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Comic drama in Goldsmith's time resembled in some respects the American theatre today: it was awful, it was in the hands of the panderers and the dutchers. The reason for this, Goldsmith thought, was that its practitioners failed to distinguish tragedy from comedy, and produced mainly works which fell awkwardly between the two. "Notwithstanding the universal practice of former ages," he wrote in an Essay on the Theatre, "a new species of dramatic composition has been introduced, under the name of sentimental comedy, in which the virtues of private life are exhibited, rather than the vices exposed: and the distresses rather than the faults of mankind make our interest in the piece.... In these plays almost all the characters are good: if they happen to have faults or foibles, the spectator is taught, not only to pardon, but to applaud them, in consideration of the goodness of their hearts so that folly, instead of being ridiculed, is commended, and the comedy aims at touching our passions without the power of being truly pathetic."
But Goldsmith, though he was undoubtedly right in his opinions, was one of those whose love of good theatre outstrips their creative talent; and in his one successful comedy. She Stoops To Conquer, he was scarcely able to reverse the dismal, tear-stained course of eighteenth century comedy. Though he looked back discerningly to the broad humor of the "the last age" (he meant the Elizabethans), his work fails to recapture the extravagant buffoonery of their plays.
In fact, She Stoops To Conquer is clearly the work of a critic: for it is an elaborate construction designed to poke fun at middle-class "uplifting" comedy and celebrate the comic virtues of members of the "humbler stations." Goldsmith turns a worthy squire's home into an inn, and makes the "inn-keeper's" daughter impersonate a bar maid in order to win a shy suitor. (This gentleman, you see, is comfortable not with "women or reputation and virtue," but only in the company of "creatures of another stamp.") Goldsmith's point is that in order to conquer--or rather, reconquer--comedy too must stoop.
The Kirkland House players, under the direction of Thomas Lee Hinkle, have interpreted Goldsmith's comedy to the old man's demanding fancy, broadly as you please. The result is a performance both faithful and hilarious. It is a little too long--though to the author's credit, I don't know what you could cut--and wants polish at quite a few places; but for the most part the pace is lively and the acting first-rate.
It is impossible to decide who gets top honors among the cast. Jill Saxon's portrayal of Constance Neville is clearly the work of a natural comedienne; her timing is excellent, so that her sardonic asides and arch remarks on the mistakes of the night come off brilliantly. Charlotte Eakin as Miss Hardcastle, the "bar-maid," and Steve Botein as her father, imposing and imposed upon, give less consistent performances, but their roles are much longer and more difficult. Miss Eakin is troubled by her voice, which sometimes seems in danger of climbing so high it will disappear off the top. Mr. Botein is simply a slow starter; but like Miss Eakin, once he is in control of himself, he takes every advantage of a very rich part. His outrage at the arrogance of his guests (Miss Neville's suitor, and his daughter's) comes in as many shapes and colors as Howard Johnson's ice cream; and given the choice, I'd reach for the outrage instead of the sweet. Miss Eakin's part isn't as funny, but that is surely no reflection on her abilities, which are considerable. She handles the difficult scene in which she first meets her awkward lover with grace and ease; and she switches from the charming squire's pride and joy to the wild little eighteenth century B-girl with equal facility.
Richard Lowenthal, who plays Tony Lumpkin, Mrs. Hardcastle's ne'er-do-well son by a previous marriage, has a riot of a face, and the stupidest-sounding bluff giggle I've ever heard; but he screams his lines, some of them as crucial to the plot as any lines can be to such a plot, and they are lost. Tony's fond mother is not a very interesting or amusing person, so anything Janet Leslie gets out of the part--and she gets quite a bit--is a testament to her skill.
The two suitors are less satisfactory. Thomas Adams (Mr. Marlow) really must stop laughing at his own funny lines before tonight, and not all the woodenness of his movements is written into the part. His companion, Hastings (George Trow), is a puzzler to me; he has chosen to play the role as a thin-blooded, effeminate dandy, and that's not at all the way I read the part. I guess he does what he set out to do; I just think he's doing the wrong thing.
The generally fine jobs by the major characters are matched by the excellence of the supporting players (Murray Forbes as Marlow's father is especially outstanding among these last). In addition to expressing the hope that that wonderful lump of a bumpkin Tony will stop shouting, I would add only that Hinkle's decision to cut the prologue is regrettable, since it is clever and to the point and that the program notwithstanding, (it refers to "Mr." Oliver Goldsmith), the gentleman was an M.D. Kirkland House has conquered me, and, my analyst assures me, I'm no stoop.
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