Critical Evaluation 1
A well-crafted play, Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer weaves several strands of action. Although the story transpires in not much more than one night, the play is densely packed with activity. This of course accounts for the play’s subtitle, “Mistakes of a Night.”
Two of the play’s strands are of particular importance, both about bringing lovers together. There are two sets of lovers: One couple, Hastings and Constance Neville, have been in love for some time, but their hopes are thwarted by Mrs. Hardcastle’s insistence that Constance marry her son, Tony Lumpkin. The only recourse appears to be eloping, a scheme that Tony happily aids and abets. The other couple, Marlow and Kate Hardcastle, is brought together by an arrangement between their respective fathers, Sir Charles and Mr. Hardcastle, as a way of confirming their friendship. Here, the problem is the awkward shyness of the young Marlow upon meeting ladies. Knowing that the shyness evaporates when he confronts a woman of lower station, Kate literally “stoops to conquer.” Both strands of the play are thus deftly resolved: The elopement becomes unnecessary once Tony is revealed to be of age and free to reject Constance, and the marriage of Kate and Marlow can take place, now that Marlow’s eyes are open to the truth.
All this might seem contrived were it not for the comic ironies and misunderstandings among the characters and the grace and wit with which Goldsmith portrays them. She Stoops to Conquer is very much a group play, as there is no protagonist in the usual sense. Tony provides most of the machinations that propel the plot. Kate brings Marlow to a crucial realization, and he suffers more than anyone from the mistaken identities and false assumptions. However, none of these characters is really central. Instead, together they draw parallels and contrasts between marriages, not only the two that come to pass but also the one of the Hardcastles and, for that matter, the fact of Tony’s opting out of any marriage.
This charming play has entertained audiences since its first performance at Covent Garden in London in 1773, a time when sentimental comedies dominated the English stage, and had done so since Sir Richard Steele’s The Conscious Lovers (pb. 1723) in 1722 had provided what its author called, “a pleasure too exquisite for laughter.” These are plays calculated to inspire tears in the eyes of audiences as they witness love overcoming all obstacles. Goldsmith and Sir Richard Brinsley Sheridan had declared war on such insipid drama, calling for a return to laughing comedy by producing pamphlets, articles, and plays, including some of the best comedies of the century: Sheridan’s The Rivals (pr., pb. 1775) and The School for Scandal (pr. 1777, pb. 1780) and Goldsmith’s The Good Natured Man (pr., pb. 1768) and She Stoops to Conquer.
Goldsmith died in 1774, one year after She Stoops to Conquer was first performed, thus leaving no other plays. Despite his position against sentimental comedy, She Stoops to Conquer has a gentle and amiable tone. It promotes the idea of honest humility and does so with humane good humor. These values, too, are typical of the eighteenth century, which exalted feeling and intuition and grace in opposition to the severe rationalism of the previous century.
Goldsmith was haunted by poverty and was irritable and envious; he also had a great wit, was generous, and had an essentially lovable nature—all of these contradictory characteristics are reflected in his writings. Hopelessly impractical, especially in money matters, he wrote with genius and Irish liveliness in many different forms and left a legacy of at least four masterpieces. He was forced to plod away as a literary hack, trying to survive in London’s Grub Street literary world. He did editorial work for booksellers, wrote essays and criticism, and gradually gained a modest reputation. The Citizen of the World (1762; first published in The Public Ledger, 1760-1761), a collection of fictional letters, brought him even more recognition for their charm, grace, humor, and good sense.
Although this success somewhat eased the pinch of poverty, Goldsmith continued to find it necessary to write pamphlets and miscellaneous journalism. A philosophic poem, The Traveller: Or, A Prospect of Society (1764), brought high praise from Samuel Johnson, and the book of poems, The Deserted Village (1770), was a wide success. In 1766, The Vicar of Wakefield, written to pay the rent, brought Goldsmith fame as a novelist, but his money troubles continued. She Stoops to Conquer, Goldsmith’s second comedy, received a flattering public response, but the financial returns paid off only a fraction of his huge debts.
