The Working of Pure Gold by Stephen Zelnick

Emeritus Professor, Temple University

The brilliant Irish author, Oliver Goldsmith (1728-1774), was stunningly ugly, even sitting across the table from the grotesque Samuel Johnson. By all accounts, Goldsmith possessed defects more than skin deep. Goldsmith was eaten up with envy, once leaping upon a table to prove that he could surpass in eloquence the famously gifted Edmund Burke, only to find himself stumped after two sentences. Praise for Johnson drove poor “Noldy" to distraction. He was a stupendous failure at university, finishing last in his class at Trinity College, Dublin, and was awarded his B.A. out of pity. In his early writing career he plagiarized naturalist texts and popular histories. He drank, he gambled, he was always in debt. He studied to become a medical doctor but by God’s grace never practiced; he did, however, treat one serious illness and managed to send himself to an early grave. He was ugly, unpleasant, incompetent, reckless, and lacking in self-discipline … and blessed by the gods with a superb talent for lucid and entertaining writing. Horace Walpole called Goldsmith an “inspired idiot." More generously, Johnson wrote that Goldsmith “left scarcely any style of writing untouched, and touched nothing that he did not adorn. -- Goldsmith, unlucky in life, was repaid with immortal fame -- the author of The Vicar of Wakefield (1766), The Deserted Village (1770), and She Stoops to Conquer (1773).

I write in praise of She Stoops to Conquer. Most considerations of this superb play have engaged the arid exercise of determining the play’s category of comedy and the type of Goldsmith’s humor. Sure enough, it is a “laughing comedy" as opposed to the un-laughing romantic comedies of its time, where happy endings su fice. The play contains satire, farce, mistaken identity, ludicrous servants and pompous lords, love and marriage in desperate collision, with wonderful puns, sexual jolts, comic songs, broad physical fun, and racing along at a break-neck pace surprising in a play now 240 years old. Squint, and you can see a Hugh Grant film, only with greater edge and far funnier.

Goldsmith’s wonderful play mines the fertile comedic terrain of love and marriage. Let’s face it, marriage is surrounded by absurdity -- two strangers brought together for a lifetime by the confusedly mixed interests of property, propriety, consumer habits, romance and lust, and family dictates -- nothing could be sillier or more vital to our happiness. Most cultures have solved the problem by authorizing adult members of the interested families to make this vital decision. Why leave the fate of families and their property to two youngsters mad with desire?

… or, worse yet, with the commonplace imaginings of romance? While “She Stoops" enjoys its jolly romp, its humor twines around serious matters.

The play offers us options. We open with old Mr. Hardcastle, tradition bound, and his indefatigable wife, Mrs. Hardcastle, itching to enjoy London fashion. The two share nothing but a well-honed spitefulness.

HARDCASTLE: I wonder why London cannot keep its own fools at home! In my time, the follies of the town crept slowly among us, but now they travel faster than a stage-coach. Its fopperies come down not only as
inside passengers, but in the very basket.

MRS. HARDCASTLE: Ay, your times were fine times indeed; you have been telling us of them for many a long year … Our best visitors are old Mrs. Oddfish, the curate's wife, and little Cripplegate, the lame dancing-master; and all our entertainment your old stories of Prince Eugene and the Duke of Marlborough. I hate such old-fashioned trumpery.

HARDCASTLE: And I love it.

Mrs. H. cannot resist reminding her second husband of the excellences of Mr. Lumpkin, her deceased and therefore beloved first husband. She carps at Mr. H. incessantly, and he revenges himself with curt sarcasm. This marriage is a continuing horror; two strangers, at one another on every point, and targeting their venom with deadly aim. They are together because Mrs. H. is manipulative and greedy for cash and status; Mr. H., lost in his reveries of Prince Eugene and the Duke of Marlborough, failed to pay su ficient attention to the package he was getting in his second and disastrous marriage. Still, marital bickering lights up the stage.

In standard romance, the young renew our faith in love and marriage. But Goldsmith takes a clever turn. His standard loving couple, Hastings and Constance Neville, seems to be the antidote. Where the Hardcastles show the rough edges of life’s wear, these lovers are fresh minted. However, appearances deceive. Hastings is too hasty in wishing to whisk away his beloved Constance; and she is constant only to her regard for her legacy. Hastings would throw caution to the winds, relinquish her dowry, and flee with her to France. His beloved is full of faults, mere manners and morals, with nothing loving about her:

HASTINGS: Such a tedious delay is worse than inconstancy. Let us fly, my charmer. Let us date our happiness from this very moment. Perish fortune! Love and content will increase what we possess beyond a monarch's revenue. Let me prevail!

