An Introduction to She Stoops to Conquer

Oliver Goldsmith published several critiques of audiences and playwrights before writing a laughing comedy that was the triumph of its season and that continues to be performed today. Diane Maybank introduces She Stoops to Conquer, which uses satire to explore divisions between city and countryside, men and women, and rich and poor. Source:  The British Library (June 2018)

By Diane Maybank

Did Oliver Goldsmith once mistake a gentleman’s house for an inn and use the experience to shape the comic mayhem at the heart of She Stoops to Conquer?

His biographers accept the story as told by his sister Catherine, even though she wrote it down some 40 years after the event. Catherine’s account has a rather gauche Goldsmith riding in style to his home in Lissoy, Co Westmeath, Ireland. He is tasting freedom at the end of a long school term and burning to spend the guinea in his pocket. He soon tires on the badly rutted roads and loses his way. On reaching the outskirts of Ardagh he unknowingly falls in with a local trickster, Cornelius Kelly, and demands to be directed to ‘the best inn in the neighbourhood’. Kelly takes great satisfaction in directing the high-handed youth to Squire Featherstone’s rambling country house. Goldsmith is a very demanding guest, every bit as officious and insulting as Marlow, who is one of the play’s main characters. When he calls for the bill next morning he is deeply embarrassed to discover his mistake. To make matters worse, Goldsmith realizes that his host is an old friend of his father, and word of his behaviour is bound to get back to his parents sooner than he will.

Staging She Stoops to Conquer

In early 1772, many years after the Ardagh incident, Goldsmith presented George Coleman, manager of Covent Garden Theatre, with a challenge – the script of She Stoops to Conquer. Coleman’s mission was to stage sentimental comedies, make a handsome profit and avoid offending critics and the Lord Chamberlain. All his professional instincts told him that this new play would fail. Its ‘low’ features and clever parody of sentimental comedy were completely out of touch with the latest trends. He returned the script and suggested ‘improvements’.

Goldsmith grew desperate; he had debts to pay off and was looking for a quick profit. There were only two official theatres in London at the time, leading to fierce competition and risk-averse production choices. Coleman was especially reluctant to stage a new play because Goldsmith would have to be paid out of the profits and might be entitled to a benefit night where he could scoop all the takings.

Although poor and something of an Irish outsider, Goldsmith could call upon the support of powerful friends from London’s literary elite. Samuel Johnson, among others, pressed Coleman to accept the script, and by March 4, 1773 the play was in rehearsal, with a date set for its premiere within two weeks.

Coleman had difficulty casting the play. Actors sensed the manager’s lack of faith and did not want to be associated with the ‘low’ Tony Lumpkin or Kate, the squire’s daughter who liked playing the barmaid. On the opening night the leading ladies squabbled over who should speak the Epilogue, and the indecisive Goldsmith took until just before curtain-up to change the play’s title from the simply farcical Mistakes of a Night to the more intriguing She Stoops to Conquer.

Despite the tussles behind the scenes, She Stoops to Conquer was a triumph when it opened on March 15th, quickly becoming the season’s favourite play. Critics heaped on praise, even though the audience hissed at the ‘vulgar manner’ in which Mrs. Hardcastle emerged from the horsepond. No matter – the witticisms sounded fresh, and the piled-on misunderstandings were deemed a gift for comic actors.

Coleman relented as profits grew, and the play became his ‘go to’ choice whenever he felt his company needed a boost or rival productions at Drury Lane were exciting too much interest. The king and queen attended on May 5th, and Goldsmith got not one but three benefit nights, for which he received the handsome sum of £502 18s 6d.

There was more to this moment of theatrical triumph than the emergence of a hit play. She Stoops to Conquer had broken the bonds of sentimental comedy and shown how superior laughing comedy could be. For Goldsmith, it was the crowning moment of an all too short career. His comic genius received the public recognition and rewards he craved, but he died a year later.

In the last quarter of the 18th century, some 12,000 Londoners attended a play or opera every week. This was a socially mixed and very demanding clientele with strong ideas about how they wanted to be entertained. Goldsmith had a low opinion of theatre audiences, a view which he expressed in a series of satirical letters written under the penname Lien Chi Altangi, a Chinese philosopher visiting London.

