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the good natur'd man

7 may 2023

The Good Natur'd Man is a good-natured play, generating its laughs from set-piece scenes of mutual misunderstanding.

The main plot of Oliver Goldsmith's 1768 stage debut is creaky. A minor aristocrat named Honeywood is vexed by his nephew's tendency to be over-benevolent, which has bankrupted young Honeywood and put him on the verge of losing his true love, Miss Richland. Sir William Honeywood resolves "to involve him in fictitious distress, before he has plunged himself into real calamity" (Act 1, Scene 1) by engineering a phony action for debt, along with other dark-corners shenanigans that will teach Honeywood the error of his ways.

This corrective mousetrap clatters down over Honeywood mainly in the first, third, and final acts. Fortunately it plays out in counterpoint to some inspired romantic subplots and a couple of lively "humors" characters.

Mr. Croaker's humor is pessimism; the worst possible things are always about to happen to him. He is Miss Richland's guardian, and also father to Leontine and Olivia, children he wants to see well-married. Leontine is easy enough – just pair him off with Miss Richland, the only hitch being that neither is attracted to the other. Leontine is in fact in love with Olivia.

Before you swallow your gum, Olivia isn't really Leontine's sister; in fact she isn't even Olivia. In one of those only-in-romcoms devices, Olivia had been raised from infancy by an aunt in France. Sent over to collect her for marriage, Leontine met the love of his life, a young woman about Olivia's age. For reasons that now escape me even though I just finished reading the play, Leontine resolves to bring the false Olivia back to England and pass her off as his sister. The young lovers' bizarre pretence, plus Croaker's idiocy, play heck with their plans to marry.

Meanwhile Mr. Lofty, always name-dropping about his completely imaginary influence at court, wants to marry Miss Richland. Honeywood is so good-natured that he agrees to help Lofty succeed in his suit, much to Miss Richland's dismay.

Of course everybody ultimately ends up with the right person. Lofty is discomfited, Croaker learns to behave less foolishly, and Honeywood … actually one might be a bit uneasy about his future marriage to Miss Richland. The play represents Honeywood as reforming at the end, prepared not to be such a pushover in future. But his good nature is what's endeared him to Miss Richland in the first place, even as it has exasperated her. The Good Natur'd Man ends, unusually, with the overly good hero vowing not to be quite so good anymore. Can he keep it up?

Goldsmith, Oliver. The Good Natur'd Man. 1768. In Arthur Friedman, ed., Collected Works of Oliver Goldsmith. Vol. V. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966. 11-83.