1902 Encyclopedia > George Farquhar

George Farquhar
Anglo-Irish dramatist

GEORGE FARQUHAR, (1678-1707), a dramatist of the last century, the successor in comedy of Wycherley and Con-greve, was the son of a clergyman, and was born in London-derry, Ireland, in the year 1678. In his sixteenth year he was sent to Trinity College, Dublin, under the patronage of the bishop of Dromore. He was entered as a sizar or servitor, a class of poor scholars, who were compelled to wear a peculiar dress and perform menial offices. These are no longer exacted from their successors, but Goldsmith, sixty years after the date of Farquhar's admission, had to submit to the humiliations incident to the position of a sizer—to sweep part of the college courts, to carry up the fellows' dinner to table, and to wait in the hall till the fellows had dined. It certainly implied a contradiction, as Goldsmith observed, for men to be " at once learning the liberal arts, and at the same time treated as slaves," and neither in the case of Farquhar nor of Goldsmith was the system attended with favourable results. The former soon broke away from his studies, and, appeared as an actor on the Dublin stage. He had the advantage of a good person, though with a weak voice, but was timid and sensitive, and an accident which happened to him when he had only been about a twelvemonth, on the boards made him resolve to quit the profession. When performing the part of Guyomar in Dryden's Indian Emperor he had omitted to exchange his sword for a foil, and in a fencing scene wounded a brother performer so severely that his life was despaired of. The sufferer recovered, but Farquhar would never again return to the stage. The earl of Orrery gave him a lieutenancy in his regiment then in Ireland, and as a soldier Farquhar is said to have given proofs of his courage and conduct, though none are recorded. We have two letters written by him in Holland in 1700, but in these he says nothing of military service. While yet a minor he appeared as a dramatist. His comedy of Love, and a Bottle was performed at Drury Lane in 1698, and its success far exceeded his expectations. His next comedy, The Constant Couple (1700), was still more favourably received. Wilks, a popular comedian and a special friend of Farquhar's (they had been associates in Dublin), by his performance of the part of Sir Harry Wildair contributed very much to the success of the play, " He made the part," says Farquhar. In the following year the dramatist brought out a sequel to it, entitled Sir Harry Wildair. Wilks's acting was again attractive, but like all continuations (that of Don Quixote excepted) the second part was much inferior to the first. Leigh Hunt has stated that Mrs Oldfield, like Wilks, performed to admiration in this piece, but Mrs Oldfield was not the original heroine (Lady Lurewell). The part was acted by Mrs Verbruggen. Mrs Oldfield performed in the two last and best of Farquhar's seven comedies, and is said to have taken to the stage by his advice. She was the theatrical idol—the Mrs Jordan—of her day. Her exqui-! site acting and lady-like carriage were the delight of her j contemporaries, and her beauty, her vanity, and her gener-osity found innumerable eulogists—

" Engaging Oldfield, who, with grace and ease, Could join the arts to ruin and to please.

In 1702 Farquhar published a trifling volume of Miscellanies—poems, letters, and a discourse on comedy. The poems are below mediocrity, and the letters are written in that overstrained style of gallantry and smartness which was then fashionable and considered witty. In one letter he gives a lady a picture of himself " drawn from the life." His mind, he says, was generally dressed, like his person, in black ; he was taken for an easy-natured man by his own sex, and an ill-natured clown by the ladies; strangers had a worse opinion of him than he deserved, but this was recompensed by the opinion of his acquaintance, which was above his desert. Self-portraiture is seldom faithful, but we may conclude from Farquhar's outline, that the young dramatist was somewhat grave and reserved, and wanted address for general society. He was liveliest with the pen in his hand. The discourse on comedy is more worthy of the author than his poems or letters. In it he defends the English disregard of the dramatic unities. " The rules of English comedy," he says, " don't lie in the compass of Aristotle or his followers, but in the pit, box, and galleries." In 1703 Farquhar had another comedy on the stage—The Inconstant, or the way to win him—the hint of which he says, he took from Fletcher's Wild Goose Chase, but was charged with spoiling the original. The poetry of Fletcher certainly evaporates when its scenes are transmuted into the prose dialogue of Farquhar.

