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the beaux' stratagem

21 february 2016

The beaux' stratagem in The Beaux' Stratagem is that the two title gentlemen, down to their last £200 after living it up in London, retreat to the countryside, pretending to be master and servant, in hopes of finding a wealthy wife for the one who's pretending to be master. There would seem easier ways of negotiating a reversal of fortunes, but farces have to start from some farcical premise, and it's idle to complain about how thin this one is. Especially 309 years after the play premiered.

The Beaux' Stratagem is a play of great joie de vivre, no matter what class, sex, or nationality a character may be. Everybody in the play is looking out for the main chance to feed their desires – usually for love or money, but sometimes for drink, gambling, or the sheer joy of impersonation.

The plot is simple, and its farcical complications are punctured almost as quickly as they arise. Aimwell and Archer are the two young beaux who masquerade as a nobleman and his man. Aimwell really is the younger son of a nobleman, but that and sixpence will get him a cup of coffee, so he's taking a roundabout approach to the marriage market. Merely stopping at an inn, in 1707, apparently puts you within striking range of an eligible young heiress. In Aimwell's case this is Dorinda, half-sister of a hilarious buffoon named Sullen. Sullen in turn is married to Mrs. Sullen, who would like nothing better than to divorce her apish husband and take up with Archer.

The course of true love runs past Irishmen disguised as French priests, highwaymen in league with the innkeeper and his daughter, and the effusive naturopath Lady Bountiful, mother to Dorinda. The dialogue is witty, though as critics like Charles Fifer (editing the play for the Regents series in 1977) point out, the tone of the play is considerably less cynical than that of earlier Restoration drama. True love really does win out, and happy endings are on tap in the person of late arrivals at the inn, bearing news of Aimwell's succession to a title and Sullen's vulnerability to divorce proceedings.

Scholarship on The Beaux' Stratagem is thin, and seems to center on George Farquhar's debt to John Milton's divorce tracts. Weirdly enough, the Irish playwright does seem to have cribbed sections of dialogue pretty much straight from the God-gifted organ voice of England, and made them funny in the process. Verbal invention will always win out.

Farquhar, George. The Beaux' Stratagem. 1707. Edited by Charles N. Fifer. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1977. PR 3437 .B4