Johns: Mean! why, he never meant any thing in’s life: what dost talk of meaning for?
If you’ve ever read Sheridan’s The Critic, you’ll immediately get the idea of Villiers’ The Rehearsal, since the former is entirely copied from the latter (the introducer to my edition – no great love of Sheridan, relative at least to earlier writers of Restoration comedy (“The School for Scandal [is] vapid and forced when we think of Love for Love and The Way of the World, whilst A Trip to Scarborough shows only too clearly how, when profane hands were laid upon The Relapse, its careless freedom was not pruned without its wit and genius being lost in the process”) – says “the water of The Critic is a mean thing to place beside the strong wine of The Rehearsal“; – and, having read both recently, I find myself inclined to agree): two theatre-goers (in The Critic, they are critics), those redoubtable everymen, Smith and Johnson, are invited by a playwright to watch the rehearsal of his new play; this they do, with many interjections, interruptions, sarcastic remarks, and attempts by the playwright to explain and justify his own play; all of course for the purpose of humour and, in the case of The Rehearsal at least, so Villiers might attack John Dryden and the dreadful genre of verse tragedy of which he was the exemplar.
The playwright in The Rehearsal, by the name of Bayes after Dryden’s poet laureateship, is based on Dryden himself – in the original production he was played by a comic actor, John Lacy, and “Dryden’s voice, his mode of dressing, his gait and manners, were all carefully imitated”. He is the artist convinced of his own genius, who only pities the fact that his audience (and, naturally, his critics) are not capable of fully understanding or appreciating his works (“Bayes: But let ’em live in ignorance like ingrates”); – though what I find interesting from a modern, c20th point of view is that his main artistic idea seems to be to introduce the “new” into everything (the very modernist motto, “Make it new”), which becomes in The Rehearsal (though not, sadly, as far as I have read so far, in Dryden’s actual plays) an extreme form of the avant-garde, such as you might find in Borges’ satires, in which nothing is explained to the audience or makes the slightest sense (“Smith: I find the Author will be very much oblig’d to the Players, if they can make any sence out of this”).
Here is the plot of the play within the play, as far as I understand it:
The Gentleman-Usher and the Physician of the two Kings of Brentford, fearing they have been overheard whispering something, decide they must usurp the throne, which they do
Smith: But, pray, Sir, how came they to depose the Kings so easily?
Bayes: Why, Sir, you must know, they long had a design to do it before; but never could put it in practice till now
there is a lot of fighting and dancing and falling in love, with people who were dead being discovered alive, and sons discovering their fathers are not their fathers
Smith: Yes, Sir; but why is he so mightily troubled to find he is not a Fisherman’s son?
until the two Kings of Brentford return and the usurpers run away.
What they were whispering is never discovered.
People throughout the play generally react to events in bizarre ways: when the woman one of the characters, Prince Pretty-man, is in love enters, immediately upon seeing her he falls asleep (“Bayes: Does that not now surprise you, to fall asleep”), waking again only after she leaves and declaring, “It is resolv’d”.
Smith: Pray, Sir, what is it that this Prince here has resolv’d in his sleep?
Bayes: Why, I must confess, that question is well enough ask’d, for one that is not acquainted with this new way of writing. But you must know, Sir, that, to out-do all my fellow-Writers, whereas they keep their Intrigo secret, till the very last Scene before the Dance; I now, Sir, (do you mark me) – a –
Smith: Begin the Play, and end it, without ever opening the Plot at all?
Bayes: I do so, that’s the very plain troth on’t; ha, ha, ha; I do, I gad.
And so it goes on from nonsensical scene to nonsensical scene, my particular favourite being the following a-propos-of-nothing scene, upon an empty stage, and with a single character who appears nowhere else in the play:
Shirly: Hey ho, hey ho: what a change is here! Hey day, hey day! I know not what to do, nor what to say.
Johnson: My Bayes, in my opinion, now, that Gentleman might have said a little more, upon this occasion.
Bayes: No, Sir, not at all; for I under writ his Part, on purpose to set off the rest.
There’s much good humour in it, particularly the wry interjections of Smith, in his trouble understanding or believing the plot:
Smith: But pray, Mr. Bayes, is not this a little difficult, that you were saying e’en now, to keep an army thus conceal’d in Knights-bridge?
It is very funny; read it yourself. I am now going to spend next year indulging in Restoration comedy proper (not this Sheridan-lite stuff) – especially since I know how likely it is to increase the visitors to this blog; people can’t get enough of Restoration comedy – though I will in fact be starting with Dryden’s The Conquest of Granada (I have read the first part; but to my horror discovered there was yet a second (a line in The Rehearsal seems to imply there are actually five parts; but I’m hoping not)).