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the clandestine marriage

12 january 2020

The Clandestine Marriage (1766), by George Colman and David Garrick, is a light-hearted comedy of 18th-century manners. It has perhaps dated too much in its specific references to be effective on the 21st-century stage. Certainly the social world and values it sends up are long-dissolved. But the basic shell of its situation might make for good re-adaptations. With some calquing of present-day mores onto the structure of The Clandestine Marriage, it could make a fun high-school movie.

In fact, The Clandestine Marriage is most famous in adapted form, as Domenico Cimarosa's opera Il Matrimonio Segreto. Cimarosa's 1792 opera, to a libretto by Giovanni Bertati, is not a staple of the operatic repertoire, but it is still seen here and there at least annually, with productions in Italy, Germany, Russia and elsewhere during the last couple of seasons.

The Clandestine Marriage is itself an adaptation of William Hogarth's 1740s graphic narrative Marriage A-la-Mode. Or at least of the early images in Hogarth's chronicle, "The Marriage Settlement" and "The Tête à Tête." Hogarth's story goes on to end catastrophically, while Colman's and Garrick's ends in mirth, reconciliation, and a meta-theatrical epilogue.

The title plighting is between Fanny Sterling, daughter of a rich trader, and Mr. Lovewell, an honest gentleman who doesn't draw much water in terms of birth or wealth. The Lovewells are four months married and, unknown to the husband, are expecting their first child. (The timing there is subtle but very 18th-century. This isn't a Restoration comedy; no genteel person actually misbehaves – we are free to assume that Fanny and Lovewell never slept together before their marriage.)

But for various reasons, chiefly their dependence on Sterling père and Fanny's rich aunt Mrs. Heidelberg, the Lovewells haven't made their marriage public. Only the serving-girl Betty knows about it. Meanwhile, Sterling is eagerly awaiting his elder daughter's marriage to Sir John Melvil, kinsman to the down-at-heels but eminently noble Lord Ogleby. That marriage will be a perfect mix of "cit" plutocracy and old landed aristocracy.

There's just one problem: the prospective spouses don't like each other. In fact, Sir John is in love with Fanny. Lord Ogleby fancies Fanny, too. Most of the menservants in the play also wouldn't mind a chance with Fanny. The poor young woman, unable to reveal her married state, spends the whole play pursued by its non-husband male characters, with droll cross-purposes complications.

Lord Ogleby is the best part in the play. He is grotesquely vain and affected, but as Lovewell notes at one point, Lord Ogleby is "humane" beneath it all, more prone to laugh along with the world laughing with him than to bear grudges. In turn, Lord Ogleby has a December-May crush on Fanny but also genuinely respects her, calling her "civiliz'd" at one point, in contrast to her rapacious family. The bond between Lord Ogleby and Fanny ultimately defuses the farcical situation just as it's on the brink of turning serious, and allows for the happy ending.

To create Il Matrimonio Segreto, Cimarosa and Bertati condensed but also complicated the situation. They folded Lord Ogleby and Sir John into a single character, Count Robinson. Mrs. Heidelberg, who is limited to comic relief and source of funding in the original play, becomes Fidalma in the opera, and gains a new plot function when it's revealed that she has set her cap for the young clandestine husband, Paolino. The original core family of father and two daughters remains the same, Geronimo as parent to Elisetta (the elder) and Carolina (secretly married to Paolino, Geronimo's secretary).

Bertati also removed the topical satire directed at Georgian England, shaping the material into a much more abstract and evergreen family comedy of misunderstandings. The resulting libretto is so pared down that the second act of Il Matrimonio Segreto loses a little plot momentum. In the source play, Colman and Garrick continually supply small obstacles, usually having to do with money, that prevent Fanny and Lovewell from revealing that they are married. In the opera, it isn't quite clear anymore, after a certain point, why it matters whether the marriage stays clandestine. Fortunately the score moves fast enough that viewers and listeners aren't going to complain. Only us readers slow things down enough to ask annoying plot questions.

I watched Il Matrimonio Segreto recently in a charming production conducted by Hilary Griffiths, recorded in the mid-1980s in Stockholm and available on YouTube. Live video recordings of opera may seem an uneasy compromise between higher-quality studio recordings or feature films on the one hand, and in-person performance on the other. But they have the great virtue of preserving something that David Garrick, for one, thought inevitably ephemeral. From the Prologue to The Clandestine Marriage:

The Painter dead, yet still he charms the Eye;
While England lives, his Fame can never die:
But he, who struts his Hour upon the Stage,
Can scarce extend his Fame for Half an Age;
Nor Pen nor Pencil can the Actor save,
The Art, and Artist, share one common Grave.
I think that Garrick would have approved of YouTube.

Colman, George, and David Garrick. The Clandestine Marriage. 1766. iBooks.