George Etherege, a Londoner who lived between 1636 and 1689, deserves to hold a more distinguished place in dramatic literature than has generally been allotted to him. In a dull and heavy age, he inaugerated a period of genuine wit and sprightliness; he invented the comedy of intrigue, and led the way for the masterpieces of Congreve and Sheridan. Before his time the manner of Ben Jonson had prevailed in comedy, and traditional "humours" and typical eccentricities, instead of real characters, had crowded the comic stage. Etherege paints with a light, faint hand, but it is from nature, and his portraits of fops and beaux are simply unexcelled. No one knows better than he how to present a gay young gentleman, "an unconfinable rover after amorous adventures." His genius is as light as thistledown; he is frivolous, without force of conviction, without principle; but his wit is sparkling, and his style pure and singularly picturesque. No one approaches Etherege in delicate touches of scene and description; he makes the fine airs of London gentlemen and ladies live before our eyes even more vividly than Congreve; but he has less insight and less energy than Congreve. Had he been poor or ambitious he might have been to England almost what Molière was to France, but he was a rich man living at his ease, and he disdained to excel in literature. He was a scion of an ancient and distinguished Oxfordshire family, and was educated at Cambridge, but left the university early to travel in France and Flanders, returning to London to enter one of the Inns of Court. His tastes were those of a fine gentleman, and he indulged freely in pleasure, especially the pleasures of the cup. Soon after the Restoration he composed his comedy of The Comical Revenge, or Love in a Tub, which was brought out in the Duke's theatre in 1664, and printed in the same year. It is partly in rhymed heroic verse, but it contains comic scenes that are exceedingly bright and fresh, with a style of wit hitherto unknown upon the English stage. The success of the play was very great, but Etherege waited four years before he repeated his experiment, meanwhile gaining the highest reputation as a poetical beau, and moving in the circle of Sir Charles Sedley, Lord Rochester, and other noble wits of the day.
In 1668 Etherege brought out She Would If She Could, a comedy in many respects admirable, full of action, wit and spirit, but to the last degree frivolous and immoral; so that we seem to move in an airy and fantastic world, where flirtation is the only serious business of life. At this time Etherege himself was living a life no less frivolous and unprincipled than those of his own characters. His wealth and wit, the distinction and charm of his manners, won him the general worship of society, and his temperament is best shown by the names his contemporaries gave him, of "gentle Gearge" and "easy Etherege." The age upbraided him for inattention to literature; and at length, after a silence of eight years, he came forward with one more play. The Man of Mode, or Sir Fopling Flutter, indisputably the best comedy of intrigue written in England before the days of Congreve, was acted and printed in 1676, and had an unbounded success. Besides the merits of its plot and wit, it had the personal charm of being supposed to satirize, or at least to describe, persons well known in London. Sir Fopling Flutter was a portrait of Beau Hewit, the reigning exquisite of the hour; in Dorimant the poet drew the elegant Sir Charles Sedley, and in Medley a portrait of himself; while even the drunken shoemaker was a real character, who made his fortune from being thus brought into public notice.
After this brilliant success Etherege retired from literature; his gallantries and his gambling in a few years deprived him of his fortune, and he looked about for a rich wife. In 1683 he met with a wealthy elderly widow, who consented to marry him if he made a lady of her. He accordingly got himself knighted, and gained her hand and her money. It is said that before this he had been sent on an embassy to Turkey; and it is certain that soon afterward he was appointed resident minister in the German court at Ratisbon, where, in 1689, he met his death by accident.
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