Play reading at Dr Johnson’s Reading Circle is always a slightly unknown quality. O’Keefe’s Wild Oats had been a surprising delight, whereas Fielding’s A Modern Marriage had been far more cynical than we were prepared for. Thanks to Angela, who gave us a brief introduction to the playwright Hannah Cowley, we were not flying completely blind when it came to her comedy The Belle’s Stratagem
Born in Tiverton, Hannah was the wife of an occasional reviewer who got a job with the East India Company which promptly killed him. At first supported by Garrick, Hannah wrote a range of scripts including an oriental musical comedy. Although Sheridan, the next owner of Drury Lane was not as supportive, she still built up her career and became part of the Whig set with the Duchess of Devonshire. The Belle’s Stratagem was her most successful play, dedicated to Queen Charlotte and with the part of Letitia becoming one of the favourite roles played by Dora Jordan, subject of our last book. The play has been performed a couple of times this century, most intriguingly in 2011 to a soundtrack that included the Spice Girls.
In our first session we read halfway into the second act and, unlike some of the other plays we’ve read, the plot can be easily described. It primarily features two couples, one who need to intensify their relationship and one who need to cool things down a little.
The first couple are Doricourt and Letitia. He’s recently returned from a Grand Tour and is filled with continental fancies. He’s dressed in all the finest new fashions, has the swankiest new coach and has hired only foreign servants. He claims this not because he’s foppish at all but that English men are too independent to make great servants, especially when there are those naturally servile Frenchmen all about. To illustrate this, we meet once of his servants who speaks in an outrageous accent in fluent Franglais. The trouble is, he has also formed some opinions about English women. While they may be naturally beautiful, intelligent and kind, compared to the mysteries of the French and Italians, they simply aren’t all that exciting.
This is a problem for Letitia, the woman Doricourt has returned to England to marry. While the marriage was settled years ago and is still going ahead, she’s fallen head over heels for him and is none-too-pleased that he seems merely content to settle for her.
‘He should have looked as if a ray had suddenly pierced him,’ she complains and so comes up with a scheme to spice up their relationship. She plans to be so odious that Doricourt learns to hate her. Having read a fair few romantic comedies, she feels that a passionate hate will be easiest to transform into passionate love. Surprisingly her aunt and father support this risky plan.
The other couple are Sir George and Lady Frances. George has surprised all his friends, forsaking all the fine ladies of Paris to marry Frances in a whirlwind marriage. He is besotted with her, rumoured to be so in love that he let her little bullfinch go because he was jealous of the love she gave it (though there are also rumours that he killed it, or that she let it go… primarily because our head rumour-monger, Flutter, is a little sloppy when it comes to detail). He wants to spend time with his new wife and is cross that the whole of London keeps coming round to visit her. When Doricourt comes to meet her, he tries as many pathetic excuses as he can, but it gets him nowhere.
Lady Frances herself has led a sheltered upbringing and is content to live a quiet life with George. He has old fashioned views, longing for a time in the past when people lived quietly and everyone filled their station properly: young women were young and old women were old, dowdy and judgmental. Frances is tempted when Miss Ogle and Mrs Racket come round offering her a day of pleasure and a night on the town. George is dismayed, worried they mean to turn his new wife into one of these ‘fine ladies’, a licentious, materialistic, money-grubbing drain who is never at home. Mrs Racket makes a spirited response, describing the ‘fine lady’ as benefit on society, polite to all she meets and bringing joy and pleasure wherever she goes. Frances is won over, especially when she finds out George did free her Bullfinch. She decides to go and sample some pleasure.
The real joy of this play is the dialogue, there are no flat characters and everyone has their own little bit of business or point of view. Particularly fun were some of the more incidental characters, such as Crowquill, the grubby hack, ready to pay money to servants for gossip, or Courtall, trying to hide from his inconvenient bevvy of country cousins. There’s also the character of Flutter, a gossip who loves a good story so much that he finds it impossible to keep them straight in his mind. From him comes a story (later proved false) about the man who bought a distressingly life-like depiction of people dying of the plague for his nursery wall, his reason being it was the same size as the Dick Whittington picture already there and so they match.
In performing it, the liveliness of the writing really came to the fore, with the conversation galloping along nicely, not snarled up in an overcomplicated plot. It was also pleasant to be among nice characters who will deserve their matchings and pairings despite the bumps they may experience on the way.
In out next reading, we’ll hopefully see Letitia’s stratagem begin to play out and see her try and make Doricourt hate her, we’ll also see if Frances enjoys her day of pleasure and what reaction George will have to it. Will Courtall keep escaping his cousins? Will Crowquill get a scoop? Will Flutter finally get a story straight? We’ll see.