In Letter XXI Lien Chi complains that the upper gallery crowd was too noisy and given to interrupting the actors by calling for music or some other diversion. He portrays the middle gallery ‘eating oranges or making assignations’. He disliked the pit crowd most of all because they sat in judgement over ‘poet and the performers’. As for the aristocrats in the side boxes, they were not interested in the play at all, being engrossed in their fashionable clothes, fans and flirtations. This diverse and unruly audience would hiss, clap, cheer and shout insults, creating a din which left Lien Chi ‘quite dizzy’.

‘Low’ or laughing comedy

Writing ‘low’ or laughing comedy came naturally to Goldsmith, because it gave him free reign to express his contempt for the hypocrisy of polite society. In January 1773 he published “An Essay on the Theatre”; or, “A Comparison between Laughing and Sentimental Comedy”, in which he made the case for the superiority of laughing comedy.

Goldsmith argued that the proper target of satire should be human folly in characters from all social classes. Comedy should concentrate on exposing vice and gulling fools, rather than lamenting the plight of genteel folk in distress. If playwrights only allowed wholesome characters on stage, who uttered emotional platitudes, audiences would be weepy, unamused and none the wiser. Goldsmith used the Constance/Hastings subplot to expose all the clichés of sentimental comedy. At the same time, he provoked thoughts about personal liberty, women’s agency and parental responsibility that revitalized a tired storyline. There is laughter, but there are also bruised emotions, sad partings and anxiety for the audience to contend with.

Like his heroine Kate, Goldsmith was brave enough to stoop to expose hypocrisy. He took risks with ‘low’ features: Tony’s glee at his mother’s drenching in the horsepond, barmaid Kate’s flirtatious ways, Marlow’s frank disclosure of his sexual adventures. To these he added the gulling of gentlemen and an interest in scripting rural dialect. He presented the Three Pigeons alehouse as a world of vigorous, authentic experience, unshackled from the concerns with outward appearance, social class and inheritance that beset the manor house. Goldsmith’s most daring idea was to place Tony and Kate in lowly positions where they suffer abuse but find ways to achieve their personal goals. By giving Tony equal prominence with the lovers, he fostered an acting style that was more natural and forthright than Georgian etiquette would normally have tolerated.

The city versus the countryside

She Stoops to Conquer was written during a time when England was going through rapid, unstoppable social and economic change, fueled by the Industrial Revolution. Cities increased in importance, and the size and power of the middle classes grew. If you were a factory owner, merchant or banker you prospered; if you lived in the countryside you felt your traditional way of life was under threat. The play put its finger on the pulse of change by holding up a destabilizing mirror to all that was considered enduring in family, courtship, marriage, class and wealth. A lot of unease must have piqued the laughter at Covent Garden.

Explicitly political content in plays had been effectively banned since the Licensing Act of 1737, yet the theatre was still a place where new ideas and subversive opinions could be aired. When Hardcastle calls his home ‘Liberty Hall’ (2.1.178) and Marlow’s servant shouts out ‘liberty and Fleet Street forever! Though I’m but a servant, I’m as good as another man’ (4.1.135–36), it is possible that Goldsmith was evoking the rallying cry of radical politician John Wilkes, whose supporters would have been in the audience. Wilkes had been elected to Parliament but prevented by law from taking his seat in 1768–69. His followers circulated pamphlets calling for an end to corrupt government.

Meanwhile, within the squire’s house other kinds of liberties are being sought and taken amidst a general subversion of the status quo. Parents are disrespected, ancient property rights are challenged, wives and servants disobey their masters, sons and daughters make free with the class structure and family heirlooms are passed around like highwaymen’s booty.

The play presents the values of city life and the countryside as deeply at odds with each other. Hardcastle’s house is ‘old-fashioned’ and ‘rambling’ (1.1.22, 16), because he lacks the wealth to invest in it. Had he been more enterprising he could have opened his home as an upmarket inn and got a share of the fortunes being made in the liquor trade (2.1.230–34). Instead, he despises London’s modernizing trends and outward shows of gentility, preferring ‘everything that’s old’ (1.1.23). Mrs. Hardcastle has a huge appetite for London fashions, but her understanding is flawed, and her desires are ludicrous and superficial.

