WHAT A RICKETTY old play The Beaux Stratagem is. The plot meanders through a labyrinth of implausible events and the dramatis personae is a preposterous collection of superseded stereotypes – drunken squires, French priests, highwaymen, maids. It was written by Irish playwright George Farquhar at the end of the Restoration period in 1709, and its social nuances  are not readily intelligible to modern theatre-goers.

And yet, what a glittering fête galante The Beaux Stratagem becomes when acted by the cast of a recent National Theatre production under the direction of Simon Godwin. In his promotional video, Godwin says he wishes the audience to enter into a world of ‘vividness, intensity and, I hope—at least at times—hilarity’ and so we do. This is a sophisticated interpretation that reanimates the comedy in ways palatable to contemporary values. It is very long – 2 hours and 40 minutes – but it canters along briskly and the incoherence of the story does not intrude on the fun.

The trouble with making old plays new again is that people cared about such different things when they were written. The director has to make us care about the story afresh. How Godwin achieves this first and foremost is by the strength of the acting by the brilliant cast. Each actor creates a persona so charming and appealing you feel as if you know them. I was transfixed by Geoffrey Streatfeild as Archer. Collectively they evoke a complete world teeming with kinetic energy.

We’re not used to big chunks of dialogue these days and don’t have the patience to listen to people talking at length. To hold the attention of a large group of individuals through speech—replete with unfamiliar words and long sentences—is difficult. But the actors were adept at making the dialogue sound natural and spontaneous. They found modern inflections and pauses, they made good use of silly accents. They maintained a frenetic pace that brings us back to the cantering image. One notable exception was Pearce Quigley as Scrub. He drained all colour and animation from his delivery and the flatness was glorious. Not what he said so much as the way that he said it. By the play’s end, there was a lot of love in the room for Scrub.

We respond to movement and the players’ physicality made the dialogue more compelling to follow. It was more than the body language of individual characters, but telling the lines through their bodies. If they had stood and declaimed in a grand rhetorical style, as actors once would have done, it would have been unbearable. But their lithe movements made them ever more fascinating to watch and to listen to.

And so, through clever characterisation, physicality, naturalistic dialogue, live music, dancing and quick scene changes, Godwin modernises Farquhar’s creaky curiosity. The production deserves all the stock theatre accolades it has garnered – ‘a Restoration romp’, ‘a treat’. And there is another salient feature that makes it satisfying to modern taste, one provided by Farquhar himself: the ending.

What happens in The Beaux’ Stratagem is this: ‘2 young men go looking for a fortune and end up finding love,’ (Godwin again). They are Mr Aimwell (Samuel Barnett) and Mr Archer (Geoffrey Streatfeild)—dramatists had great fun with names in them days. Aimwell gets his wealthy heiress, the beautiful Dorinda (Pippa Bennett-Warner). This is all unremarkable enough. The aim of comedy is to marry off the gorgeous young ones so they can perpetuate the species.

More interestingly, Archer also finds love in the form of Kate Sullen—Mrs Kate Sullen, that is: she’s already married. She was originally wealthy in her own right, but is now the miserable wife of Squire Sullen (Dorinda’s brother). She and Archer are clearly made for each other, but the question lingers as to how she will extricate herself from the bonds of marriage. We might not know much about Restoration politics, but we all know there was no such thing then as no-fault divorce.

At the end, Farquhar contrives a deus ex machina character (the kind who has a dozen lines in the closing scene) and an arbitrary adjustment to English law to save the day. Squire Sullen releases his wife and, relieved, overjoyed, we all assume she and Archer will get it on.

Mrs Sullen, as played by Susannah Fielding, is delightfully spirited, lively and outspoken about the plight of unhappy wives. We feel a satisfying sense of justice restored when she is freed to follow her heart. This unexpected ending contributes immeasurably to the sense of modernity that enlivens the production and allows us to go home having enjoyed an exhilarating evening at the theatre.

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IT MATTERS TO US that Mrs Sullen is granted self-sovereignty, but how much did it matter to Farquhar? Does The Beaux’ Stratagem harbour proto-feminist sympathies? He was writing in London, the largest metropolis of the world,  a hub of political power and new ideas. Some of these had far-reaching consequences for relations between the sexes. Were they reflected in the world of the play?

In The Origins of Sex, Faramerz Dabhoiwala describes how gradually throughout the 17th century and into the 18th, ‘broad philosophical developments called into question age-old justifications for female subordination’. In one such development, women’s presumed superior moral refinement came to be regarded as a civilising influence on society and sexual norms shifted towards a more exalted view of them. Conversation between men and women was increasingly held up as an essential, enjoyable part of civilised life. These developments did not please everyone. In 1705, the 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury lamented that ‘Gallantry and ladies must have a part in everything that passes for polite in our age – worse luck for us.’

It is tempting to imagine that George Farquhar liked women because he seems to sympathise with Mrs Sullen’s plight. He was a sympathetic character himself. He was only 30 when he wrote the play. It was his final commission. He was  gravely ill when writing it, and he died 3 days after its first performance.

But the author of the Wikipedia entry on The Beaux’ Stratagem suggests that with this ending he mocks the facile happy ever after of Mr Aimwell and Dorinda. It is slightly silly. Not only does Aimwell get the girl, he also comes into an inheritance of his own thanks to sudden but fortuitous death of his brother. Money and love in one fell swoop—he did aim well!

Rather, through Mrs Sullen, Farquhar expresses ‘deep cynicism’ at the charms of matrimony. Once released, there is no explicit suggestion that she can now hook up with Archer. But divorced women were friendless and penniless, so what is to become of her? In the real world of 18th century society, she would have no option but to remain unhappily married. Considered thus, Farquhar’s feminist halo looks like wishful thinking on our part.

Another woman who captures Archer’s attention is Cherry, the inn-keeper’s daughter (Amy Morgan). She is another attractive and forthcoming woman, but a second-order character in the play—and in society. She has a scene with him early on in which they exchange some screwball Restoration dialogue, and she falls in love with him. But the flirtation goes nowhere once Mrs Sullen makes her entrance, and Cherry’s happiness is not given equal value to Archer’s. Romantically, she is left unattached at the end. Farquhar is not feminist enough to be concerned with the hopes of the inn-keeper’s daughter.

The real world for low-status women like Cherry could be a dangerous place. They were vulnerable to sexual predation on a scale that would horrify us now. In When Gossips Meet, 17th century scholar Bernard Capp says, ‘Sexual harassment, in some form, was experienced by very many women, possibly most … The balance of power between men and women was grossly skewed, and female agency and consent in sexual matters highly circumscribed.’

The Beaux’ Stratagem belongs in the tradition of Restoration comedy of manners in which the romantic traffic of the stage ended with the peal of wedding bells. Certain dramatists slyly acknowledged that many marriages brought lifelong sorrow, but they failed to offer an alternative vision. Farquhar does not criticise the fact that the agency of his female characters was highly circumscribed. He accepts and endorses it. We care about the happiness of an individual woman. He cares about the hypocrisy of a social order that lauded marriage without acknowledging the misery it occasioned.

It is our own sentimentality to want the ending to be more modern than it can be. Farquhar does not have to be a proto-feminist for us to relish the merits of his genial creation. The verve and energy of the players make this production irresistibly entertaining, and it is only sensible for Godwin to appeal to our sensibilities with a softening of the ending (Archer and Kate Sullivan are seen dancing together: you can guess the rest; now go home happy).