Directed by Amanda Knott from British touring company, Creative Cow, the play was first performed in London in 1773. Knott describes it as an “anti-sentimental” comedy. “That’s what Goldsmith was about. He was satirising the sort of sentimental comedy that was very much the genre in his time. He is absolutely satirising the upper classes and their young men who think they’re God’s gift.”
The play centres on Charles Marlow, a well-bred young man from London. His problem is that when in the presence of women of his class, he becomes nervous and unable to communicate. When his wealthy father sets him up with his old friend’s eligible daughter, Kate Hardcastle, he is reduced to awkwardly stuttering on first acquaintance. But Kate is nonetheless charmed by this gibbering suitor. To put him at his ease, she ‘stoops to conquer’ by posing as a maid so that Marlow will fall for her. He sets out for the Hardcastles’ manor with a friend, George Hastings, who is the subject of the romantic subplot.
A practical joke is played on the two gentlemen so that they are directed to an ‘inn’ which is, in fact, the home of the Hardcastles. Marlow and Hastings behave disdainfully towards their hosts, believing they are servants. What ensues is a series of misunderstandings in this comedy of errors that deals with class and snobbery.
Knott says the play has some relevance for today. “While I don’t think you could take it out of its period, it’s partly about parental influence on their offspring and trying to ensure good marriages. The theme of strife between parents and their children is one that goes on forever. Hardcastle is modern in his approach. Although he wants his daughter to marry a suitable husband, he realises it’s possible the man won’t want her.”
Knott says while the language of the play is “archaic” at times, it’s easy to understand. “It’s a jolly romp of a play. It isn’t going to change the world but it has an ingenious plot that is ridiculous but hugely entertaining. I don’t think audiences go away thinking it’s silly. As a director, I really trust the play.”
Marlow, despite being an idiot, is likeable in a way, says Knott. “He’s very lacking in confidence. He only has confidence when he’s talking to servants. The whole story revolves around him thinking that Mr Hardcastle’s daughter is a barmaid. He’s full of banter with her. He’s really a rather nice fellow who has lost his way. I think he comes across as a smart chap in the end.”
Knott co-founded Creative Cow in 2007. Its title was inspired by the fact that the company was conceived on a cattle farm in Devon where productions are rehearsed before touring all over England. This is the first time the company is bringing a play to Ireland.
“We put on Richard Brinsley Sheridan’snot so long ago. That was good fun and a great success. Theatres very much wanted us to do because they know they can sell tickets for this type of theatre.”
On a recent visit to London, Knott sat in Covent Garden Opera House wherewas first performed. “It felt extraordinary to be sitting there thinking of Samuel Johnson persuading the then manager of the theatre to put on the play.”
Clearly, it has stood the test to time.