Sex in the Plays George Washington Saw
The Beaux Stratagem
George Farquhar's last play was first performed on March 8, 1707, and it remained a "hit" for a hundred years more, both in Britain and America. Part of its attraction to theatre audiences in its first productions was that it took Restoration comedy out of London and the court and put it in the countryside. The setting of the play, a country inn, had to be familiaattractive to provincial Americans. The basic plot is the effort of "two gentlemen of broken fortune," Aimwell and Archer, to marry money. They come to an inn with Aimwell posing as a noble Lord, and Archer acting the part of his servant. Aimwell sets his sights on Dorinda. Archer, who is supposed merely to forward his confederate's designs, begins in character by trying to seduce the maid, but then falls in love with Mrs. Sullen who is unhappily married to a country bore, Dorinda's brother. The tension of the play, and mature and compelling it is, rises as Mrs. Sullen comes closer and closer to welcoming the advances of Archer and cheating on her husband. The happy ending comes with a farsical, amicable divorce. Of course, there is also the usual byplay of a Restoration comedy, including comely serving girls, bold highwaymen and a French count.
To an American audience in the 1790s Mrs. Sullen and Archer must have been very attractive characters. Archer's and Aimwell's scheme, immoral as it might seem at first, was at least enterprising. They went forward with wit and energy, and in the end accomplished much good, including thwarting the highwaymen. That both Archer and Aimwell were unmarried made their rakishness tolerable and kept the focus of the play on the unhappy wife. There were no adventurous husbands in the play, perhaps much to the relief of the married men in the audience, who, I suggest, given the temper of their times, were sorely tempted to be adventurous. Recall that prostitutes traditionally had seats reserved for them in the boxes (I have not been able to determine if this tradition was adhered to when the president was in the audience.) The men, however, could not sit back complacently. The attacks on Mr. Sullen were unremitting and quite telling. His faults were many:
Mrs. Sullen: ...if you ever marry, beware of a sullen. silent Sot, one that's always musing, but never thinks; There's some Diversion in a talking Blockhead; and since a Woman must wear Chains, I wou'd have the Pleasure of hearing 'em rattle a little.... He came home this morning at his usual Hour of Four, waken'd me out of a sweet Dream of something else, by tumbling over the Tea-table, which he broke all to pieces, after his Man and he had rowl'd about the Room like sick Passengers in a Storm, he comes flounce into Bed, dead as a Salmon into a Fishmonger's Basket; his Feet cold as Ice, his Breath hot as a Furnance, and his Hands and his Face as greasy as his Flanel Night-cap - Oh Matrimony!.... O the Pleasure of counting the melancholly Clock by a snoring Husband!...
Mrs. Sullen is also critical of country living and her attacks of it must have thrilled provincial audiences:
Mrs. Sullen: Country Pleasures! Racks and Torments! dost think, Child, that my limbs were meant for leaping of Ditches, and clambring over Stiles;....
Aimwell commences his campaign to find a woman with money by appearing in church. As he explains to Archer: "The Appearance of a Stranger in a Country Church draws as many Gazers as a blazing Star." But the program of Archer is far more entertaining. He teaches the serving maid the Catechism of Love, including: "What must a Lover do to obtain his Mistress? He must adore the Person that disdains him, he must bribe the Chambermaid that betrays him, and court the Footman that laughs at him...." etc. etc. But he soon set his sights on Mrs. Sullen.
There are three scenes that set up Archer's seduction of Mrs. Sullen, a brutal dialogue between the unhappy husband and wife; some gutter talk between Archer, in his role a servant, with Mr. Sullen's servant Scrub; and the attempt of the French count Bellair to seduce Mrs. Sullen. She actually arranges the rendez-vous with the count so that her husband can over hear and see that she is faithful. The scene is rather lame, but since theatrical presentations of Frenchmen might have had some bearing on perceptions of L'Enfant, it warrants a glance. Count Bellair goes through the motions and Mrs. Sullen sufficiently coy and cool. He gets on his knees:
Count: And where de Besiger is resolv'd to die before de Place. Here will I fix; [kneels] With Tears, Vows, and Prayers assault your Heart, and never rise till you surrender; or if I must storm - Love and St. Michael - And so I begin the Attack.
