- The Man of Mode by George Etherege
Long after its initial run, George Etherege’s The Man of Mode, Or, Sir Fopling Flutter (1676) became a flashpoint in the debate that unfolded in the early eighteenth century about the purposes, effects, and affects of the comedies of the previous generation. In the taste-making periodical The Spectator, Richard Steele—who was developing ideas of stage comedy’s potential for modeling goodwill, good nature, and other salutary influences—saw The Man of Mode as “a perfect contradiction to good manners, good sense, and common honesty; … there is nothing in it but what is built upon the ruin of virtue and innocence.” Excoriating its characters’ “corruption” and “degeneracy,” he opined that “nothing but being lost to a sense of innocence and virtue can make any one see this comedy without observing more frequent occasion to move sorrow and indignation than mirth and laughter” (Steele, 280).
Steele’s acrimony toward the play and its protagonists received a delayed rebuttal from John Dennis’s A Defence of Sir Fopling Flutter (1722). As he observed, “I remember very well that upon the first acting this comedy, it was generally believed to be an agreeable representation of the persons of condition of both sexes, both in court and town” (Dennis, 18–19). The Man of Mode was for the aging Dennis a tableau of a receding moment in elite London life. The polemical portion of Dennis’s essay targeted Steele’s new play The Conscious Lovers (1722) as a betrayal of the purposes of comedy and harked back to Etherege’s play for a counter-example. Dennis rejected the proposition that comic protagonists must “set us patterns for imitation” to assert that The Man of Mode suffices to edify the audience rather differently: by manifesting foolish or even vicious behaviors to avoid, for “[t]hus comedy instructs and pleases most powerfully by the ridicule” (Dennis, 10; 21). He avowed Man of Mode’s educative value—convinced there was one—to stem from the ridiculousness of Sir Fopling’s adoption of foreign fashions and of Mrs. Loveit’s absurd confidence that she can secure a bounder like Dorimant.
In his program notes to the American Shakespeare Center production of The Man of Mode at the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia, director Christopher Marino calls the play “not only unconcerned with seriousness and deeper issues, but . . . also solely exist[ing] to celebrate the artifice (both verbal and worn) of the age.” In distancing Etherege’s play from “deeper issues” and upholding its style over its substance, Marino’s statement evokes the Steele-Dennis squabble by negating the entire proposition that anyone is meant to be instructed by the doings of rakes, fops, town-ladies, heiresses, and courtesans. Judging by their evident delight, which I very much shared, the audience of the Blackfriars Playhouse found much to approve—contra Steele, although hopefully not a sign of the dissipation of our collective sense of virtue.
The main plot of the play revolves around Dorimant, an incorrigible rake, who thrills to a newly arrived heiress, Harriet Woodvill, and discards both of his previous mistresses, Mistress Loveit (whom he loves to torment) and Bellinda, to get her. In classic Restoration fashion, the second plot involves earnest young lovers Young Bellair and Emilia, persecuted by meddlesome parents. The scene-stealer—who works his way into the play’s [End Page 143] subtitle despite not appearing until Act III—is Sir Fopling Flutter, recently returned from France fashion-obsessed and intent on becoming a celebrity. The action revolves around seduction, jealousy, wit, quick thinking to get out of one more scrape or into one more bed, and an upstart generation thwarting “the forms and civility of the last age.”
The Blackfriars Theater space and its thrust stage generated effects of intimacy that Etherege’s audiences would not have been able to experience from its proscenium-framed performers—but so much the better. I had never thought about the implications of play-goers’ being visible from the stage under...