Saturday, November 24, 2012

She Stoops to Conquer, by Oliver Goldsmith

"Goldsmith shares with Sheridan the honor of being the only dramatist of his century whose plays are both read and acted to-day. "She Stoops to Conquer," while less brilliant in both dialogue and characterization than "The School for Scandal," is rich in amusing situations and still holds its audiences delighted with its genial and rollicking fun."
Those are the words that Dr. Eliot chose to introduce this piece, and I feel that he was being entirely fair.  I will tell you something about me that has horrified people in the past.  I've seen a lot of theater in my life and, in doing so, I have seen a lot of really bad theater.  Whenever I see bad theater, I go to the box office and demand my money back.  Sometimes it works!  But either way, I feel duty-bound and this is where people tend to get a little upset with me, calling me a pompous self-titled guardian of splendor.  I feel that if you really care about live theater, you are duty-bound to elevate the great and do everything in your power to squash the awful.  Live theater has a steep enough hill to climb today.  It shouldn't also have the handicap of the first play you ever drag your cynical, sports fan, investment broker uncle to in his life end up being a sub-par production of Suessical.  This may sound like I am being dramatic, but this is a phenomenon I observed when I lived in Orange County and worked in theaters.  You would see these couples or families come in and you could tell the ones who had been drug to the theater.  If it was a great piece of theater, you would sometimes see them converted by the end!  If it was bad, you may as well have just horsewhipped them while making them recite "I shall never go to the theater again" and saved yourself the $50.

I am speaking of individual productions here.  One of the oddities of the form of literature known as theater is that it is entirely possible to do a decent production of an awful piece, and it is entirely possible to do a horrible production of the greatest plays ever written.  The worst play I ever saw was a production of Macbeth by a college in Northern California.  I saw it for free and afterwards I went to one of the actors and demanded my time back.  He understood.  He told me that the director kept dictating bad choices, readings, and staging to the actors, not allowing them input into the process of their own production.  And so, Confusion now hath made his masterpiece.

All of which is a long way around to tell you about a third category of theater.  When the curtain fell and we were gathering up our coats, one of my party would ask me how I felt about the show and I would say, after these third category productions, "Well, I'm not going to go ask for my money back!"  Meaning the night was not entirely wasted in sitting through the show.  However, it was not one of the transformative experiences of my life either.  It was enjoyable or contained something worth discussing, but that's about as far as the experience would take me.

She Stoops to Conquer reminded me of those plays.  It wasn't poorly written at all, but wasn't nearly so well written as The School for Scandal.  Some of the bits were humorous, but often overstayed their welcome.  The series of turn-arounds were less than inspired.  I can see why it is still read and performed, however, if I were the creative director of a classic theater company, this is the first dramatic work in the entire Harvard Classics series that I would never produce.

While the Continent was consumed with sophisticated urban life, this play takes place in the countryside that Restoration England was so fond of.  There are two girls to marry off, a few men who are eligible, and the usual parents a-tugging at their hair over it all.  The character who steals the show is the dissolute young Tony Lumpkin who hangs around taverns, plays pranks, and sometimes liberates other people's jewelry.  In the end, everything works out to the relative satisfaction of the characters we wish to see relatively satisfied. 

I kept wanting to like it more than I did and I think, in the end, it turned out to be that I wanted it to be slightly more clever than it was.  Was it "genial and rollicking fun?"  Yes, I suppose it could be, if done well. 

Next up, we have a jarring transition into extremely heavy drama.


  1. You know, it hit me a few hours after writing this: The play was like the plot of one of the early Marx Brothers films, but without the Marx Brothers. Just the couples, a few stuffy characters, and mishaps, but without the great personalities to make one fill with wonder.

  2. 'Stoops' in the title here means to plummet suddenly as in a hunting-bird and not to bow down. Mind you I quite like the idea of a an ice-cream saleswoman who scoops to conquer. Probably my least favourite of all English lit. because the same negative traits in English society are still prevalent.