Mrs. Sullen: [Aside] Stand off - Sure he hears me not [that is, her huusbaand in hiding] And I cou'd almost wish he - did not. - The Fellow makes love very prettily. [to the Count] But, Sir, why shou'd you put such Value upon my Person, when you see it despis'd by one that knows it so much better?
Having dismissed the Frenchman, and in her aside condescending to note his effeminant pretty love, she next faces her husband who comes out with sword drawn to attack the Count. She brandishes a pistol and they are at each other again.
Sullen: Look'e, Madam, don't think that my Anger proceeds from any Concern I have for your Honour, but for my own, and if you can contrive any way of being a Whore without making me a Cuckhold, do it and welcome.
Mrs. Sullen: Sir, I thank you kindly, you wou'd allow me the Sin but rob me of the Pleasure - No, no, I'm resolv'd never to venture upon the Crime without the Satisfaction of seeing you punish'd for't.
Sullen: Then will you grant me this, my Dear? let any Body else do you the Favour but that French-man, for I mortally hate his whole Generation. [Exit]
Even if these lines were altered or cut (I have no evidence for that), they are so thrilling they must still have been known to the 1790 audiences of the play. Of course, the Count immediately takes up his siege. She dismisses him, giving him the "Taste of the Vertue of the English Ladies." Dorinda enters and the Frenchman, proving the fickleness of his countrymen, tries to seduce her.
We should note that the lame, and therefore effiminate, love-making of the Frenchman which amuses Mrs. Sullen and enrages Mr. Sullen, highlights the association of homosexuality with foreigness, especially French and Italian. (American audience of the Revolutionary War generation were touchy about English plays that insulted the French, and often plays were altered to prevent catcalls and riots. However, in the play, Bellair is not only the object of scorn. When he exits that scene, after being sent away by Dorinda too, he gets this salute from Mrs. Sullen: "There goes the true Humour of his Nation, Resentment with good Manners." Effeminacy has its virtues, and in dialogue with Aimwell, who wonders about Mrs. Sullen's good sense if she allows herself to be seduced by a Frenchman, Archer absolves her of that sin:
Aimwell: But I shou'd not like a Woman that can be so fond of a Frenchman.
Archer: Alas, Sir, Necessity has no Law; the Lady may be in Distress; perhaps she has a confounded Husband and her Revenge may carry her farther than her Love...."
There is also lines in the play when the word "sodomite" could have been used and were probably meant. Sullen regrets that he has to come to bed with his wife. When asked why he did so if it was so disagreeable, he replies "What! not lye with my Wife! why, Sir, do you take me for an Atheist or a Rake?")
Yet, this being a Restoration comedy, Archer, who will win Mrs. Sullen, cannot be a strong, silent type. In the scene with Scrub, a thoroughly rude servant, Archer pumps him for secrets about the Sullens and seals the bargain to share secrets by swearing to be "brothers.... From this Minute - Give me a kiss - And now Brother." Scrub, of course, begins with his own affairs, describing "That Jade, Gipsey, that was with us just now in the Cellar, is the arrantest Whore that ever wore a Petticoat; and I'm dying for love of her." Archer chimes in, "In the Country, I grant ye, where no Women's Vertue is lost, till a Bastard be found." That earthy comment must have pricked the ears of the provinvial American audience.
The scene with Scrub shows that the poetry of Archer's lovemaking is grounded in earthy sensuality. It is not merely pretty, though it is far more enchanting than Bellair's. And so the play creates a situation in which Mrs. Sullen has every reason to commit adultery, and shows that emotionally she wants and needs to. Yet, of course, on stage, she even signal her willingness. And, of course, in a comedy there must be a happy resolution to her predicament. The return of her brother from abroad, the theft of all of Sullen's papers and their recovery by Archer, etc. etc., and before you know it husband and wife recite their incompatibility, and all, honoring good sense above the law, grant them a divorce for "Consent is Law enough to set you free."
The popularity of this play, in America, did not rest on its providing an object lesson on the need for compatible marriages; nor as an object lesson on English immorality; nor as an argument for easy divorce. It offers a delicious taste of adultery, justifying the weakness of the woman and the enterprise of her seducer. Which is not to say that Washington and those who joined him in the audience went out and did likewise. The play set boundaries and publically discussed them in a way that was meaningful to an audience 83 years after the play was written. A generation later, Beaux Stratagem would be virtually banished from the stage, its agenda not discussed.
by Bob Arnebeck
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