Monday, February 29, 2016

The Sullen Lovers

The word "romantic" or "romantick" predates the Romantic movement of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The scholar Tim Blanning traces the first use of the word to 1650, when the Catholic royalist Thomas Bayly wrote a book entitled:

Herba parietis: or, The wall-flower as it grew out of the stone chamber belonging to the metropolitan prison of London, called Newgate: being a history which is partly true, partly romantick, morally divine. 

Here the author contrasts the fact that his book is "partly true" with the idea that it is "partly romantick," indicating that the imaginative "romantick" does not correspond directly with an objective account of what is "true." For many seventeenth-century writers, the idea of something being "romantick" was by no means positive. In fact, the term could be downright pejorative.

Thomas Shadwell seemed to feel that way when he wrote his 1668 comedy The Sullen Lovers. Shadwell believed that Ben Jonson, not Shakespeare, should be the model for dramatic poetry. In the preface to his play, he disdained authors who "have wilde Romantick Tales wherein they strein Love and Honour to that Ridiculous height, that it becomes Burlesque..."

According to Shadwell, only Shakespeare's Falstaff came near to Jonson's characters. The Sullen Lovers, he claimed, would be different from the "Romantick" writers who elevated poetry beyond the good-natured humor of Jonson. Shadwell's prologue claims the audience would find:

          No kinde Romantick Lovers in his Play,
          To sigh and whine out passion, such as may
          Charm Waitingwomen with Heroick Chime,
          And still resolve to live and die in Rime... 

Shadwell admitted to writing the play after hearing an account of Moliere's Les Facheux (which roughly translated means "The Annoying Ones"). However, he claimed to have written much of The Sullen Lovers before reading Moliere's play, and the two works, while similar, have a number of major differences.

The Sullen Lovers concerns Stanford, who is described in the cast list as "A Morose Melancholy Man." Stanford longs to retreat from the world to "some remote and unfrequented Place" where he has "none but Bears and Wolves for his Companions" and he "never see's the folly of Mankind!"

The misanthropic Stanford finds his soul-mate in Emilia. Her hero is Charles V, who:

          Seeing the Vanity of Mankind, did quit
          The pleasures that attend a Monarchs state;
          Nay more, that most bewitching thing call'd power,
          And left the World, to live an humble life,
          Free from the Importunity of Fools...

The two, indeed, are set upon by fools, and the fools quote Shakespeare, no less! A conceited poet named Ninny, for instance, references Hotspur from Henry IV, Part I when he cries: "I'le pluck bright honour from the pale fac'd Moon (as my friend Hot-spur sayes)..."

Ultimately, the lovers are left to be melancholy together, discovering that there is no one they find less intolerable than one another. In the final lines of the play, Stanford declaims:

          Now to some distant desart let's repair:
          And there put off all our unhappy Care,
          There certainly that freedom we must find,
          Which is deny'd to us among Mankind.

What I find interesting is that Stanford and Emilia are the cause of fun in this comedy. Stanford's friend Lovel and Emilia's sister Carolina (who also get together at the end of the play) are much more moderate and present the audience with a sensible ideal. Were this a Romantic play with a capital "R" Shadwell might have taken the sullenness of his lovers a bit more seriously.