the work of Farquhar upholds the characteristics of the Restoration-period drama that is represented in Wycherley’s play? Cite specific examples from both Wycherley’s play and Farquhar’s work.
Archer, William. The Old Drama and the New: An Essay in Re-Valuation. Boston: Small, Maynard & Company, 1923.
Burns, Edward. Restoration Comedy: Crises of Desire and Identity. New York: Macmillan, 1987.
Connely, Willard. Young George Farquhar, The Restoration Drama at Twilight. London: Cassell, 1949.
Farmer, A. J. George Farquhar. London: Longmans, Green, and Company, 1966.
Hume, Robert D. The Rakish Stage: Studies in English Drama, 1660-1800. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983.
Loftis, John. Comedy and Society from Congreve to Fielding. Palo Alto, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1959.
Milhous, Judith, and Robert D. Hume. Producible Interpretation: Eight English Plays 1675-1707. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1985.
Rothstein, Eric. George Farquhar. Boston: Twayne, 1967.
Stonehill, Charles. The Complete Works of George Farquhar. Staten Island, N.Y.: Gordian Press, 1930.