11 Etherege and The Man of Mode
Dr. Karen Palmer
Sir George Etherege (1635? – c. May 10, 1692) was an English dramatist, known for his creation of the comedy of intrigue and his Restoration plays. The exact dates of his birth and death are unknown. Among his most popular plays are The Comical Revenge or, Love in a Tub in 1664, She Would if She Could in 1668, and The Man of Mode or, Sir Fopling Flutter in 1676. Although he is not well-known in modern times, he distinguished himself in dramatic poetry and plays as an established writer between the years of 1636 and 1689. His wit and banter in his plays came out in a dull, dark age, which most uplifted and encouraged the people, making him and his plays incredibly popular.
Etherege was one of the early examples of Restoration Comedy, which emerged largely as a reaction to the collapse of the Puritan era. He is often attributed to leading the way for notable playwrights such as William Congreve and Richard Brinsley Sheridan, who utilized the comedy of intrigue, which Etherege first displayed in his writings.
George Etherege was born in Maidenhead, Berkshire, England, around 1635, (the exact date is unknown) to George Etherege and Mary Powney; he was the eldest of six children. He was a scion of an ancient and distinguished Oxfordshire family, resulting in a life of luxury and ease. He is said to have attended Cambridge University; however, John Dennis, one of his educators, assures that to his certain knowledge Etherege understood neither Greek nor Latin, thus giving rise to doubts that he actually attended there. In any event, if he attended he left the university before completing his degree, in order to travel to France and Flanders. He probably traveled abroad to France with his father who stayed with the exiled queen, Henrietta Maria. He is thought to have resided in France, making it possible that he witnessed in Paris the performances of some of Molière’s earliest comedies; and he seems, from an allusion in one of his plays, to have been personally acquainted with Bussy Rabutin. This not only influenced his life, but his work as well, as is evidenced in some of his plays.
On his return to London he studied law at one of the Inns of Court. His tastes were those of a fine gentleman, and he indulged freely in pleasure, especially drinking, due to his rich circumstances. He then served as apprentice to a lawyer and later studied law at Clement’s Inn, London, one of the Inns of Chancery.
Had he been poor or ambitious he might have been to England almost what Molière was to France, but he was a rich man living at his ease, and he disdained to excel in literature. His wealth and wit, the distinction and charm of his manners, won him the general worship of society. His success was not only prevalent within his plays, but extended to his winning personality as well. His temperament is best shown by the names his contemporaries gave him, of “Gentle George” and “Easy Etherege.”
Before his last play, he formed an alliance with the famous actress, Mrs. Elizabeth Barry, who unhappily died in her youth. During her life she bore him a daughter, on whom he settled £6000, with her mother. Little else is known about his daughter or his relationship with her mother. After a silence of eight years, solely due to his class, which upbraided him for inattention to literature, Etherege came out with his final and most successful play, The Man of Mode, or Sir Fopling Flutter. After this brilliant success Etherege retired from literature, but his gallantries and his gambling soon deprived him of his fortune. To provide for himself he began to search for a rich wife. In 1683, he met with a wealthy elderly widow whom he intended to marry. She consented to marry him if he made a lady of her. In an effort to fulfill his part of the agreement, he was knighted in 1680, gaining her hand and her money.
After his marriage, he was sent by Charles II on a mission to The Hague, and in March 1685 to Regensburg, Germany, where he was appointed resident minister in the imperial German court. He collected a library at Regensburg, some volumes of which are in the theological college there. Since he was very uncomfortable in Germany, after three and a half years of residing there he moved to Paris, where he died, though the cause and date of death are unknown. It was probably in 1691, for Narcissus Luttrell notes in February 1692 that “Sir George Etherege, the late King James’ ambassador to Vienna, died lately in Paris.” His manuscript dispatches are preserved in the British Museum, where they were discovered and described by Mr. Gosse in 1881. The find of such manuscripts adds very largely to the knowledge of Etherege’s career.
Soon after the Restoration in 1660, Etherege composed the comedy, The Comical Revenge or Love in a Tub, which introduced him to Lord Buckhurst, afterwards the earl of Dorset. This was performed at the Duke’s theater in 1664, and a few copies were printed in the same year. It is partly in rhymed heroic verse, but it contains comic scenes that are exceedingly bright and fresh, with a style of wit hitherto unknown upon the English stage. The play was a huge success on the stage, but Etherege waited four years before he repeated his experiment. Meanwhile, he gained the highest reputation as a poetical beau, and moved into the esteemed social circle of Sir Charles Sedley, Lord Rochester and other noble wits of the day.
