The Relapse  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The Relapse, or, Virtue in Danger is a Restoration comedy from 1696 written by John Vanbrugh. The play is a sequel to Colley Cibber's Love's Last Shift, or, The Fool in Fashion.

In Cibber's Love's Last Shift, a free-living Restoration rake is brought to repentance and reform by the ruses of his wife, while in The Relapse, the rake succumbs again to temptation and has a new love affair. His virtuous wife is also subjected to a determined seduction attempt, and resists with difficulty.

Vanbrugh planned The Relapse around particular actors at Drury Lane, writing their stage habits, public reputations, and personal relationships into the text. One such actor was Colley Cibber himself, who played the luxuriant fop Lord Foppington in both Love's Last Shift and The Relapse. However, Vanbrugh's artistic plans were threatened by a cutthroat struggle between London's two theatre companies, each of which was "seducing" actors from the other. The Relapse came close to being not produced at all, but the successful performance that was eventually achieved in November 1696 vindicated Vanbrugh's intentions, and saved the company from bankruptcy as well.

Unlike Love's Last Shift, which never again performed after the 1690s, The Relapse has retained its audience appeal. In the 18th century, however, its tolerant attitude towards actual and attempted adultery gradually became unacceptable to public opinion, and the original play was for a century replaced on the stage by Sheridan's moralised version A Trip to Scarborough (1777). On the modern stage, The Relapse has been established as one of the most popular Restoration comedies, valued for Vanbrugh's light, throwaway wit

Contents

The Relapse as sequel

Sexual ideology

Love's Last Shift can be seen as an early sign of Cibber's sensitivity to shifts of public opinion, which was to be useful to him in his later career as manager at Drury Lane (see Colley Cibber). In the 1690s, the economic and political power balance of the nation tilted from the aristocracy towards the middle class after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and middle-class values of religion, morality, and gender roles became more dominant, not least in attitudes to the stage. Love's Last Shift is one of the first illustrations of a massive shift in audience taste, away from the analytic bent and sexual frankness of Restoration comedy and towards the conservative certainties and gender role backlash of exemplary or sentimental comedy. The play illustrates Cibber's opportunism at a moment in time before the change was assured: fearless of self-contradiction, he puts something into his first play to please every section of the audience, combining the old outspokenness with the new preachiness. The way Vanbrugh, in his turn, allows the reformed rake to relapse quite cheerfully, and has the only preaching in the play come from the comically corrupt parson of "Fatgoose Living", has made some early 20th-century critics refer to The Relapse as the last of the true Restoration comedies.<ref>Dobrée.</ref> However, Vanbrugh's play is also affected by the taste of the 1690s, and compared to a play like the courtier William Wycherley's The Country Wife of 20 years earlier, with its celebration of predatory aristocratic masculinity, The Relapse contains quite a few moments of morality and uplift. In fact it has a kind of parallel structure to Love's Last Shift: in the climactic scene of Cibber's play, Amanda's virtue reforms her husband, and in the corresponding scene of The Relapse, it reforms her admirer Worthy. Such moments have not done the play any favours with modern critics.

Love's Last Shift plot

Love's Last Shift is the story of a last "shift" or trick that a virtuous wife, Amanda, is driven to reform and retain her rakish husband Loveless. Loveless has been away for ten years, dividing his time between the brothel and the bottle, and no longer recognises his wife when he returns to London. Acting the part of a high-class prostitute, Amanda lures Loveless into her luxurious house and treats him to the night of his dreams, confessing her true identity in the morning. Loveless is so impressed that he immediately reforms. A minor part that was a great hit with the première audience is the fop Sir Novelty Fashion, written by Cibber for himself to play. Sir Novelty flirts with all the women, but is more interested in his own exquisite appearance and witticisms, and Cibber would modestly write in his autobiography 45 years later, "was thought a good portrait of the foppery then in fashion". Combining daring sex scenes with sentimental reconciliations and Sir Novelty's buffoonery, Love's Last Shift offered something for everybody, and was a great box-office hit.

The Relapse plot

Vanbrugh's The Relapse is less sentimental and more analytical than Love's Last Shift, subjecting both the reformed husband and the virtuous wife to fresh temptations, and having them react with more psychological realism. Loveless falls for the vivacious young widow Berinthia, while Amanda barely succeeds in summoning her virtue to reject her admirer Worthy. The three central characters, Amanda, Loveless, and Sir Novelty (ennobled by Vanbrugh into "Lord Foppington"), are the only ones that recur in both plays, the remainder of the Relapse characters being new.