Johnson saw this first performance and remarked, “I know of no comedy for many years that has answered so much the great end of comedy—making an audience merry.” One may well agree and say that one or two comedies of the time might be considered superior, but none is merrier. Certainly, it reflects Goldsmith’s own rich and genial personality.
Critical Overview 2 (of production by Northern Broadsides)
I’d heard good things about Northern Broadsides, and it’s been decades since I’ve seen a production of She Stoops to Conquer, so I thought we’d give this one a go. This perennial favourite by Oliver Goldsmith was first performed in 1773, so how do you describe it? It’s too late for Restoration Comedy, so maybe it’s more a Comedy of Manners, and has always enjoyed regular stage revivals and ben studied by diligent English and Drama students for donkeys’ years.
Given it’s been around for almost 250 years, I hope I won’t spoil it for you by outlining the plot. Mr Hardcastle wants his daughter Kate to marry wealthy young gent Charles Marlow, and she’s not at all averse to the idea, but the trouble is Marlow has a psychological hang-up and goes all nervous and timid in front of well to do young ladies (like what Kate is); although with common lasses he’s quite the opposite. At the same time Mrs Hardcastle wants her son Tony Lumpkin (from a previous marriage) to marry her niece Constance, simply so that the family jewels can be kept within… well, the family; sounds a bit incestuous to me. However, Tony and Constance hate each other. Tony would prefer snapping at the heels of an alehouse wench and Constance has her eye on Marlow’s friend Hastings. After much shenanigans involving Marlow and Hastings believing Hardcastle to be an innkeeper and a plot to steal Constance’s jewels from Mrs Hardcastle, both Kate and Constance pair off with their respective chaps leaving Tony free to continue with his dissolute lifestyle much to his mother’s annoyance.
It’s an entertaining play that makes some interesting observations on class structure and is still just as relevant today as it was back in the late 18th century; and this production is enjoyably acted and straightforwardly presented, without any gimmicks to get in the way of the text. However, there were a couple of aspects of it that didn’t quite sit properly with me.
First – the staging. It’s nearly all set inside the Hardcastles’ country seat apart from a scene at the Three Pigeons alehouse and a scene in the Hardcastles’ garden. As a result, chairs and tables from the country house compete with illustrations of trees and bushes on the back wall and the pub sign and counter throughout the whole performance, creating a very messy stage. These suggestions of different locations don’t dovetail nicely and complement each other, they get in the way of each other. Whilst there’s still plenty of acting space available, I found the set jarring and it irritated me.
Secondly – the interpretation of the character of Tony Lumpkin. Nothing against Jon Trenchard, who gives us a very lively, physical performance full of stamina and enthusiasm, but it’s just not how the character is usually played, or how I would imagine him to be. To be fair, Goldsmith doesn’t actually stipulate in the text what kind of mannerisms Lumpkin possesses, although Hardcastle describes him as “fat”; but his name suggests a cross between a useless lump and a country bumpkin, lacking in the niceties of refined behaviour that might otherwise have attracted him to Constance. However, this Tony Lumpkin is foppish. He preens and he poses, he giggles girlishly, he dances around the stage. It’s a very, very different reading of the role from the norm, where you would almost expect Lumpkin to be chewing an ear of wheat – and as everything else in this production is pretty standard and safe, it just feels misplaced.
Nevertheless there are some very entertaining performances. Howard Chadwick’s Hardcastle is full of robust bluster, nicely sarcastic with his wife, but with genuine love for his daughter and slow to ire when Marlow and Hastings treat him like dirt. Oliver Gomm, a brilliant Lysander in the Royal and Derngate’s Midsummer Night’s Dream last year, gives a very good comic performance as the either too terrified or too vagabondish young Marlow, shuddering like a genuine nervous wreck as he tries to speak to Kate. Gilly Tompkins is a delightfully strident and painted Mrs Hardcastle, and there’s a splendidly understated comic performance by Alan McMahon as, inter alia, Pimple the Maid. But for me the two stand out performances were from Hannah Edwards as Kate and Lauryn Redding as Constance. Hilarious before they even open their mouths with their ridiculous coiffures and massively tall hats, they both take their roles seriously and play them straight without ever going over-the-top, giving a slightly hard-edged reality to the story, and allowing the humour to flow naturally.