Who cares about Restoration comedy these days? The genre was just as out of fashion in the spring of 2015 when the National Theatre last dusted off George Farquhar’s swan song The Beaux’ Stratagem. Yet the live video of Simon Godwin’s artfully restrained, melodiously spoken, resolutely old-fashioned revival, lightly laced with ebullient song and dance, feels invincibly spruce and fresh.
It’s amazing how much picaresque living the clergyman’s son Farqhuar managed to pack into his 30 years. One of seven siblings, he was born in Northern Ireland in 1677 or 1678, showed early poetic promise, and enrolled at 17 at Trinity College, Dublin. Two years later, he quit his studies to join a local theater company, but soon quit acting, too, when—oops, wrong sword!—he almost killed a scene partner in an onstage duel. Intimations of Hamlet, but in the end tragedy was not to be Farquhar’s métier.
Off young George sped to London, where he wrote hit comedies, joined a military regiment (experience reflected in his other best-remembered effort, The Recruiting Officer), and fell for a much-older widowed mother of three whose fortunes were not at all what she pretended. By early 1707, he was at death’s door—sick, depressed, and deep in debt—when the star actor Robert Wilks, a friend since their Dublin days, showed up with 20 guineas in hand, demanding a new play. Presto!
The Beaux’ Stratagem opened on March 8, in time for the author to witness its success. It was still going strong when he was buried at St. Martin in the Fields in an unmarked grave the following May. Sixty years later, The Beaux’ Stratagem would be the opening attraction at the John Street Theatre, the first permanent playhouse in New York.
Other crown jewels of Restoration comedy like William Wycherley’s The Country Wife and Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The School for Scandal are famous—bluenoses will say notorious—for their preoccupation with fortune-hunting and lots of extramarital sex. There’s sexual attraction in The Beaux’ Stratagem, too, but it goes unconsummated. What really drives the plot is money. Reduced to their last 200 pounds sterling, the London wastrels Aimwell and Archer disguise themselves as a rich master and his servant and take to the country, there to fleece heiress after heiress. (Plan B is to join the army.)
If the actors’ faces are new to you, as all but one was to me, chances are you’ll be memorizing their names the moment the credits roll. Susannah Fielding, for one, is bewitching as the miserably mated protofeminist Mrs. Sullen. Chook Sibtain walks away with his scenes as Gibbet, a John Bunyan among highwaymen. And then there’s Geoffrey Streatfeild as Archer, whose high-stepping crackpot ditty about a “trifle” you might want to put on a loop.
The Beaux’ Stratagem is available for streaming on the National Theatre at Home Web site
Matthew Gurewitsch writes about opera and classical music for AIR MAIL. He lives in Hawaii