About this time the dramatist was betrayed into what was perhaps the greatest blunder of his life. A lady conceived a violent passion for him, and, though penni-less like himself, contrived to circulate a report that she i was possessed of a large fortune. Farquhar snapped at ihe gilded bait. He married the lady, and found too late i that he had been deceived. It is related, however, that he | had the magnanimity to pardon a deception which must have appeared a compliment to his genius, and in truth there was something to forgive on his own part for having been so readily entrapped contrary to all the rules of love and the drama. Increased exertion, however, was necessary, and in 1704 he produced The Stage Coach, a piece adapted from the French by Farquhar in conjunction with Anthony Motteux, a clever, reckless playwright and essayist, and re-markable as having, though a Frenchman, given the world the best English translation of Don Quixote. Three more comedies proceeded from Farquhar before his career was sadly closed at the age of thirty. The Tivin Rivals was brought out in 1705, The Recruiting Officer in 1706, and The Beaux Stratagem in 1707. The last two are vastly superior to Farquhar's other plays, and are the works by which he is now remembered. To relieve the poor dramatist from his difficulties, increased by his ill-starred marriage, the duke of Ormond is said to have advised him to sell his commission in the army and pay his debts, his grace promising at the same time to give him a captaincy in his own regiment. Farquhar sold his commission, but the duke either forgot or was unable to fulfil his promise. Farquhar's earliest biographer ascribes the unfortunate counsel to a "certain great courtier," who made solemn assurance which he forgot to keep. The Beaux Stratagem was written in six weeks, while death was impending over its author. Before he had finished the second act he knew that he was stricken with a mortal illness, but it was necessary to persevere and to be " consumedly lively " to the end. He had received in advance £30 for the copy-right from Lintot the bookseller. The play was brought on the stage March 8, and Farquhar lived to have his third night, and an extra benefit on the 29th of April, on which day he is said to have died. He left his two children to the care of his friend Wilks:—" Dear Bob, I have nothing to leave thee to perpetuate my memory but two helpless girls. Look upon them sometimes and think of him that was to the last moment of his life thine, GEORGE FARQUHAR." Wilks obtained a benefit at the theatre for the dramatist's widow, and the daughters had a pension of ¿£30 a year, which one of them was in receipt of so late as 1764. The plots of Farquhar's comedies are skilfully conducted and evolved; his situations are well chosen (in these his friend Wilks's advice would be useful), and his dialogues are full of life and spirit. To the polished wit and brilliancy of Congreve he has no pretension. His scenes are light and sketchy, and his characters altogether on a lower level than Congreve's, but they were quite equal to them in stage effect. Sergeant Kite, Scrub, Archer, and Boniface are distinct original characters which long charmed on the stage, while the incidents with which they are mixed up—the un-expected encounters, adventures, artifices, and disguises— are irresistibly comic and attractive in representation. Pope considered Farquhar a mere farce writer, while Goldsmith (who evidently adopted him as a model) preferred hiin to Congreve. On the stage, with good actors, he might be so preferred, but never in the library. He had the advantage of being less designedly and elaborately licentious than Congreve. Love intrigues then formed the chief business of the comic drama; and in the management of them the homely domestic virtues that form the happiness and cement of society were disregarded or made the subject of ridicule. It is true that the world of comedy was, as argued by Charles Lamb, an artificial world, never perhaps regarded as real or as supplying patterns of morals or manners, but the effect of such representations was to lower and corrupt the national taste, while the fact that no pursuit was then so profitable to an author as writing for the stage was also injurious to our imaginative literature. On this moral view of the question, the reasoning of Macaulayand the eloquent objurgation of Thackeray are unanswerable. The artificial comedy, or comedy of manners, as seen in the beginning of the last century, is now " quite extinct on our stage," as Leigh Hunt has observed; but Hunt is surely in error in dating the decline of English comedy from the time of Farquhar. To say nothing of Goldsmith's two plays, Sheridan's Rivals and School, for Scandal show no declension in brilliancy of dialogue, wit, or vivacity, and some of the plays of Cumberland and the Colmans evince high dramatic talent. (R. CA.)


1 Pope—Sober Advice from Horace. It was to this fascinating actress that the satirist alluded as the lady who detested being buried in woollen, and said to her attendant—
" One would not sure be frightful when one's dead— And—Betty—give this cheek a little red. "
She was only forty-seven when she died, leaving all the court aud half the town in tears.

See Macaulay's essay on the Comic Dramatists of the Reformation, and Thackeray's English Humorists. In 1840 Leigh Hunt published biographical and critical notices of Wycherley, Congreve, Vanbrugh, and Farquhar, prefixed to an edition of their dramatic works—a valuable addition to our dramatic literature.

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