[Note: This is not really a review of Thomas Otway’s The Soldiers’ Fortune]
Thomas Otway’s The Soldiers’ Fortune is available in World’s Classics’ Four Restoration Marriage Plays. It’s a very typical Restoration Comedy: there are two male friends who fall in love with two female friends; there are some obstructions to their love; which are resolved in the end and everything is concluded happily.
So much so good: we are familiar with this theatrical type of comedy. But if I add another of the play’s element, things become a bit more complicated: one of the women above is already married. Nor is this uncommon: the same could be said for instance of Vanburgh’s The Provok’d Wife; or indeed, in earlier times, Middleton’s The Changeling (it struck me while reading the latter that Middleton made a grave mistake making one of the women the asylum owner’s wife rather than daughter, for how could the play reach the expected happy resolution? – not, of course, that it’s resolution is entirely happy; Middleton appears to be mixed up his genres); and in fact this pursuit of married women, and married women’s pursuit of men outside marriage, pervades Restoration Comedy.
Because this isn’t after all the Victorian era. Nor is it the world of Jane Austen; though Jane Austen is precisely what, over the course of the next 100 years, it would degenerate into. Like we tend to think in literary terms that there is Victorian literature and there is modernist literature, and that is it; so maybe we think the same with morality: the world once had strict conventions of morality, where certain things – if they existed at all – could not be admitted, and then it didn’t. But any student of history will note that morality and immorality, in this sense, fluctuate with the ages. To take the era we are dealing with, for instance: that there is a flourishing of theatre around the 1580s, and that this flourishing dies out around the 1630s, and that it is then revived around the 1670s and again dies out around the 1710s, is largely to do with changing moralities, at least within “society” (we will assume, for argument’s sake, that people have actually been committing adultery without much care in all ages).
What never struck me before, and what is only too clear in the Restoration era, is this: in a society where female virginity is prized above all else, and where a woman who loses her virginity before marriage is treated as an outcast (though it’s not entirely clear to me whether this is the case), marriage is actually a licence for women to sleep with whomever they want; – and this is an idea which is constant throughout Restoration Comedy: as we have here in The Soldiers’ Fortune, the older wealthy husband whom the woman has married for money, while she carries on with the sprightly but impecunious man she’s really in love with. (An idea I notice which is also mentioned in Casanova’s memoirs).
How is it resolved? – You’ll have to read the play. It is in fact one of the joy’s of Restoration Comedy – and their forefathers, the City Comedies of Shakespeare’s day (albeit Shakespeare had himself no hand in the genre) – to wonder at certain points how the hell everything’s going to turn out happily for everyone, for the art of playwright is to write himself into a corner and then somehow extricate himself.
The other element in The Soldiers’ Fortune which you won’t find in, say, Jane Austen, is the pervasiveness of prostitution. If a word-count were to be made of this play, I’m sure the word “whore” would figure in the top ten – and that’s with the inclusion of “the” “a” and “of”, whether as an accusation or a statement of fact. The one remarkable character in this play is Sir Jolly Jumble, who is basically a dirty old man, more or less a pimp, who gets his kicks from watching other people have sex. There’s some mention in Otway’s preface that some in the audience objected to this atmosphere of immorality in his play; but nonetheless, it was neither banned nor unpopular.
All of which is to say, I enjoyed Otway’s play, as I’ve enjoyed a lot of the Restoration Comedy I’ve found (though certainly not all), even though Otway is not one of the most illustrious names of the era. It has a certain “comedic vision” which appeals to me, and I would have thought to this benighted age we live in. Which makes me in turn wonder why it is that true Restoration comedy is so ignored in this country – I looked through the London theatrical programme recently, and there was not one production to be found; – they are just, perhaps, out of fashion.
Sheridan, who is for us the epitome of Restoration Comedy, did not live in the Restoration Era – he flourished, in fact, just before Jane Austen’s time; that is to say, some 70 years after the Restoration Era ended (it would be like someone now being influenced by outmoded writers like Kafka, Joyce or Beckett). I read his plays through before embarking on my Restoration odyssey; and I’m intrigued to go back and read them again and see just how much they differ. Because it seems to me that, while superficially similar (to the extent of his clear plagiarism) there’s still a world of difference between Sheridan and the Restoration; – and I think Sheridan is probably part of the problem: he disguises from us what Restoration Comedy really is; and it would be a great pity for English Literature if it were Sheridan who were remembered, rather than almost any of the true Restoration writers. But then, people prefer Jane Austen too – so I suppose it’s not that surprising.