In Oliver Goldsmith’s 1773 comedy, a wealthy English countryman attempts to match his daughter up with a wealthy London resident, but when the daughter learns her suitor prefers lower-class women, she must “stoop to conquer” her man by pretending to be a maid.
She Stoops to Conquer was written by Oliver Goldsmith in 1773. Goldsmith was very critical of the then current vogue for sentimental comedy and the prejudice against laughter (considered to be “a shocking distortion of the face”!), and She Stoops to Conquer was his response – and hugely successful it was, and still is. We thought the comment ion the programme about Goldsmith and the ‘new reality’ was a little misleading. Yes, he was reacting against the fashion of the day, but ‘realism’ has the wrong connotations – he was setting his comedy in an unfashionable, rural milieu, an ‘everyday story of country folk., but the style is still very artificial. Formal language brings its own problems, but more of this later.
The course of true love never runs smoothly, and the plot revolves around the fortunes of two pairs of lovers and an avaricious aunt and stepmother, Mrs. Hardcastle, who is also the doting mother of a very boorish and illiterate son from her first marriage, Tony Lumpkin. It is he however, who is the engine for the plot, both when it goes seriously wrong and when it has to be set on track again. Of course, all ends happily for the lovers and the only sour face at the conclusion of the play is Mrs. Hardcastle’s.
Eighteenth century conversation can be formal and rather artificial-sounding to modern ears: we felt at the start of the play that some of the cast were not always comfortable with this highly structured dialogue. Occasionally they spoke too fast or did not enunciate clearly enough, thereby missing some of the sparkle of the exchanges. They could perhaps have emphasised the artificiality, particularly in the early scenes, thereby helping the momentum of the play. In the second half, with the plot moving forward into further complications, the action speeded up and the cast seemed more at home and confident with the conversational style of the 1770’s.
Christine Mackinven, however, had no problems at all with the ‘period piece’ language. She was splendid as Mrs. Hardcastle, a terrible example of vanity and avariciousness in middle age! When, as a result of another of her son’s little schemes, she thought herself confronted by a highwayman on Crackskull Common (it was, in fact, her bemused husband in their own garden) she launched into a marvellously comic scene of exaggerated hysteria.
Mike Newbold as her husband gained dramatic force as his anger and frustration rose but in his opening scene with his wife we felt the director could have provided more domestic movement and detail – perhaps smoking a pipe, or sitting, getting up and moving towards her as she became more irritating, even pacing the room or putting his feet up on the table as some sort of challenge to this wife of his!
Mr. Hardcastle was imminently expecting the arrival of the diffident son of his best friend, Sir Charles Marlow (ably played by Richard Jenkins). The young man was to pay court to young Kate Hardcastle, the apple of her father’s eye, but was duped into arrogantly treating the Hardcastle home as a common inn and his host as the innkeeper. The author of this piece of mischief was Mrs. Hardcastle’s son, Tony Lumpkin – Richard Delahay was suitably lumpen and churlish, but he did need more help with the clarity of his diction. He was very convincing as the awkward, oafish and spoilt son, with none of the intelligence and sparkle of his step- sister, but an audience does need to hear all his grumbles and complaints! He also needed more room on the stage, which was not helped by having several flats set at angles to provide exits. Much useful space was therefore used up and Tony Lumpkin needs to blunder about, threatening at one point to draw his ‘basket’ (his sword), but there would never have been room for such a tantrum!
The two young lovers, young Charles Marlow and his friend George Hastings (Andy Kirtley and Charles Watts respectively) handled their roles well but we did wonder whether these two male leads could, with benefit, have been changed round. Charles Marlow has to portray the well-known double standard of differing attitudes to women: total awkwardness an inability to relate to young women of social standing but absolute freedom to fumble any barmaid or kitchen wench who came his way! We hope Charles Watts will not regard it as a slur on his character when we way that we felt he might have been happier in the role of ‘young man sowing his wild oats’, while Andy Kirtley could have been his solid and dependable friend. However, Andy managed the ‘split personality’ of the character of Charles Marlow very credibly and to comic effect though (again a matter of direction) he needed to bring some variety to his depiction of total shyness when talking to Kate. Just looking at his bots or turning sideways became too repetitious – there are other ways of avoiding eye contact. A further small point – the wigs did cause us some concern. One can accept that old Mr. Hardcastle might have a rather ragged and unfashionable wig, but the young and supposedly elegant Charles looked as though he was imminently about to lose his and it seemed to be coming apart in places. Such details are important in a costume play: we found this wig worryingly distracting.
Young Charles, who by today’s standards would be very politically incorrect, does redeem himself to win the hand of Kate, who intelligently keeps up the subterfuge of being the barmaid at the inn. Kate and her cousin, Constance Neville, wee well-portrayed by Vanessa Braithwaite and Ros Saint-Clare respectively but again, as with the young men, we felt the girls could well have switched roles. Vanessa had the cool reserve and demureness that would have suited Constance, while Ros could have brought the ‘sparkiness’ and mercurial element to Kate’s character.
Claire McCabe was the long-suffering servant in the dysfunctional household – a nicely-handled cameo role, while Richard Jenkins doubled as the landlord of The Three Pigeons, which was Tony Lumpkin’s second home.
With regard to the set, apart from the use of flats a t the sides of the stage, upon which we have already commented, we were unhappy with the rather modernist, abstract design and felt that no effort had been made to turn it into a comfortable, middle-class eighteenth-century interior. We realise that space is a problem and one would not want a cluttered, fussy set, but less timbering, less Mondrian-style geometry and perhaps some family portraits might have helped.
She Stoops to Conquer is a beautifully constructed play where love conquers all, despite the combined efforts of a greedy woman, her inept son and an unfortunate case of ‘pedestalisation of women’ in the young male lead! As the programme pointed out, and even with the reservations we have made, the play can still delight an audience 200 years after it was written.