Man of Mode (1676)
By George Etherege
In the third act of Etherege’s The Man of Mode, Young Bellair is surprised to learn that Harriet has as little interest in him (her intended husband) as he has in her. “‘Tis not unnatural for you women to be a little angry, you miss a conquest,” Bellair says, “though you would slight the poor man were he in power.” His comment acknowledges a gender-based power struggle that drives much of the action in Restoration comedy. The conflict often takes the form of economics versus sexual favor—the men wielding the former and women the latter. In this case, upon first meeting his intended, Bellair seems capable of imagining Harriet only as a scheming tease, the stereo-typical Woman who uses her own sexuality—foregrounding, all the while, Man’s helpless subservience to it—as a means of manipulation. Harriet, likewise, views Bellair as only another in a long succession of dominant, patriarchal figures, a man who has simply purchased her future from Lady Woodvill, the woman who controlled her past.
When both Bellair and Harriet discover that their preconceptions about the other are unfounded, they are forced to improvise. They struggle to create a discourse, one free of sexual tension and power conflict, within which a young man and woman might converse openly and honestly. Harriet’s response to Bellair offers a glimpse into their dramatic solution. “There are some it may be have an eye like Bart’lomew, big enough for the whole fair,” she says, “but I am not of the number, and you may keep your gingerbread.” Harriet’s allusion to Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair becomes more significant as the scene continues, for it demonstrates both characters’ familiarity with the stage and with its nightly demonstrations of the performance of Love and courtship.
And it is, in fact, a performance that Harriet and Bellair act for their small audience, one consisting only of the two scheming parents. Both actors are well-studied in their roles; they move fluently through the gender-determined rituals. Harriet tells her ‘pretend’ lover, “I will lean against this wall, and look bashfully down upon my fan, while you like an amorous spark modishly entertain me.” Bellair responds with a slight tilt of his head, a nervous playing with his belt, and a “sparkish” smile. Their performance is a success, convincing its viewers of the players’ growing affections. Even Harriet and Bellair seem impressed with their new-found skill. After watching his partner fluctuate expertly between fits of laughter and moments of grave reserve, Young Bellair commends her, saying, “admirably well acted.” She responds with witty pride: “I think I am pretty apt at these matters!”
Harriet is a fascinating character. She possesses the abundant wit of a Restoration ‘rake,’ along with the beauty and wealth of its traditional heroine. Significantly, she is also an outsider in London; but she is hardly the naïve Country Wife. Instead, Etherege uses Harriet’s perspective to comment on the superficiality of ‘high’ social interaction. In the third scene of Act III, Harriet, referring to High Park, says, “I abominate the dull diversions there, the formal bows, the affected smiles, the silly by-words, and amorous tweers, in passing.” Throughout The Man of Mode, the laughs come at the expense of such affectations, a trademark of the Comedy of Manners. But by staging his characters in a play within the play and by forcing his audience to oberve other observers, Etherege extends the satire, commenting directly on the Restoration stage itself. When Dorimant claims, “‘Tis not likely a man should be fond of seeing a damned old play when there is a new one acted,” (IV, ii) his metaphor again reinforces the similarities between the performances on stage and in the bedroom. But it also, I think, raises the question of what part the theater plays in supporting, if not actually determining, the roles of men and women in social interaction. Ultimately, the prospect of a platonic relationship leaves Harriet and Young Bellair with no option but play-acting. They slip into the only roles they feel are available to them. By showing this directly on stage, Etherege makes his play self-reflective, forcing us to acknowledge the influence of popular images on our own daily performances.