The previous Dr Johnson Reading Circle, in which we looked at William Cowper, was one of the last events before corona-virus closed all museums and, it seemed, any sort of fun. Now on a glorious May evening, with the government guidelines are as clear as the Fleet Ditch, the Dr Johnson’s Reading Circle meet again, online.
Meeting as a panel of faces, we did what we could to eighteenth-century ourselves up. Some wore bonnets, some hats, others wore wigs, whether out of material or homemade from paper. There was even a custom background of Dr Johnson’s House. It’s amazing what people can pull together when locked at home.
We had planned to read through George Coleman and David Garrick’s, The Clandestine Marriage but we took the opportunity to split it up and this time read the first two acts. It was not a play many knew much about but it was in the same volume that supplied us with She Stoops to Conquer and that had provided a lot of entertainment.
The introduction gave the plays slightly troubled origins, co-authored by Coleman and Garrick, who argued with each other about who deserved the credit, it was also based on the early pictures of Hogarth’s Marriage a la Mode and a novel by a man called John Shebbeare called The Marriage Act. As the picture series was tragedy, the novel a polemic and the play a comedy, I’m sure there are some major differences.
We begin with Fanny Sterling and her secret husband, Lovewell. They meet in secret under the watchful eyes and tight lips of Betty, who only wishes she could tell a few people, not that it makes much difference, they are so obviously lovey-dovey. At the same time, her older sister is negotiating a ‘proper’ marriage with Sir John Melvil, who is distinctly unromantic. Sir John and Lord Ogleby go to the Sterling’s country house to finalise details for the marriage.
There are added complications though, Lord Ogleby’s determination to prove himself a lady’s man aside, it turns out that Sir John is not a cold-hearted lover at all, it’s that he is far keener on the younger daughter, Fanny, than the older. What’s worse, he thinks he has Lovewell on his side to help him woo her.
The first two acts involved a lot of setting up of character and situation, with all the pieces moved into place for future shenanigans. While lacking the big laughs (so far) of the other comedies we’ve read, there were moments of humour. These included Mr Sterling’s desire to take everyone on the tour of his garden and show all his improvements, however vulgar. His sister, Mrs Heidelberg’s conviction that she herself is not ‘wulgur’ and knows how to mix with the ‘qualaty’. Then there were Lord Ogleby’s pretensions towards gallantry, which would be much easier if his back didn’t twinge so.
Add to that, outrageous French accents, perfumed paper being passed through video screens and the sheer pleasure of doing something different and fun, the evening was a success.
The next two acts take place on Tuesday 26th May, contact the Reading Group on Facebook for the link.