She Stoops to Conquer (1773) overview
Kenneth Tynan wrote that ‘English drama is a procession of glittering Irishmen’. Oliver Goldsmith was one of those playwrights cited by Tynan as an example, alongside Oscar Wilde and Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Goldsmith could turn his hand to most literary forms, including essays, poetry and novels. She Stoops to Conquer demonstrates a command and understanding of the theatre as well as a sharpness of wit and warm humour.
Initially titled Mistakes of a Night, the play is a ‘laughing comedy’, a satire on the excess of emotion prevalent in the ‘sentimental comedies’ popular at the time. It opens with a prologue in which an actor mourns the death of the ‘low’ comedy.
The Hardcastles are waiting for the arrival of Marlow, son of a family friend and a possible suitor to their daughter Kate. Mrs Hardcastle is hoping to marry her niece Constance to Tony Lumpkin, her son from an earlier marriage. Constance will come into a small inheritance of jewellery when she marries, but they do not care for one another, and Constance already has a beloved, who it just so happens is friends with Marlow and is coming to the house that night.
Marlow and his friend Hastings get lost on the way and Tony plays a practical joke on them by telling the men that they can obtain lodging at the old inn down the road – which is in fact the country home of the Hardcastles.
This set-up leads to various comic scenes in which they treat Mr Hardcastle as a landlord and generally behave poorly. It is revealed that Marlow has a tendency to get tongue-tied among well-to-do women. Kate is drawn to him so she pretends to be a barmaid in order to win his heart – or, as Goldsmith put it, she stoops to conquer.
Meanwhile, Constance and her lover Hastings decide to keep the deception going. Hastings conspires with Tony to steal Constance’s jewels so that they can marry.
The impending arrival of Marlow’s father in Act 4 threatens to undo all of their plotting. Marlow has fallen for Kate, but still believes her to be a poor relation and therefore a poor match. As the various deceptions are revealed Tony, Marlow and Hastings have a huge argument.
In the fifth and final act, all of the threads are resolved in a satisfying way. The two couples are given permission to marry and Tony gets to dodge matrimony altogether.
Key productions of She Stoops to Conquer
She Stoops to Conquer was first staged in London at Covent Garden Theatre in March 1773. In 1971 a version starring Ralph Richardson, Tom Courtenay and Brian Cox was broadcast on the BBC.
Peter Hall directed an acclaimed production in 1993, starring Miriam Margolyes as Mrs Hardcastle. In 2012 Jamie Lloyd staged an acclaimed production at the National Theatre. The Guardian’s theatre critic Michael Billington concluded that, ‘It is its mixture of wit and warmth that keeps Goldsmith's comedy alive’.