The Dr Johnson’s Reading Circle runs alongside the school/university year and so our performance of the last chunk of Hannah Cowley’s The Belle’s Stratagem was our last meeting of yet another strange year. Big thanks are owed to Jane Darcey, not only for carrying the meetings on but for making them more frequent, complete with special guests and involved discussions. Having a Reading Circle to look forward to each month was a real highlight for the members and it’s been a real pleasure to attend. Next year’s programme has already been finalised and it promises to be as good as the others.
We meet back with our characters processing the consequences of the grand masquerade. First catching up with Courtall, who feels he has easily got the Lady Francis in his grasp, although we know she’s a decoy. He congratulates himself on being irresistible and looks forward to writing an illustrious name on his list. When Saville, Flutter and a group of revellers burst in to see which particular fish he’s caught, the decoy Lady Francis is revealed to be Kitty and he is roundly laughed at, being so embarrassed he flees to Paris. Later, Sir George thanks Saville for protecting his wife by giving him his sister’s hand. We never discover the sister’s opinion of this idea but Sir George is convinced they’ll hit it off.
Schemes escalate at the Hardy’s, where the family plan to twist the knife into Doricourt a little more by tricking him into marrying Letitia before she reveals herself as the mysterious ball-guest and he still thinks her an idiot. As part of this plot, Letitia’s father must pretend to be sick, something he is proud he has never been. He also fears that feigning sickness might invite it but despite his fears, he agrees. Doricourt is also going forth with ill-conceived schemes, deciding to go ahead with his plan to feign madness to get out of marrying Letitia. He tells his friend Villiers to spread the word. Naturally, when Flutter gets hold of this story it loses much of its reality and becomes a tale of his being poisoned by an Italian countess with drugged sweets.
The two plans come into collision when Doricourt is summoned to see the ‘sick’ Hardy. He tries his best and playing the madman, demanding that Flutter returns his soul, much to the confusion of the poor gossip who promises he’s never even seen it. There is one flaw in Doricourt’s plan, he is a ham and everyone sees straight through it. Mrs Rackett also shows him how he should have done it. He is, however, distraught that he’s been tricked into marriage with the (he believes) gormless Letitia. He feels even worse when the mysterious, masked figure from the previous night turns up and is not the kept woman Flutter thought she was. Then the woman reveals herself to be Letitia to his (and no-one else’s) surprise. She declares that she has the potential to be any kind of wife Doricourt wants, but he says he only wants her to be herself, it’s very sweet.
The characters then try to outdo each other for who deserves the most congratulations and we are left with the epilogue. It reminds us that we all wear masks and that behind the genial face may lay a domestic tyrant… it then makes the dubious claim that only actors show the truth which, whether true or not, is something actors like to tell themselves.
As well as the likeable characters, the smart dialogue and the fun plotting, Hannah Cowley makes great use of contemporary details. Whether it’s slipping in references to popular plays; John Monro, the keeper of Bedlam, known coffee houses or Langfords, the auctioneers - she has an ability in presenting her contemporary world as a lived in and real place, rather than the clear stage-world that’s often evoked.
I also nominate Mrs Rackett as the player of the match (I’m writing this the day of the Euro finals, maybe it’s affected me). Whether she was teleporting around the city, playing the madman with great skill or defending the honour of the term ‘gentlewoman’, she was always entertaining. I particularly like how she made romance with her sound like a threat;
“He holds women in contempt, I should like to have the opportunity of breaking his heart for that.” She also notes that when she does re-marry, young men throughout London will hang themselves. I’d like her confidence.
And so we came to the end of a very enjoyable play and a very enjoyable year at the Dr Johnson Reading Circle, and look forward to another enjoyable year to come.