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a mad couple well matched

28 august 2019

I'm not exactly sure who the title characters of Richard Brome's A Mad Couple Well Matched are. There are several couples, all a little off if not stark raving mad, and they seem to be well matched at the end, though if you shook them up and paired them off differently they'd be equally well matched. It really doesn't matter; Brome's play is less about finding "The One" than about cynically exploring the intersections of sex, money, marriage, and class in Caroline England.

That way of putting it is academic, and makes it sound like Brome was engaged in a "project," as so many English professors assume all other writers must be, since we're perpetually doing "projects" ourselves. I don't think A Mad Couple Well Matched has any great analytical purpose, though. It sets out to show how badly people can behave, and how consciously they delude themselves about themselves and others. In that respect, it's pretty evergreen.

The closest thing to a protagonist is George Careless, who lives up to his name by running through his own fortune and his uncle's, debauching every woman he meets, and despising all the people he's seducing and ripping off. You don't have to like Careless, but as long as you don't demand lessons from your dramas, you can enjoy his utter lack of any scrap of a scrupule. The energy of the play comes from how all the people Careless abuses rally round him and give him yet another chance to take advantage of them.

Careless wants to sleep with: Phoebe (his "whore," which is to say a girlfriend he's supporting financially); Lady Thrivewell, his own uncle's wife; Mistress Crostill, an eligible widow. About the only woman that Careless isn't pursuing is Alicia Saleware, a merchant's roving wife. She's slept with Sir Oliver Thrivewell, though, and with Bellamy, a young lad in the service of Lord Lovely, and with Lord Lovely, and it seems to be easier to list the men in London that Alicia Saleware hasn't slept with. Wat, Careless' servant and thus the Sganarelle of the play, wants to sleep with Phoebe, himself. I'm sure I'm forgetting some of the amorous possibilities, and I just finished reading the play.

Apparently nobody in a 17th-century play could ever, like, just hook up. Money was always at stake: the benefits of potential marriage, the securing and transmission of estates, business relations, outright payments. Brome generates his humor, obviously, by having these interested parties speak so unvarnishedly about their sexual/financial ambitions.

For some reason Bellamy turns out to be a woman in disguise, which leads to everybody forgiving her for having slept with various wives while pretending to be a man. "I pleased her so, that she protested—and I believe her—her husband never pleased her so," Bellamy tells Alicia of a night s/he has spent with Lady Thrivewell (213; Act 3, Scene 1). But if it's not hetero sex, it doesn't count as adultery in the early modern sexual economy, no matter how much fun it is.

Enough couples pair off contentedly enough at the end of the play to make it clear that at least some are well-matched, even if they may seem mad to think so. It's a good clean dirty play, and maybe deserves a pared-down modern production.

Brome, Richard. A Mad Couple Well Matched. 1653. In Six Caroline Plays. Ed. A.S. Knowland. London: Oxford University Press, 1962. 165-249.