MISS NEVILLE: No, Mr. Hastings, no. Prudence once more comes to my relief, and I will obey its dictates. In the moment of passion fortune may be despised, but it ever produces a lasting repentance. (Act V)

She is not leaving without her jewels and is deaf to Hastings’ idealism. Love is fine, especially with cash in hand. These two have not been through a true test; he will free her from her captivity in Hardcastle Hall, and she will fulfill his dreamy notions of love and rescue. They will become the Hardcastles; she begging for more, and he begging, with growing agitation, to be let alone.

A third variation is the barnyard amours of Tony Lumpkin. Lumpkin is a delightful Puckish fellow in the Hardcastle halls and stables. He is defiantly unlearned, loves the alehouse and carousing with drunken louts and loose country women, delights in playing pranks and tormenting his mother and step-father, manipulating their proprieties. His mother demands that he marry Ms. Neville so that Constance’s legacy can remain in her control. Tony sees through Constance’s false sweetness and propriety and recognizes in her another version of his manipulative mother. Tony trusts in appetite, drinking and gorging himself, and servicing the bovine beauties of the neighborhood. Bet Bouncer, a great voluptuous mound of womanhood, is Lumpkin’s ideal. Tony is a jolly figure, a prize role for generations of actors. He can perform a jaunty hymn to the Three Pigeons Tavern, his witty remarks brighten the stage, and he engineers the clever pranks that drive the play’s action -- the misidentification of Hardcastle Hall as a country inn is his idea, as is the wild night ride that resolves the play’s foolery. Lumpkin is natural feeling as the antidote for society’s priggish deceptions. He is just the sort of character you would expect “Noldy" Goldsmith to favor.

But Romantic Comedy, whether of the laughing or un-laughing sort, cannot adapt to such anarchy. Mr. Hardcastle and his less deluded old friend, Sir Charles Marlow, hold society together -- Hardcastle by his respect for tradition, and Sir Charles with his adherence both to social forms and also to natural feeling. Lumpkin delights us with his foolery, but we can’t have a world that depends upon his rascally chums, or upon Diggory and the rest of the serving class. The answer to the faults of Tory rot cannot be the anarchism of the barnyard or the confusion of the servant’s quarters. The courtship of young Marlow by Kate Hardcastle resolves this puzzle of forms and feelings.

Marlow is a victim of this form-feeling clash. His sense of propriety is overwhelming, so much so that he looks upon a modest and refined woman as unapproachable:

MARLOW: They may talk of a comet, or a burning mountain, or some such bagatelle; but, to me, a modest woman, drest out in all her finery, is the most tremendous object of the whole creation (Act II).

Marlow, struck dumb and near paralyzed in the presence of feminine social refinement, is bawdy and aggressive in his guise as the Hogarthian “Mr. Rattle," and preys upon the servant class, who are presumed to be immodest and ready game. “She Stoops" portrays Marlow as victim to this social pathology. His Dr. Jekyll is as beastly as his Mr. Hyde, and leaves him exhausted and confused. Sir Charles has stepped in to solve his son’s problems by arranging a relationship meant to produce a marriage with the daughter of his old friend Hardcastle. However, without Kate’s clever easing of Marlow’s torment, love and marriage would be a sorry prospect.

While Lumpkin represents the solution we cannot a ford, Kate stands for the appropriate solution to this bedeviling puzzle. Women in romantic comedy are superior to men in intelligence, feeling, and judgment -- and with good reason, as Goldsmith’s Kate makes clear. While men of the establishment can slide through life, picking and choosing, and resting assured of their pre- eminence, women must fight for all they can get. Instructed by her father to accept an unknown man purely on the basis of a generic description, Kate happily acquiesces. Even if he turns out to be less than her father’s description supposes, she can mold him to her specifications once they are wed. Dangers lurk here, but there are reasons for Kate’s blind acquiescence. Isolated in the North England countryside, and without fortune or title, Kate is unlikely to attract suitors of quality. Plotting her disguise and deception with the wily maid, Kate explains her predicament: although Marlow will not recognize her, “I shall be seen, and that is no small advantage to a girl who brings her face to market" (Act III). In the marriage mart, Kate has only her personal qualities to recommend her; her good looks, her wit, her courage, and the radiance of her personality. Young Marlow, the unsuspecting prey, thinks he can a ford to be loose and inattentive, while the hunter attends to every rustling bush and scented breeze.

