The play­wright as both in­sider and out­sider

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOKS - AN­THONY ROCHE


Was Ge­orge Far­quhar the first Irish play­wright? In his brief life (1677-1707), he laid down a tem­plate which many more were to fol­low: up­bring­ing in Ire­land, a stint at Trin­ity Col­lege Dublin (in Far­quhar’s case it lasted 18 months), then re­lo­ca­tion to Lon­don and the writ­ing of come­dies. The ca­reer of a play­wright was a chancy one: you were only ever as good as your last the­atri­cal suc­cess and dire poverty was never far away.

The pic­ture of Ge­orge Far­quhar as he lay dy­ing in his 29th year pre­sented by David Roberts in this won­der­fully read­able and metic­u­lously re­searched bi­og­ra­phy is at one level a dis­mal one. His ac­tor friend Robert Wilks tracks him to St Giles, which was “the haunt of Irish and aliens, beg­gars, and dis­so­lute and de­praved char­ac­ters”; he finds the play­wright “pen­ni­less, slumped in a chair” and dy­ing. And yet this dis­mal prospect is al­le­vi­ated and counter-bal­anced by what then oc­curs. There is no phys­i­cal cure for Far­quhar; but there is a spir­i­tual one.

“Write a play”, coun­sels his old­est and best friend. It was the same ad­vice Wilks had given Far­quhar 10 years ear­lier in Dublin, when he ob­served Far­quhar act­ing on the Smock Al­ley stage and con­cluded: “You are no ac­tor.” The re­sult then was Far­quhar’s first play, Love and a Bot­tle, which was given a bril­liant spin some years ago by De­clan Hughes in a Rough Magic pro­duc­tion.

In 1707, even though on his deathbed, Far­quhar once more fol­lowed Wilks’s ad­vice and wrote The Beaux Stratagem, a work brim­ming with life and ex­u­ber­ance. As Roberts writes: “The Beaux Strategem was pub­lished on March 27th, 1707 fol­low­ing a tri­umphant pre­miere at Drury Lane on March 8th . . . Far­quhar died dur­ing his third-night ben­e­fit per­for­mance [and] was buried in St Martin-in-the-Fields on May 23rd”.

Alien­ated from his home cul­ture, as Roberts puts it, seek­ing (un­suc­cess­fully) to in­te­grate into English so­ci­ety, Far­quhar was a hy­brid ex­ist­ing un­easily be­tween the two cul­tures. This was a dif­fi­cult space to oc­cupy but a fruit­ful one cre­atively. Far­qhuar’s works dis­play a much greater so­cial range than other Restora­tion drama­tists and are vir­tu­ally the only ones to be set in the coun­try.

In his later plays es­pe­cially, he lays par­tic­u­lar em­pha­sis on the strait­ened roles women of the pe­riod had to oc­cupy; Mrs Sullen in The Beaux Stratagem en­dur­ing a love­less mar­riage and seek­ing a di­vorce would be one. Far­qhuar had hastily mar­ried an older widow he thought was wealthy; it turns out she was not. She came with two chil­dren and soon there were two more. Roberts treats the dou­bly wid­owed Mar­garet Pemell with more sym­pa­thy than ear­lier bi­og­ra­phers and given what mar­riage to Far­quhar must have been like he is right to do so.

The dra­matic qual­i­ties and vivid, vis­ceral lan­guage of Far­quhar’s plays have kept them on stage into the present. The cover of Roberts’s bi­og­ra­phy has a pho­to­graph from a re­cent pro­duc­tion of The Beaux Stratagem at the Olivier Theatre; and he draws through­out on the tes­ti­mony of theatre di­rec­tors.

Roberts also lists the first-rate comic ac­tors who have played the pug­na­cious Sergeant Kite in The Re­cruit­ing Of­fi­cer: Jim Broad­bent, Pete Postleth­waite and North­ern Irish ac­tor Colin Blakely. His plays haven’t been seen much on Dublin stages in re­cent years but play­go­ers with longer mem­o­ries will re­call not only Hughes’s spin on Love and a Bot­tle but Pa­trick Ma­son’s car­ni­va­lesque pro­duc­tion of The Re­cruit­ing Of­fi­cer at the Gate in 1985. Ian McEl­hin­ney was re­splen­dent in a long, curled wig as the el­e­gant Cap­tain Plume, speak­ing in cul­tured tones ex­cept when he lost his cool and his North­ern Irish ac­cent emerged in such lines as: “I’m go­ing to go and break her win­dows”.

The pre­vi­ous bi­ogra­phies of Far­quhar, in Roberts’s view, posit too sim­plis­tic a re­la­tion be­tween the life and the work: either straight­for­ward con­ti­nu­ity or straight­for­ward op­po­si­tion be­tween the two. Roberts fo­cuses in­stead on an ad­dress given by Fitzroy Pyle of Trin­ity’s School of English in 1957 on the 250th an­niver­sary of its for­mer stu­dent’s death. For Roberts, Pyle makes the most so­phis­ti­cated and in­tri­cate con­nec­tion be­tween the life and the work, ar­gu­ing for the el­e­ment of fan­tasy that in­creas­ingly colours plays which rep­re­sent Far­quhar “not as he lived but as he would be if he had health and for­tune”.

Sea­mus Deane has writ­ten with great in­sight about Far­quhar; both hail from Derry, though Far­quhar would have called it Lon­don­derry. Deane ze­roes in on “the op­po­si­tion be­tween the provin­cial and the cos­mopoli­tan, be­tween the nat­u­ral and the ar­ti­fi­cially pol­ished” in the plays and notes how Roe­buck, the Irish rake on the make in Love and a Bot­tle, is both out­sider and in­sider.

These are very much the terms in which Roberts de­vel­ops his ap­proach to Far­quhar’s life and art and he might ac­cord­ingly have drawn more on Deane’s writ­ings. But this is a rare mis­step in a com­pelling bi­og­ra­phy that brings the mi­grant Irish play­wright vividly to life. It makes a pow­er­fully per­sua­sive case for the on­go­ing rel­e­vance and stage­abil­ity of Far­quhar’s drama. Per­haps some Irish theatre com­pany will re­spond to the chal­lenge.

De­clan Con­lon and Cathy Bel­ton in The Re­cruit­ing Of­fi­cer by Ge­orge Far­quhar

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