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Love, Death, and Mrs. Barry in Thomas Southerne's Plays Helga Drougge Thomas Southerne's tragedies were once held in great esteem . Sophocles might have profited if he could have heard the "moving Moan" of Isabella in The Fatal Marriage, wrote Elijah Fenton in 1711: If Envy cou'd permit, he'd sure agree To write by Nature were to Copy Thee: So full, so fair thy Images are shown, He by Thy Pencil might improve his own.1 A modified version of this view lasted a long time: Southerne's The Fatal Marriage: Or, The Innocent Adultery (1694) and Oroonoko: Or, The Royal Slave (1695) remained repertory plays into the nineteenth century.2 On the other hand, Fenton's panegyric epistle makes no mention of Southerne's comedies Sir Anthony Love: Or, The Rambling Lady (1690), The Wives' Excuse : Or, Cuckolds Make Themselves (1691 or 1692), and The Maid's Last Prayer: Or, Any Rather than Fail (1693). These comedies at present enjoy respectful critical attention, especially The Wives' Excuse} but in 1711 it was no more than tactful to ignore them. They had never been revived after their initial runs, and, although Southerne included them in his Works of 1713, their sexual outspokenness would by then have been unacceptable to many readers as well as all audiences. Sadly, it seems unlikely that Southerne's comedies will be staged in the twentieth century either. Milhous and Hume, who praise The Wives' Excuse highly, nevertheless describe it as "probably too complicated, unfamiliar, and dependent on its original social and dramatic context to be more than a curiosity on the twentieth-century stage."4 This reservation is applicable to all three of Southerne's comedies. They are strikingly original, but it is an originality which emerges from deep within Restoration dramatic convention. Southerne shows a true Restoration 408 Helga Drougge409 fondness for such familiar trickery as forged letters, fake assignations, and bedtricks. He recycles plenty of standard comic material and also various specific borrowings, in Sir Anthony Love particularly from Aphra Behn, in The Wives' Excuse and The Maid's Last Prayer particularly from Wycherley.5 But the comedies and comic subplots (in the following, I will use the term "comedies" to cover both) which Southerne builds on these old chestnuts give a far from conventional view of Restoration sexuality and gender roles. The popular stock characters of Restoration comedy walk his stage—the compulsive Don Juan, the would-be bully who turns out to be a coward, the welljointured widow on the lookout for a toyboy—but are critically modified. There are no charming rakes anywhere in Southerne's plays, and maidenhead-chasing and cuckolding are not honorable sports. Active virility is never equated with "honor" or wit but is either dreary, as with the copulation machine Wilding in The Wives' Excuse, or ludicrous, as with the callow Jack Stanmore in Oroonoko, who goes on rather like the man in the Monty Python "Say No More" sketch. The men in Southerne's comedies worry more about their reputation (as heroic fornicators, of course) than the women and are liable to miss the substance for the shadow: "Was that a Woman to throw away upon the vanity of being talk'd of for her?"6 Their vanity of being talked of seems an even more powerful social motive force than the women's vanity of not being talked of. Such modifications all tend towards the de-glamorization of male sexuality, that gold standard of Restoration comedy, and generally towards greater realism in the field of sex. But it is Southerne's women characters that are the most innovative. Female sexuality is as aggressive as male in his comedies, and forceful women are notably unpunished. Southerne's Widow Lackitt in the Oroonoko subplot, for instance, is in many ways the sister of Wycherley 's Widow Blackacre in The Plain Dealer, with an equally mother-pecked "minor" in tow. But Southerne's treatment of her is quite free from Wycherley's contempt. Although Widow Lackitt is broadly comic (the "itt" that she lacks being that which widows in Restoration comedy can never get enough of), the person who looks foolish in the context...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 408-425
Launched on MUSE
2016-10-05
Open Access
No
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