As the play’s title announces, Kate’s strategy is to affect the appearance and manner of a bar maid and hope for nature to drive her quarry into the trap. What fun to watch Marlow transformed from a timid suitor terrified by Ms. Hardcastle into a ravisher pursuing Kate, the barmaid! What fun to watch the ardent pursuer falling helplessly into the trap! Nonetheless, if “She Stoops" is to be rescued from satire, Goldsmith has to construct a convincing meeting of minds and souls to redeem the notion of marriage as both sensible and blessed. These lovers must overcome the cross purposes of marriage and the contretemps of their immediate circumstances to emerge sensibly in love and passionately bound to one another.

Marlow is described as handsome and well-educated but overly scrupulous in his regard for women of quality. While Kate appreciates this high-toned timidity, she would prefer a dashing and ardent lover. Mr. Hardcastle reminds us that courtship cannot be all politeness and poetry: “… girls like to be played with, and rumpled a little too, sometimes" (Act V). The play’s staging ought to emphasize the sexual signaling between these two. Kate needs to be ripe and playful, not just handsome, like Constance, but with some of Bet Bouncer’s vitality. While Constance is conventionally attractive, Kate must be sprightly and sexual. In the National Theater performance, Kate tempts Marlow by squatting suggestively to light a fire in the hearth. This pose ignites Marlow’s fire, and we see Kate’s knowing glance as she measures the effect on him.

As the barmaid, Kate’s words are virginal, but her actions are suggestive. She tells him she has some embroidery in her room that she would love for him to see. While Kate poses as innocent, the remark anticipates Mae West. On his side, Marlow desires her, not just as a conquest, which is Mr. Rattle’s game, but as a lover. At the outset, Marlow can take her or leave her, but soon he cannot find a way to leave her. This cannot result merely because he admires her character and decency. Girls like to be rumpled; women require it.

Barmaid or penniless gentlewoman, Kate must avoid a marriage based upon his wealth and her material need. Marlow must come to appreciate her relaxed and genuine culture. Unlike Hastings and Ms. Neville, they must struggle to recognize one another. As in Pride and Prejudice or Jane Eyre, those who must struggle past obstacles come to know one another. The key moments between them occur in Act V. Marlow comes to take his leave from Kate, under pressure to satisfy his father by marrying Ms. Hardcastle. He struggles to make the break with the woman who has touched his feelings and imagination. Kate protests that her lack of wealth and class identity should dissuade him if he hopes to satisfy the demands of society and of his father. As Kate assumes a more natural manner with him, Marlow is touched by her solicitude and her willingness to sacrifice for his benefit. As she begs him to forget her, he collapses into feeling and respect:

MARLOW: By heavens, madam! fortune was ever my smallest consideration. Your beauty at first caught my eye; for who could see that without emotion? But every moment that I converse with you steals in some new grace, heightens the picture, and gives it stronger expression. What at first seemed rustic plainness, now appears refined simplicity. What seemed forward assurance, now strikes me as the result of courageous innocence and conscious virtue.

Having accepted her as she is, whoever she really is, Marlow must overcome the disclosure of her trickery. But Kate reminds him that he met her as Marlow/Rattle and has no grounds to protest. The Ms. Hardcastle he met at first was a social confection whipped up by property and title, and no more real than either of his two faces. Stripped of illusions that bring pain to marriage, Marlow can echo Kate’s discovery, “I never knew half his merit till now"

(Act IV).

As trenchant as the theme is and as cleverly as it structures “She Stoops," no one would care if the play were not brilliantly entertaining. The true test is to go from the play’s text to a performance as clever as that of the National Theater of 2004, watching “She Stoops" play out, we become aware of one essential joy of theater, taking our place briefly with the gods who observe the confusions of the poor personages below. We know that Hardcastle Hall is not the inn Hastings and Marlow think it is. We know the barmaid is really Kate and that Marlow’s sexual aggressions are more dangerous to him than to her. We know Tony has stolen the jewels and that they truly are missing and not part of a ruse, as his poor mother discovers. We know the source of the confusion that ba fles Mr. Hardcastle and Sir Charles about young Marlow’s reports regarding his interviews with Kate. We anticipate with delight as the Hardcastles untangle their ba flement at their wild night’s journey. While we look down upon the foibles of others, we see double -- what characters think is happening, and what we know is happening. When Marlow and Hardcastle each bellow “this is my house," we howl at their helpless indignation.

