STRATFORD, ON—Before the premiere of his second and final play, She Stoops to Conquer, Oliver Goldsmith wrote “A Comparison between Laughing and Sentimental Comedy.” In this short essay, he appeals to Aristotle in arguing that a comedy is “a picture of the frailties of the lower part of mankind, to distinguish it from tragedy, which is an exhibition of the misfortunes of the great.” He continues, “When tragedy exhibits to us some great man fallen from his height, and struggling with want and adversity, we feel his situation in the same manner as we suppose he himself must feel, and our pity is increased in proportion to the height from whence he fell. On the contrary, we do not so strongly sympathize with one born in humbler circumstances, and encountering accidental distress.” This is all a way of condemning what Goldsmith calls the “sentimental comedy,” in which these two genres are mixed into a “bastard tragedy,” and “folly, instead of being ridiculed, is commended, and the comedy aims at touching our passions without the power of being truly pathetic.” He ends, rather apocalyptically, by warning, “Humor at present seems to be departing from the stage.”
Since its publication, many critics have noted that Goldsmith’s polemic is ill-founded: there really was no conflict between the “sentimental” and the “laughing” comedy on the eighteenth-century English stage. Furthermore, the accusation “bastard tragedy” could hardly apply only to Goldsmith’s contemporaries; what else are Shakespeare’s late masterpieces The Winter’s Tale and Cymbeline? And, of course, modern ears may prickle at the classist basis for his definition of tragedy. “We melt for [the Byzantine general] Belisarius,” he writes, “[but] we scarcely give halfpence to the beggar who accosts us in the street. The one has our pity, the other our contempt.”
Still, the “Comparison” provides an (albeit imagined) context for this unabashedly silly play. She Stoops to Conquer opens with an actor weeping onstage, as “The Comic Muse … is a-dying!” Her only hope? Oliver Goldsmith, naturally. “To cheer her heart, and give your muscles motion, / He, in Five Draughts prepar’d, presents a potion: / A kind of magic charm—for be assur’d, / If you will swallow it, the maid is cur’d.”
In what follows, the “modestest man alive,” Charles Marlow (Brad Hodder), and his friend, George Hastings (Tyrone Savage), travel from London to stay with the country squire Mr. Hardcastle (Joseph Ziegler), the first to woo his daughter, Kate (Maev Beaty), the second to elope with her friend, Constance Neville (Sara Farb). Along the way, they unknowingly insult Kate’s half-brother, the bon vivant Tony Lumpkin (Karack Osborn), who tricks them into believing his home is an inn. Thus, both Marlow and Hastings treat Mr. Hardcastle with the utmost disrespect, while Marlow, who is too shy to court a gentlewomen, confuses Kate for the barmaid and immediately lusts after her. Knowing both of his mistake and his modesty, Kate assumes her accidental role, thus stooping to “conquer” Marlow.
The play, of course, recalls Shakespeare’s comedies, in which costuming and roleplaying are often the only means of overcoming obstacles to love. It also has some of Shakespeare’s darkness; when Marlow still confuses Kate for the barmaid, and Hastings accuses him of robbing her of her honor, he cooly replies, “There’s nothing in this house I shan’t honestly pay for.” The subtitle of She Stoops to Conquer is The Mistakes of a Night, and Goldsmith is always careful to remind us that those mistakes, especially for the poor, could be irrevocable—appropriately, the rich can don the garbs of the help, but not vice versa.
However, Martha Henry’s revival, currently running at the Stratford Festival, is more in tune with Goldsmith’s declared intent, and “pity” for the disenfranchised is overshadowed by the “folly” of their superiors. Lucy Peacock, playing the hopelessly pretentious Mrs. Hastings, is hysterical in her aping of fashionable customs. She brags that she (and not a Frenchman) is her own friseur, while the massive, bejeweled explosion of a hairdo that sits atop her head is likely to clothesline anyone unfortunate enough to stand near the woman during a sudden turn. And Mr. Osborn, ruddy and cheerful, is contagiously mischievous; watching his machinations unfold reminds one of some of the merrier moments in Twelfth Night.
Goldsmith’s “Comparison,” perhaps, was a bit of shameless self-promotion. The Comic Muse was and is not dying. Yet, when paired with so strong a production, his potion, presented in five draughts, is verily welcome.