Theatre Eye

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 2 (Mar/Apr 2008), Reviews, Volume 16

Captain Plume (Declan Conlon), the recruiting officer of the title, a penniless adventurer who has to make his way in the world either by soldiering or fortune-hunting.

Captain Plume (Declan Conlon), the recruiting officer of the title, a penniless adventurer who has to make his way in the world either by soldiering or fortune-hunting.

The Recruiting Officer
George Farqhuar
Abbey Theatre, Dublin, Dec. 207–Jan. 2008
by Eamon O’Flaherty

Lynn Parker’s revival of The Recruiting Officer at the Abbey follows a string of brilliant productions of eighteenth-century Irish plays with the Rough Magic theatre company. Parker and Rough Magic have a wide repertoire ranging across the centuries—including the brilliant Improbable Frequency (reviewed in HI 12.4, Winter 2004)—but have been particularly good at breathing new life into Restoration and eighteenth-century Irish drama.
George Farquhar, arguably the first recognisably Irish writer to achieve major success as a playwright in Britain and Ireland, was born in Derry in 1677. As one who transformed the Restoration comedy, Farquhar’s own early life was rich in comic incident—although generally not much to his advantage. The son of a poor clergyman, Farquhar attended Trinity as a sizar and was twice in trouble with the authorities, once for misbehaving at Donnybrook Fair and a second time for making light of the miracle of Christ walking on the water, reportedly writing that ‘a man born to be hanged will never be drowned’. This was the end of Farquhar’s academic career and he joined the Smock Alley theatre company in 1696, leaving after two seasons when he accidentally used a real sword on stage and injured one of his fellow actors. By 1698 Farquhar was in London, writing a string of comedies that revealed his originality and talent. The first of these, Love and a Bottle (1698), is about the career of a young Irishman, Roebuck, newly arrived in London to seek his fortune. Although Farquhar’s plays abound in stage Irishmen, including oafish servants and crafty Jesuits, Roebuck was a character who subverted the negative image of the Irishman commonly seen on the English stage.

Sergeant Kite (Garrett Lombard, left) with local yokel Bullock (Fergal McElherron). Kite and the other subaltern characters shift the focus of the comedy away from the principal characters in a way that was unusual at the time.

Sergeant Kite (Garrett Lombard, left) with local yokel Bullock (Fergal McElherron). Kite and the other subaltern characters shift the focus of the comedy away from the principal characters in a way that was unusual at the time.

Rather like Captain Plume, the hero of The Recruiting Officer, Roebuck has to make his way in the world either by soldiering or by fortune-hunting. In both cases marriage to a rich heiress wins out. Roebuck has often been seen as a self-portrait, but Farquhar’s own matrimonial career was less successful. In 1703 he married a widow with three children, mistakenly believing that she was rich. The marriage lasted until Farquhar’s death in 1707 but Farquhar was never financially secure, despite a number of theatrical successes, including The Constant Couple, in which he made fun of the pilgrimages of the Jubilee Year of 1699, and his last two critically acclaimed plays, The Recruiting Officer (1706) and The Beaux’ Stratagem (1707), which he completed on his deathbed.
Farquhar’s precarious financial existence probably also explains his venture into a military career in 1704. Disappointed by his wife’s poverty, he also ran into a rocky period professionally. After the success of the Constant Couple, his next three plays were badly received by critics and audiences alike, and for three years to 1706 he did not write any plays. In 1704 he obtained a commission as a lieutenant of grenadiers in a regiment commanded by the earl of Orrery raised for service in Ireland. Farquhar was a recruiting officer, working in Lichfield and Shrewsbury—the original setting of the play. Like marriage, soldiering also failed to make Farquhar’s fortune. Recruiting was a risky business, involving a certain amount of speculation by the recruiting officer, and Farquhar seems to have lost out. In 1705 he went to Ireland to try to recover his losses and he succeeded in making £100 from a benefit performance of The Constant Couple at Smock Alley, but recruiting did not pay. He sold his commission on the strength of an unfulfilled promise of promotion by the duke of Ormond, and returned to drama. In his last years Farquhar wrote the two plays that earned him critical and popular success. His work is a turning-point in dramatic comedy.

Melinda (Kathy Keira Clarke) and Mr Worthy (Peter Hanley).

Melinda (Kathy Keira Clarke) and Mr Worthy (Peter Hanley).

Farquhar’s work was a decisive departure from the conventions of Restoration comedy. In a provocative Discourse upon Comedy published in 1701, he dismissed the classical theorists of comedy such as Aristotle and argued that success comes from ‘the pit, box and galleries’. This populist approach was certainly commercially appropriate, but there was also an ideological element in Farquhar’s rejection of the shackles of classical rules and unities. Chris Morash has pointed to the fundamentally Whig basis of Farquhar’s stance, where Farquhar in the Discourse writes of comedy that ‘all we can say of the credit of its institution is the stress of its charter for liberty and toleration’. Farquhar’s whiggish position can also be seen in the social context of The Recruiting Officer, which marks a significant departure from the existing conventions of Restoration drama by forsaking the world of London for the provinces. Lynn Parker took this a step further in the Abbey production by shifting the action from Shrewsbury to the midlands of Ireland, although whether this added anything is debatable. This shift away from the London metropolitan scene is accompanied by a shift down the social scale. Roebuck and Plume are penniless adventurers. Even more significant is the prominence of the lower orders in Farquhar’s comedies. Sergeant Kite in The Recruiting Officer is a character whose mordant wit undermines some of the conventional pieties about love and war expressed in the play. Kite and the other subaltern characters shift the focus of the comedy away from the principal characters in a way that was unusual at the time. The principal characters are also given more natural and even sentimental lines which set them apart from the polished and urbane wit of the classic Restoration comedy.

Rose (Janet Moran) and Justice Balance (Denis Conway).(All images: Abbey Theatre)

Rose (Janet Moran) and Justice Balance (Denis Conway).
(All images: Abbey Theatre)

Farquhar’s play has been adapted to various purposes in its time. William Gaskill in the 1960s saw Farquhar as dealing with working-class people in a way unlike any of his contemporaries. Berthold Brecht rewrote it as Trumpets and Drums in 1955 as an anti-war play in which Plume emerges as a hypocritical seducer. Lynn Parker avoided this kind of reassessment, although the Irish echoes did not quite work and the Orange banners acknowledged in the programme were absent from the stage. The war of the sexes, in which the real battles and stratagems of the play take place between men and women, seemed to be the dominant theme of the Abbey’s production. The greatest battle faced by any director of The Recruiting Officer is perhaps the difficulty of making the strengths of the play triumph over the complexities of the plot.

Eamon O’Flaherty lectures in history at University College Dublin.

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