The pair preside over a manor house muddled by the fog of deception and misunderstanding, where attempts to be genteel give way to farce and burlesque. Hardcastle does not perceive that his house has been recast as a wayside inn by a pair of city blades on the make. He fails to take proper care of Tony and Constance, allowing them to be trapped by his wife’s snobbery and greed. Goldsmith was taking a considerable risk in making this dysfunctional family the butt of his humour. For the previous 100 years country squires had been counted upon as the backbone of England. They owned much of the land and wielded considerable local power.

Class and social mobility

New wealth made in manufacturing was making social mobility possible, however. She Stoops to Conquer welcomes that possibility in its very title and takes the bold step of making a woman its chief exponent. Kate relishes playing women from three classes in her quest for a husband. Her mobility may be temporary and risky, but its effects are liberating. Hardcastle and Tony, meanwhile, are more comfortable with servants and rustics than with their social equals.

When Marlow and Hastings first appear at the Three Pigeons (2.1.82) the stage falls silent as both sides of the class divide take in a powerful sense of difference. Their travelling attire indicates their social status but also their vulnerability; they are coach travelers who have wandered into a situation where they could be gulled by rustics. Their upper-class sense of entitlement at first asserts itself. They whine, they judge, they show contempt for everything; but the manor house slowly emasculates them. Marlow becomes everybody’s fool, and Hastings’s plans are continually thwarted. Meanwhile, the London audience is teased with talk of a countryside full of confusion and menace, with its gibbets (from which the bodies of executed criminals were hung on public display) and bloodcurdling place names (such as ‘Crackskull Common’, 1.2.142 and 5.2.70–71).

Georgian England was a place where strict rules of etiquette and dress defined your class identity. There was a growing feeling that too much attention paid to genteel behaviour risked trapping men in an overly feminized world where women, had the upper hand. For Marlow and Hastings, the masculine world of warfare has been replaced by the pursuit of women and fashionable clothing has become their battle garb (2.1.173–208). Hardcastle’s tales of military campaigns are simply an irrelevance to a city-bred generation who recoil at country fare, rough roads and makeshift beds.

Marlow and Kate: Gender and marriage

Audiences admired Goldsmith’s characterization of Marlow, finding in him a complexity that rang true. He is deeply conflicted by the dictates of the society he is born into, finding it hard to settle on his true nature. Gentlemen were expected to live a life bound by codes of class, manliness and honour. They were always on show and some clearly struggled with what was expected of them. For Marlow the marriage market holds only terror (2.1.118–32), yet he feels pressured to acquire a wife. The double standards he operates – deference towards ladies and lechery towards barmaids – were standard for the time, but change is in the air and the old certainties let him down badly. The advantages of class, gender and wealth should be enough to get Kate into bed, but she laughs at his efforts and, turns lust into love and finally, respect.

Kate persists with Marlow because she is a woman of complex desires. For young women such as Kate and Constance the best marriage was one that combined love with sound financial advantage. Both argue for some agency in the matter of courtship, something not always available to women in the late 18th century when, within the upper classes, arranged marriages were the norm. In their decisive and intelligent participation in the play’s love intrigues, Goldsmith makes their choices an inspiration for the increasing number of women in the audience.

She Stoops to Conquer continues to be performed to audience delight and critical acclaim because it is extremely funny and while deeply probing into the vagaries of our social nature.

Written by Diane Maybank

Diane Maybank BA. MA. taught English Language and Literature for over 35 years in schools and colleges in France, New Zealand and the UK. She now works as a freelance editor specializing in seventeenth and eighteenth-century drama. Her editions for the “Oxford Student Texts” series include Aphra Behn’s The Rover, William Congreve’s “The Way of the World”, George Farquhar’s “The Beaux Stratagem”, Oliver Goldsmith’s “She Stoops to Conquer” and Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s “The Rivals”.

Source: British Library

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