A variation of this “insider’s knowledge" is the access we have to the character faults that drive these poor beings. Mr. Hardcastle bears a classic Idée Fixe, his absorption in the military exploits of Marlborough and Prince Eugene. Mrs. Hardcastle is a slave to the Frenchified London fashion she neither understands nor can acquire. And then there is young Marlow’s divided soul. In each case, the character is a puppet on a string we see but they cannot. A moment’s reflection would suggest that we also are puppets on the strings of our ridiculous obsessions, but for these two hours, we can imagine we know ourselves while others are laughable.

Watching the play well performed, we notice also what a good director can do. “She Stoops" offers endless opportunities for physical humor. One example is the scene where Hardcastle tutors his servants in how properly to wait upon esteemed guests. Hardcastle wishes to impress young Marlow, his prospective son-in-law, even though the grandeur of his house is faded. His servants are country laborers, more comfortable in the stables than in the dining hall. They are great oafs and, as the text proposes, strike preposterous poses to satisfy their exasperated and sputtering lord. Another is the play of North England accents, a sure source of amusement for Goldsmith’s London audience. The text prompts this in the scene of carousing in the Three Pigeons Alehouse, but there is great fun also as Kate acquires the manner and speech of a barmaid. When the maid asks Kate whether she can act the part, Kate bellows in a raw, below stairs voice: “Did your honour call?--Attend the Lion there--Pipes and tobacco for the Angel.--The Lamb has been outrageous this half-hour" (Act III). Mr. Hardcastle bustles and fumes at young Marlow’s behavior, but even richer in physical comedy are the battles between Mrs. Hardcastle and her wayward son. She claws at him as he drags her around the stage, mocking her and paying her back for her aggressions. Both actors should be agile to bring this ludicrous dance to its perfect expression. Perhaps the high point of the play occurs when Mrs. Hardcastle reads the letter describing her as a hag, which pushes her an octave above her accustomed indignation. Goldsmith’s play is a delightful romp, which the written text, like all mere scripts, can only begin to suggest.

For those accustomed to watching fine-honed sit-coms trimmed to fit commercial television, we should recognize Goldsmith’s excellent sense of timing. “She Stoops" roars along, shifting scenes with due regard for audience attention. While the play observes the classical unities almost perfectly, we rarely sense anything static about it. The text has Five Acts, but the count of discrete episodes comes to near three dozen. Goldsmith offers speed and variety. Along with broad physical comedy, one finds excellent word play, sentiment, music, topical satire, wise observations, and moments of eloquence and grace. A lesser writer would have leaned on any of these and risked tedium, but Goldsmith knows when to move on. He might, for example, have Kate in her barmaid guise fire a barrage of malapropisms; he has her use only one when she complains to Marlow: “I'm sure you did not treat Miss Hardcastle, that was here awhile ago, in this obstropalous manner" (Act III). Tony commands a brilliant capacity for wildly picturesque images: comparing Constance to his beloved Bet Bouncer:"

LUMPKIN: Ah! could you but see Bet Bouncer of these parts, you might then talk of beauty.

Ecod, she has two eyes as black as sloes, and cheeks as broad and red as a pulpit cushion (Act II)..

But Goldsmith keeps such distractions under control. Kate has a pleasant wit, but at times she exceeds herself with brilliance. When her father inquires whether Marlow has made protestations of his intentions, Kate shows deft wit in her response as most profest admirers do:

KATE: "...said some civil things of my face, talked much
of his want of merit, and the greatness of mine; mentioned his heart, gave a short tragedy speech, and ended with pretended rapture" (Act V).

Too much of that and we would begin to see Kate as tougher than she needs to be. Mr. Hardcastle’s benevolence does not need to be pounded into us; it is enough that in his closing speech he wraps his arms philosophically around the night’s entertainment:

MR. HARDCASTLE: And, Mr. Marlow, if she makes as good a wife as she has a daughter, I don't believe you'll ever repent your bargain. So now to supper. To-morrow we shall gather all the poor of the parish about us, and the mistakes of the night shall be crowned with a merry morning. So, boy, take her; and as you have been mistaken in the mistress, my wish is, that you may never be mistaken
in the wife (Act V).

Too much of this and we would drown in the moralism of benevolence and have no room to laugh at him when he is silly.

It is dangerous to talk of artistic perfection. However, Goldsmith wrote a play worthy of his noble name.


--The National Theater production of She Stoops to Conquer (2004) is available on DVD. It can be streamed from Theater on Video (Alexander Street Press) for those with access to university libraries who subscribe to this service. A brief scene from this production appears on YouTube.

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