Eighteenth-Century Life 25.3 (2001) 43-61
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George Farquhar's The Recruiting Officer:
Warfare, Conscription, and the Disarming of Anxiety
Kevin J. Gardner
Set against the patriotic backdrop of Marlborough's astonishing victory at Blenheim over the allied forces of Louis XIV in 1704, George Farquhar's The Recruiting Officer (1706) was one of the most successful of eighteenth-century comedies. 1 The play's two plots feature a traditional comical romance involving two couples, Captain Plume-Silvia and Worthy-Melinda, interwoven with an amiable satire on military life, in particular the recruiting tactics of Captain Plume and his veteran NCO, Sergeant Kite. While the play's comical action and gentle satire make conscription seem harmless or alluring, Farquhar does not deny the social reality of conscription, nor does he render war or its heroes sentimental. He satirizes harsh military discipline, absentee officers, irresponsible promotions, false mustering, and unscrupulous recruiting practices, yet renders these ugly facts with good-spiritedness. In fact, Farquhar seems to be most skillful not only at dramatizing the realities of war but also at disarming any potential anxiety his audience may have had over the brutishness and inevitability of war through a consistent tone of amiability. 2 This suggests not only the play's initial popularity but its continued success as well, despite its topical themes of recruiting and conscription set during an almost forgotten war; and, as the timing of its frequent revivals suggests, The Recruiting Officer also casually makes war a synecdoche of modern civilization. 3 This essay proposes to examine the ingredients of the play's phenomenal success. I argue that, beyond production luck and acting skill, the play's triumph is best explained as a combination of Farquhar's genial tone, his metaphorical explorations of new military technologies (including drill tactics and conscription), and his ironic treatment of the disconcerting facts of contemporary British military history.
Farquhar records not only the transformation of warfare but also the cultural reverberations as war became symbolic capital in a struggle between the aristocracy and the state. Recent historians have shown that this period witnessed the gradual monopolization of physical force by the state. 4 This would not only alter the nature and spirit of warfare but also the larger culture of which it is so integral a part. In Power and Civility, Norbert Elias writes that the state's unique "monopoly of physical force . . . [End Page 43] played no small part in the formation of the specifically English national character." 5 More specifically, Linda Colley argues that it was primarily a century of warfare that created among Britons a sense of cultural unity, "a mass British patriotism transcending the boundaries of class, ethnicity, occupation, sex and age." 6 Thus, one of the most important military transformations in terms of its effect on English culture was the lengthening of the chains of interdependence, which directly reflects the new status of war as a profession. Martin van Creveld has noted that during ancient and medieval eras power and dominance were proportionate to the quantity of muscle, human or animal, available to the warriors, but, that with the introduction of technology in the late seventeenth century--specifically firearms which functioned properly--the ability to obliterate one's adversary was now dependent upon training and professional skill rather than simple prowess or physical might. 7 Such professionalism in warfare developed from new advances in technology:
Gone were the days when every prince, baron, or monastery could surround themselves with thick walls which, if never altogether impregnable, were at least able to force a considerable delay on an attacker. Gone, too, were the days when the most important arms, or at least fairly effective arms, could be made by the village blacksmith. Instead, military technological progress created a situation where warfare . . . came to demand a combination of financial muscle, bureaucratic organization, and technical expertise. (p.107)
The professionalization of warfare via the development of new technology effected two major cultural changes: it allowed for the rise of highly developed branches of military knowledge and...