In 1668 he brought out She would if she could, an admirable comedy in many respects, full of action, wit and spirit, but considered frivolous and immoral by the general public at the time. The premise of the play implored that we seem to move in an airy and fantastic world, where flirtation is the only serious business of life, upsetting many. The basis for the play is thought to have been taken from Etherege’s own life, which at this point was no less frivolous and unprincipled than those of his own characters, Courtals and Freemen. Even though it was rejected by many, this play was the initial signifier of Etherege as a new power in literature, representing a significant break with the rudeness of his predecessors or the grossness of his contemporaries. The play is also critically acclaimed, as it was the first comedy of manners to attain unity of tone by shedding the incongruous romantic verse element.
After a silence of eight years, he returned with one more play, unfortunately his last. The Man of Mode or Sir Fopling Flutter, indisputably the best comedy of intrigue written in England before the days of William Congreve, was acted and printed in 1676, and enjoyed an unbounded success. Known for its wit, his audiences responded with great laughter. Although his repertoire is not typically produced in the modern theater, George Etherege was highly acclaimed and praised during his life for his work, and is still studied in modern times as well.
George Etherege holds a distinguished place in English literature, and is considered to be one of the “big five” of Restoration Comedy. He inaugurated a period of genuine wit and sprightliness, encouraging others to do the same. In addition, he helped to invent the comedy of manners as well as the comedy of intrigue, which were usually written by sophisticated authors for members of their own coterie or social class. The comedy of manners has historically thrived in periods and societies that combined material prosperity and moral latitude. Playwrights declared themselves against affected wit and acquired follies, satirizing these qualities by creating characters that caricature such follies. In the character of Sir Fopling Flutter Etherege helped to initiate the use of such characters. This method allowed Etherege to pave the way for the masterpieces of William Congreve and Sheridan.
Etheredge’s portraits of fops and beaux are considered the best of their kind. His wit is sparkling and frivolous, his style picturesque. Etheredge is noted for his delicate touches of dress, furniture and scene throughout each of his plays. He vividly draws the fine airs of London gentlemen and ladies, setting his plays in a higher caliber milieu than the rest.
- The Comical Revenge or, Love in a Tub, comedy (ca. 1664; printed 1664)
- She wou’d if she cou’d, (ca. 1668; printed 1668)
- The Man of Mode, or, Sir Fopling Flutter, (ca. 1676; printed 1676)
Introduction to the Play
The Man of Mode, or, Sir Fopling Flutter (after one of the play’s main characters) is a Restoration comedy by George Etherege, written in 1676 and first performed in March of the same year. The play became Etherege’s most successful due to its wit and charm.
The play is set in Restoration London, and follows the libertine Dorimant as he tries to win over the young heiress Harriet, and to disengage himself from his previous affair with Mrs. Loveit. Despite the subtitle, the fop Sir Fopling is only one of several marginal characters; the rake Dorimant is the protagonist.
Part of its success was no doubt due to that fact that it included caricatures of prominent London citizens of the day. Sir Fopling Flutter was based on Beau Hewit, the reigning exquisite of the hour. One of the main characters, Dorimant, may have been based on John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, though there is no concrete evidence of this. The part was first played by Thomas Betterton. Sir Fopling, the flamboyant fop of the hour, by William Smith. The character Medley was based on the author himself. Even the drunken shoemaker in the play was based on a real person, who made his fortune from being thus brought into public notice.
The main theme of the play is the restoration of order in love and marriage. Two of the main characters, Dorimant and Harriet are the two who are most immersed in the game of love. Although it seems evident the couple are destined to be together, an obstacle is placed in Dorimant’s way in the form of Harriet’s mother, Mrs. Woodville, who has made arrangements for her to marry Young Bellair, a young gentleman who already has his eye on someone else, Emilia. Threatened with disinheritance, Young Bellair and Harriet agree to pretend to accept the idea, while Harriet and Dorimant engage in their battle of wits, which is reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Beatrice and Benedict in Much Ado About Nothing, from 1598.
The Prologue supplies some hints as to what is being satirized in The Man of Mode, stating that “your own follies may supply the stage” and “’Tis by your follies that we players thrive.” One of the main satirical elements is the fop—men who are so consumed with appearances that they lack sense. They firmly believe that they are the height of fashion, when, in fact, they are being laughed at behind their backs: “Nature well-drawn and wit must now give place to gaudy nonsense and to dull grimace.” In The Man of Mode, we also get the sense that there is a push toward English values over French ones: “Of foreign wares why should we fetch the sum, when we can be so richly served at home?”. To an extent, women who allow themselves to be taken by the rakes are also criticized, as it is revealed that their infidelity/lack of moral character does not win them the man in the end. Mrs. Loeit says, “Bellinda, if thou wouldst be happy, give thyself wholly up to goodness.”
