She/He Stoops to Conquer
 

She/He Stoops to Conquer

Declan Kiberd

Oliver Goldsmith (1728-1774) knew the pain of being a private genius and public laughing-stock—-rather like Tony Lumpkin and the other “split” characters of She Stoops to Conquer. His face was ungainly (chin too short, mouth massive, forehead bulging), so he tried to distract from it with costly clothes. To little avail. None of his acquaintances could take seriously a man who spent a small fortune on a pair of blue silk trousers.

He had been his mother’s favourite child but came to resent her cossetting, which created in him a sort of learned helplessness. In the play, Tony’s mother hides from him the knowledge that he has already come of age, keeping him in a posture of dependency that is against his real interests.

As a writer in London, Goldsmith functioned as an honorary Englishman (reticent and shy like Marlow), but his inner Irishman was never long suppressed. He had always believed in the old Gaelic code of flaithiulacht, giving away his bed-clothes to a freezing Dublin woman while he was still a student in Trinity, and later offering up his own coal supply to impoverished Londoners. In the play two gentlemen, Marlow and Hastings, mistake the hospitable Hardcastle’s old-world generosity for the ploy of a profiteering inn-keeper. Such a mistake is characteristic of a transitional society, caught between the noblesse oblige of aristocrats and the hard-headed codes of a commercial middle class.

In Hardcastle’s old feudal order, the master had drunk and laughed with servants, but now the underlings must be coached in the fashions of waiting upon the yuppies of the new cash society in London. Instead of softening the differences between high and low, the emergent middle class has put an end to ancient courtesies and replaced them with dire gradations of snobbery.

Such a rapid social shift makes everyone feel a little like an actor, awaiting cues as to how he or she might behave. Marlow is brash in his treatment of Kate Hardcastle, when he mistakes her for a barmaid; but tongue-tied in the presence of a woman of his own upper class. Gradually, however, the distinction between classes becomes as fuzzy as that between private and public worlds.

London audiences on the opening night in 1773 might have been tempted to see Tony Lumpkin as an Irish stage-buffoon and Marlow as the classic English gentleman: but these seeming opposites are actual doubles—-Marlow shy in his over-bred fastidiousness, Lumpkin shy of polite society in his under-bred homeliness. Each man is redeemable—-for in feeling the falseness of an actor shamming a role, he slowly becomes aware of a deeper self that he is being false to.

Only Kate (fashionable in silk each morning; the home-spun “poor relation” in evenings) can from the outset distinguish confidently between playing and reality. She uses her disguise in order to study her lover as he really is, when off guard and among friends. And he (like many shy modern men confronted with a version of the New Woman) is shrewd enough to let her make all the first moves.

The main action is driven, however, by the seeming buffoon. Tony Lumpkin’s machinations invert many of the priorities of society (rich\poor, smart\silly, public\private). As an outsider in London, Goldsmith was himself a sort of anthropologist who analysed the working fictions on which that world was based.

If Kate “stoops” to the role of barmaid to spy on her prospective husband, Goldsmith—-constantly accused by contemporaries of coarsening public taste by promoting “low-life” characters—-finds in Lumpkin a way of humiliating a pretentious upper class. For the playwright himself also stoops to conquer.

And conquer he did. His play swept the boards. Just five days after opening, the entire print version had sold out.

Declan Kiberd is the Donald and Marilyn Keogh Professor of Irish Studies at Notre Dame University.

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