The first online meeting of the Dr Johnson’s House Reading Circle having been a success, we scheduled another for the next week. So far we had performed the first two acts of The Clandestine Marriage for each other and, it not being a well known text among us, we wanted to see what would happen next.
Alas, the technology gods were not with us in this session. Some people fell in and out the programme, there were audio and visual aids and I found myself literally phoning in a performance to a speakerphone that was then heard on the video conference. What’s more, at times the voices became strange and tinny. Ever wanted to hear an eighteenth century as performed by daleks? Garrick certainly never had those problems.
Despite the comedy of technical errors, the show had to go on and we went into act 3 where some lawyers were discussing their business. I have to admit, I was sure if there were jokes in this part that I wasn’t picking up on, maybe something about the breezy way the lawyers decided cases in advance. Maybe it was a spot on parody of the way lawyers talked to each other and the type have evolved since then.
Up to this point we have established that Sir John is set to marry Betsey, Sterling’s elder daughter but actually is in love with Fanny, his younger. Unknown to him, Fanny has secretly married Lovewell, the family steward. When Sir John asks to swap daughters, Sterling is shocked. He declares that he is no ‘African Slave Trade’. Of course, Sir John wins him over financially, letting Sterling out of financial obligations that were set in place with the older daughter. It’s hard to say whether we’re supposed to be on Sir John’s side. Fanny has already told him that she doesn’t wish to marry him, yet he’s bribing her father into swapping brides without any thought to her at all.
Poor Fanny, her older sister and her Aunt Heidelberg feel that she has been pretending to flirt with Lovewell to conduct a secret affair with Sir John. What annoys them most is that Fanny is so very nice, she just needs a shepherdess outfit and a lamb under her arm to be a picture of innocence. What’s more, she’s good to servants, says please and thank you and treats them politely, that can only be hiding depravities galore. Of course when Sterling meets up with them, he changes his mind about the whole marriage-swap thing, he has no backbone and Aunt Heidelberg is on Betsey’s side and promises to bring much more money in the future than Sir John.
Finally we met up with Fanny and her secret husband Lovewell, they decide that the best person to convince Sir John off her case is Lord Ogleby and Lovewell decides that Fanny is the person to make their case. Unfortunately, Lord Ogleby is so enamoured with the idea of himself as a magnet for all the ladies, he thinks that Fanny can’t marry Sir John because she loves him so, an idea that he finds utterly understandable despite their huge age difference. When the Lord suggest this to Sterling, he quickly tots up the figures and agrees - and that is where we left the plot this week.
It seems like the central joke of the piece is that everyone wants Fanny and the bumbling and misunderstanding each character undergoes provide the laughs. Unfortunately for a modern audience, Fanny herself doesn’t have enough to say, she is more plot point than character and it makes most of the men in the piece seem rather creepy. Thank goodness for Aunt Heidelberg, a character with power and influence, which is of course secured by her wealth.
We look forward to next week to discover if the play becomes a little more satisfying but even with the dated comedy, the technical mishaps and the plague swirling about somewhere out there, it was still a pleasure to meet up with however we could and discover a new text together.