1732, in She Stoops to Conquer and Other Comedies, edited by Nigel Wood, Oxford 2008
No cakes and ale for this disturbing comedy by English novelist and playwright Henry Fielding. On the strength of Fielding’s reputation, and as an artifact of the Georgian era–a time of rapid change, scandal, growing class division, and increasing prosperity which saw the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution–The Modern Husband continues to be read and studied. From a reading, however, it is easy to see why it is no longer produced. To today’s sensibilities, the play is offensive.
In The Modern Husband, there are the usual family connections. The bad guys are Mr and Mrs Modern and Lord Richly. The good guys are Mr and Mrs Bellamant and Mr Gaywit. Caught in between good and bad are Emilia (the Bellamants’ daughter), Captain Bellamant (the Bellamants’ son), and Lady Charlotte (Richly’s daughter). Mr Gaywit, in addition, is Lordy Richly’s nephew.
Each of the characters experiences a crisis. Mr and Mrs Modern are running out of funds to support their lifestyle. Lord Richly is looking to satisfy his libido. Mr and Mrs. Bellamant having lost twenty-thousand in an unsuccessful case before the House of Lords, also run into financial difficulties. Gaywit loves Emilia, but Richly has made it so that he must marry Charlotte to inherit his father’s estate. Captain Bellamant is getting his allowance cut back, as his parents have lost their court case. So stands the situation as the comedy begins.
To fill up their coffers, Mr Modern pimps out Mrs Modern. He turns a blind eye while Mrs Modern connects with Richly, Gaywit, and Mr Bellamant. Through the largesse of mainly Richly, the Moderns can sustain their card-playing and socializing city lifestyle. Richly, however, is visiting less often. He has his eye on Mrs Bellamant, the devout and caring wife of Mr Bellamant. Richly, to get alone with Mrs Bellamant, offers Mr Bellamant help in his court case and pays Mrs Modern to arrange a rendezvous between himself and Mrs Bellamant. Mr Bellamant, while believing that his wife will be true, gives Richly leave to tempt his wife. Mrs Modern, becoming desperate, accepts Richly’s offer and also looks to her two other lovers–Mr Bellamant and Gaywit–for help. She borrows a hundred-pound note from Mr Bellamant. Mr Modern, realizing that Richly is coming around less often to see his wife, also grows desperate. He arranges to catch his wife in flagrante delicto and to sue her lover for damages. This practice, at the time, was all the rage for degenerate aristocrats to make a quick buck.
The comedy turns on the unexpected: Mrs Modern loses the hundred-pound note Mr Bellamant gives her to Richly while gambling. Then, a little later, Richly loses the same note to Mrs Bellamant gambling. When Mr Bellamant asks his wife to borrow some money, she gives him back the note that he had given to Mrs Modern earlier. Finding out that his wife had gotten the note from Richly arouses his suspicion. He goes on a romp with Mrs Modern, and is caught by Mr Modern. Now he will have to pay adultery damages to Mr Modern. But no! He finds a way out. The good guys find out that Mr Modern had pimped out his wife all along to catch a lover in the act and make a buck in court. This is strictly forbidden. So, Mr Bellamant is off the hook. But there still is his wife, who is angry that he has been gallivanting around town. But oh! She decides to forgive him. Finally, Richly pays the price. The Bellamants’ son Captain Bellamant marries Charlotte, Richly’s daughter, behind his back. This frees up Gaywit, Richly’s nephew, to marry Emilia, the Bellamants’ daughter. Unlike real life, the good guys stand up to the bad guys. Or so the play argues.
I found the play cringeworthy. Why should Mrs Bellamant forgive Mr Bellamant? When she finds out her husband has been running around, she starts off quite mad. But then her anger softens. As it dawned on me that she might forgive him, I was thinking, “Don’t do it!” Then, in a space of ten or fifteen lines, she forgives him. Unbelievable. To me, that was as unsatisfying as it would have been if Nora had forgiven Torvald in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Of course, that does not happen in A Doll’s House, which is a superior play.
Now what happens if the Moderns or the Bellamants run out of money? Money is a big issue in this play. Well, it turns out that the worse that could happen to these families is that they would have to retire to their country manor! To them, that is very bad. But, to a modern audience, leaving the rat race behind to retire to a country manor would be a dream come true! So, I found this facet of the play out of touch with modern sensibilities.
In addition, I found the “good” characters–especially the Bellamants–to be insufferable. Mrs Bellamant is a goody two shoes. And Mr Bellamant has not aged well. He may have been considered good back in 1732, but times have changed! For example, Mr Bellamant’s wager with with Richly that Mrs Bellamant can resist his advances is reminiscent of God’s wager with Satan over Job’s goodness. Today such a wager is unconscionable. When such a wager is made today–as it was in the 1983 movie Trading Places–both the God and the Satan figures are played by bad guys. In Trading Places the wager is made by callous millionaires. So too, Mr Bellamant appears in a callous light by accepting Richly’s wager. Richly–the “bad” character–while bad, at least had no pretence of being good. At least his is honest in his badness.
The one saving feature in the play are the courtship scenes between Captain Bellamant–who comes in strong–and Lady Charlotte–who is ice cold. If the actors could get their chemistry between the characters right–and there obviously is a chemistry between them–the courtship scenes could be hilarious as they heap insult after insult on one another while working towards the larger prize of marriage.
All in all, Fielding’s The Modern Husband is too rooted in the preoccupations of its time to transcend them to be a work for all time.
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Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I do Melpomene’s work.
sine memoria nihil