Wednesday 5 August 2020

The Dr Johnson Reading Circle read The Modern Husband (Part one)

(A print featuring some of the cast of The Modern Husband)

The Modern Husband came out in 1732, fairly early in Henry Fielding’s highly successful nine years as a playwright and was performed by the company of Drury Lane Theatre. It ran for a 13 nights, a good run for the time. The cast were the best the company had to offer, with Colley Cibber playing Lord Richly although he was later to be castigated as poet laureate and remembered as King of the Dunces by Alexander Pope, he was a hugely popular performer. Joined by fellow manager, Robert Wilks, the cast was also something of a family affair featuring his son, Theophilus, daughter-in-law, Susannah and one of the first appearances of his daughter Charlotte, who would later play male part - eventually living for a while in male dress. Theophilus and Susannah were going to find life imitate art, but that’ll be in the next instalment.

The play didn’t find itself part of the common repertoire, partly because Wilks died later that year and the Drury Lane company found themselves in years of turmoil which resulted in Theophilus Cibber leading an actor’s revolution against his own father. I think it’s also probable the play hasn’t been revived because it’s not a particularly ‘fun’ piece.

The Modern Husband finds Fielding in full, bitter satire mode, closer in tone his novels Jonathan Wilde and Amelia, then the more celebrated Tom Jones. If it’s not particularly funny, it’s because it’s not supposed to be, it’s satire as scourge not light amusement. The target is modernity, particularly its mercantilism, silly fashions and esteem of reputation and appearance over substance, a topic that appeared in the much gentler The Clandestine Marriage as a division between town and country. It’s not a new topic in any way and in the culture war that took place between old and new ways, Fielding identified with the old, his initial writing published under the name Scriblerus Secondus, linking himself to the Scribleran society of Pope, Swift and Gay.

The play is about how Mr and Mrs Modern can’t maintain their spendthrift lifestyle so Mr Modern decides to pimp his wife out to Lord Richly. Meanwhile, all their fashionable friends are undergoing similar crises of love, money and conscience. 

For a play with such on-the-nose naming as Mr Modern, Lord Richly, Mrs Banespouse and Lady Pawnjewels, the characters are not as simplistic as they first appear. For example, while Mr Gaywit originally seems to live up to his name, dispensing cynical comments from a position of indifference but he’s actually deeply in. Unfortunately, when he tells Emilia that his emotions for her can be called;
        “A just admiration of the highest worth. Call it the tenderest friendship of you please, though I fear it merits the swiftest, softest name that can be given” she assumes he’s speaking ironically. 
His declarations of love have a simplicity and sincerity that read as more genuine than the decelerations of love found in the other plays we’ve read. 
Similarly, Mr Bellamant seems built up to be the scoundrel for the week, a character warns another about his skill at cheating on his wife without anyone knowing. What’s more, we meet the wife he cheats on, who seems (at this stage of the play) to be one of the few uncomplicated ‘good’ characters in the play. However, in the subsequent scene with his faddish, spendthrift, son, he is resolutely on the ‘right’ side of the play’s debate, laughing at his son dressing as a woman and blowing to every fashionable breeze that comes along. The son feels his father is unfair in this, declaring that, “If a man will keep good company, he must comply with the fashion” but fashion is definitely the main villain in this play.

Wholly unsympathetic are Mr Modern and Lady Charlotte. He’s a snivelling suck-up who reminds me a little of Rigsby from Rising Damp and she’s someone who confuses cruel with funny. She’s even proud of the fact, boasting,
   “Oh! I would not say a good−natured thing for the World.” Unfortunately for Gaywit, he has to marry her if he wants to inherit Lord Richly’s fortune despite his heart being with Emilia. He knows he is not fond of Lady Charlotte but can’t tell whether she likes him as, “it is as difficult to be certain of her dislike, as her affection,” she being equally nasty to everyone. In the end, the problem is the desire to be respected and the notion that money is the only route to that - a problem in which nearly all the characters in the play are currently struggling with in some way or another, especially when battling with love.

All this does mean that, while the play did not produce the laughs of Wild Oats, there was a lot bubbling away under the surface and many of the jabs find their mark. One part that did raise a laugh was a conversation Lord Richly and Gaywit have about a new opera called ‘The Humours of Bedlam”. It maybe the most perfect opera ever made as, being written by an Englishman and set in Bedlam, it has “neither sense nor music”. I think it might have played Edinburgh last year.

However, whether dabbling in light comedy or bitter farce, it’s nice to know that it’s possible to come together, even if it’s over video-conference and explore something new and interesting.

The Modern Husband

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