Another cultural practice that is ridiculed is the behavior of the rake and the women he is with. Both Mrs. Loveit and Bellinda make fools of themselves trying to please Dorimant, even as he uses them to get rid of each other and get Harriet. Mrs. Loveit enters the picture, breaking her fans and acting hysterically. She is defenseless against Dorimant’s cruel words, and, in the end, she represents the tragic side effect of the game of love. Having long since lost interest in her, Dorimant continues to lead her on, giving her hope, but leaves her in despair.
Her unrequited love only brings her ridicule and scorn, reminding society that if you are going to play at the game of love, you’d better be prepared to get hurt. Indeed, Loveit comes to the realization that “There’s nothing but falsehood and impertinence in this world. All men are villains or fools,” before she parades out.
By the end of the play, we see one marriage, as expected, but it is between Young Bellair and Emilia, who broke with tradition by marrying secretly without parental consent from Old Bellair. The young couple is nonetheless forgiven for their actions. While Harriet sinks into a depressing mood, thinking of her lonely house in the country and the poignant noise of the rooks, Dorimant admits his love to her, saying: “The first time I saw you, you left me with the pangs of love upon me; and this day my soul has quite given up her liberty.”
In the end, as is the tradition in comedies, the play concludes with the characters happy in life and in love.
Video of the Play
It is often helpful to watch the video while you read along with the text of the play. This strategy helps readers new to the language of Restoration Comedy to better understand what is happening in the play.
Text of the Play
Letter to the Duchess
TO HER Royal Highness THE DUCHESS.
Poets however they may be modest otherwise, have always too good an opinion of what they write. The World when it sees this Play Dedicated to Your Royal Highness, will conclude, I have more than my share of that Vanity. But I hope the honor I have of belonging to You, will excuse my presumption. ‘Tis the first thing I have produc’d in Your Service, and my Duty obliges me to what my Choice durst not else have aspir’d.
I am very sensible, Madam, how much it is beholding to Your Indulgence, for the success it had in the Acting, and Your Protection will be no less fortunate to it in the Printing; for all are so ambitious of making their Court to You, that none can be severe to what you are pleas’d to favor.
This universal submission and respect is due to the greatness of Your Rank and Birth; but You have other Illustrious Qualities, which are much more engaging. Those wou’d but dazle, did not these really charm the Eyes and Understandings of all who have the Happiness to approach You.
Authors on these occasions are never wanting to publish a particular of their Patrons Virtues and Perfections; but Your Royal Highness‘s are so eminently known, that did I follow their Examples, I shou’d but paint those wonders here of which every one already has the Idea in his mind. Be∣sides, I do not think it proper to aim at that in Prose, which is so glorious a subject for Verse; in which hereafter if I show more zeal than skill, it will not grieve me much, since I less passionately desire to be esteem’d a Poet, than to be thought,
Your Royal Highness’s Most humble, most obedient, and most faithful Servant, George Etherege.
- Mr Dorimant, Gentlemen.
- Mr Medley, Gentlemen.
- Old Bellair, Gentlemen.
- Young Bellair, Gentlemen.
- Sir Fopling Flutter, Gentlemen.
- Lady Townley, Gentlewomen.
- Emilia, Gentlewomen.
- Mrs. Loveit, Gentlewomen.
- Bellinda, Gentlewomen.
- Lady Woodvil, and Harriet her Daugh∣ter, Gentlewomen.
- Pert, and Busy, Waiting Women.
- A Shoe maker.
- An Orange-woman.
- Three Slovenly Bullies.
- Two Chair-men.
- Mr Smirk, a Parson.
- Handy, a Valet de Chambre.
- Pages, Footmen, &c.
Bid your Man give me an Angel.
This fine Woman I’le lay my life
Kissing one another!
Farewell Bogg. —
How now you drunken Sot.?
Where shall we dine to day?
Turn Bullies straight.
Gentlemen, I’ll return immediately.
Changing of her condition.
Here’s a Letter Sir.
Be calm ye great Parents, &c.
SCENE III. The Mail.
SCENE II. Lady Townleys House.
A Dod the Boy has made a happy choice.
The EPILOGUE by Mr Dryden.
Text of Man of Mode under Public Domain.