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the man of mode

29 september 2022

If I'd ever read George Etherege's play The Man of Mode (1676), it had long since become just a title to me. It ranks high in the canon of Restoration comedy and still shows up on stage with some regularity, especially in college programs that have some sense of theater history.

As W.B. Carnochan says in his 1966 Regents edition, The Man of Mode succeeds "by its good nature" (xxi), a quality not always abundant in Restoration comedy. And I think it is a fairly good-natured play. This despite its subtitle ("or, Sir Fopling Flutter"), which seems to promise that the play will shower contempt on its own title character.

And the characters try. A coterie of gentlemen-about-town, named Dorimant, Medley, and Bellair, take every opportunity to jeer at the newly arrived man of mode, who brings Paris affectations home with him to London society. But Etheredge quickly establishes that Sir Fopling, though an idiot, is no more idiotic than the play's men of sense, and not even much more of a fop.

Dorimant is the protagonist, insofar as there's much of a plot (what there is, is characterized by "apparent shapelessness," as Carnochan notes, xx). Entangled romantically with Mrs Loveit, trying to seduce Bellinda, on the prowl for any other woman he can grab, Dorimant is truly taken, for once, by the plainspoken Harriet, just in from the country and on her way back once she marries. Harriet had been intended for Bellair, but Bellair loves Emilia, who is the object of triangular attentions from Bellair's own profane father. Harriet and Bellair pretend to be in love with each other (in one of the play's funniest scenes) in order to distract attention from their separate romantic goals.

To disengage from Mrs Loveit, Dorimant attempts to put her in the way of Sir Fopling, who is happy to play the informal co-respondent of the moment. But Sir Fopling never really gets in anybody's dramatic way. He's just around to utter inanities, kick up his heels, and sing a song or two. In Molière or Ben Jonson, Sir Fopling would have been the source of real animus in other characters. In The Man of Mode, he may genuinely teach Dorimant to turn away from his unserious lifestyle.

Though let's not get too rosy. Dorimant does end up with Harriet for life just a couple of scenes after bedding Bellinda and then still trying to string Mrs Loveit along. If there was ever a pair whose loving voyage was but for two months victualled, it might be Dorimant and Harriet.

The other virtue of The Man of Mode is its proto-Oscar-Wilde wit. "He is a person indeed of great acquired follies," Dorimant says of Sir Fopling, and Medley replies:

He is like many others, beholding to his education for making him so eminent a coxcomb. Many a fool had been lost to the world had their indulgent parents wisely bestowed neither learning nor good breeding on 'em. (23, Act I)

Etherege, George. The Man of Mode. 1676. Edited by W.B. Carnochan. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1966.