In the trickster subplot, young Tom tricks his elder brother Lord Foppington out of his intended bride and her large dowry. This plot takes up nearly half the play and expands the part of Sir Novelty to give more scope for the roaring success of Cibber's fop acting. Recycling Cibber's merely fashion-conscious fop, Vanbrugh lets him buy himself a title and equips him with enough aplomb and selfishness to weather all humiliations. Although Lord Foppington may be "very industrious to pass for an ass", as Amanda remarks, he is at bottom "a man who Nature has made no fool" (II.i.148). Literary historians agree in esteeming him "the greatest of all Restoration fops" (Dobrée), "brutal, evil, and smart" (Hume).

Background: theatre company split

In the early 1690s, London had only one officially countenanced theatre company, the "United Company", badly managed and with its takings bled off by predatory investors ("adventurers"). To counter the draining of the company's income, the manager Christopher Rich slashed the salaries and traditional perks of his skilled professional actors, antagonising such popular performers as Thomas Betterton, the tragedienne Elizabeth Barry, and the comedian Anne Bracegirdle. Colley Cibber wrote in his autobiography that the owners of the United Company, "who had made a monopoly of the stage, and consequently presumed they might impose what conditions they pleased upon their people, did not consider that they were all this while endeavouring to enslave a set of actors whom the public… were inclined to support." Betterton and his colleagues set forth the bad finances of the United Company and the plight of the actors in a "Petition of the Players" submitted to the Lord Chamberlain. This unusual document is signed by nine men and six women, all established professional actors, and details a disreputable jumble of secret investments and "farmed" shares, making the case that owner chicanery rather than any failure of audience interest was at the root of the company's financial problems. Barely veiled strike threats in the actors' petition were met with an answering lock-out threat from Rich in a "Reply of the Patentees", but the burgeoning conflict was pre-empted by a suspension of all play-acting from December until March 1695 on account of Queen Mary's illness and death. During this interval, a cooperative actors' company took shape under the leadership of Betterton and was granted a Royal "licence to act" on 25 March, to the dismay of Rich, who saw the threat too late.

The two companies that emerged from this labour/management conflict are usually known respectively as the "Patent Company" (the no-longer-united United Company) and "Betterton's Company", although Judith Milhous argues that the latter misrepresents the cooperative nature of the actors' company. In the following period of intense rivalry, the Patent Company was handicapped by a shortage of competent actors. "Seducing" actors (as the legal term was) back and forth between the companies was a key tactic in the ensuing struggle for position, and so were appeals to the Lord Chamberlain to issue injunctions against seductions from the other side, which that functionary was quite willing to do. Later Rich also resorted to hiring amateurs, and to tempting Irish actors over from Dublin. But such measures were not yet in place for the staging of The Relapse in 1696, Rich's most desperate venture.

Casting

Vanbrugh is assumed to have attempted to tailor his play to the talents of particular actors and to what audiences would expect from them, as was normal practice (Holland), but this was exceptionally difficult to accomplish in 1695–96. Love's Last Shift had been cast from the remnants of the Patent Company—"learners" and "boys and girls"—after the walkout of the stars. Following the surprising success of this young cast, Vanbrugh and Rich had even greater difficulty in retaining the actors needed for The Relapse. However, in spite of the continuous emergency in which the Relapse production was mounted, most of Vanbrugh's original intentions were eventually carried out.

Love's Last Shift cast

To cast Love's Last Shift in January 1696, the Patent Company had to make the best use of such actors as remained after the 1694 split (see cast list right). An anonymous contemporary pamphlet describes the "despicable condition" the troupe had been reduced to:

The disproportion was so great at parting, that it was almost impossible, in Drury Lane, to muster up a sufficient number to take in all the parts of any play; and of them so few were tolerable, that a play must of necessity be damned, that had not extraordinary favour from the audience. No fewer than sixteen (most of the old standing) went away; and with them the very beauty and vigour of the stage; they who were left being for the most part learners, boys and girls, a very unequal match for them that revolted.

The only well-regarded performers available were the Verbruggens, John and Susanna, who had been re-seduced by Rich from Betterton's company. They were of course used in Love's Last Shift, with John playing Loveless, the male lead, and his wife Susanna the flirtatious heiress Narcissa, a secondary character. The rest of the cast consisted of the new and untried (for instance Hildebrand Horden, who had just joined Rich's troupe, playing a rakish young lover), the modest and lacklustre (Jane Rogers, playing Amanda, and Mary Kent, playing Sir Novelty's mistress Flareit), and the widely disliked (the opportunist Colley Cibber, playing Sir Novelty Fashion); people who had probably never been given the option of joining Betterton. Betterton's only rival as male lead, George Powell, had most likely been left behind by the rebels with some relief (Milhous); while Powell was skilled and experienced, he was also notorious for his bad temper and alcoholism. Throughout the "seduction" tug-of-war between Rich and Betterton in 1695–96, Powell remained at Drury Lane, where he was in fact not used for Love's Last Shift, but would instead spectacularly demonstrate his drinking problem at the première of The Relapse.




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