The Relapse, or, Virtue in Danger

Stage history

The desperate straits of the United Company, and the success of The Relapse in saving it from collapse, are attested in a private letter from 19 November 1696: "The other house [Drury Lane] has no company at all, and unless a new play comes out on Saturday revives their reputation, they must break." The new play is assumed to have been The Relapse, and it turned out the success Rich needed. "This play", notes Colley Cibber in his autobiography, "from its new and easy turn of wit, had great success, and gave me, as a comedian, a second flight of reputation along with it." Charles Gildon summarises: "This play was received with mighty applause."

The Relapse is singled out for particular censure in the Puritan clergyman Jeremy Collier's anti-theatre pamphlet Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage (1698), which attacks its lack of poetic justice and moral sentiment. Worthy and Berinthia, complains Collier, are allowed to enact their wiles against the Lovelesses' married virtue without being punished or losing face. The subplot is an even worse offence against religion and morality, as it positively rewards vice, allowing the trickster hero Tom to keep the girl, her dowry, and his own bad character to the end. Vanbrugh failed to take Short View seriously and published a joking reply,[9] but Collier's censure was to colour the perception of the play for centuries. While it remained a popular stage piece through the 18th century, much praised and enjoyed for its wit, attitudes to its casual sexual morality became increasingly ambivalent as public opinion became ever more restrictive in this area, and more at odds with the permissive ethos of Restoration comedy. From 1777 Vanbrugh's original was replaced on the stage by Sheridan's A Trip to Scarborough, a close adaptation but with some "covering", as the prologue explains, drawn over Vanbrugh's "too bare" wit:

As change thus circulates throughout the nation,
Some plays may justly call for alteration;
At least to draw some slender covering o'er,
That graceless wit which was too bare before.

Sheridan does not allow Loveless and Berinthia to consummate their relationship, and he withdraws approval from Amanda's admirer Worthy by renaming him "Townly". Some frank quips are silently deleted, and the matchmaker Coupler with the lecherous interest in Tom becomes decorous Mrs Coupler. A small-scale but notable loss is of much of the graphic language of Hoyden's nurse, who is earthy in Vanbrugh's original, genteel in Sheridan. However, Sheridan had an appreciation of Vanbrugh's style, and retained most of the original text unaltered.

In the 19th century, A Trip to Scarborough remained the standard version, and there were also some ad hoc adaptations that sidelined the Lovelesses' drawing-room comedy in favour of the Lord Foppington/Hoyden plot with its caricatured clashes between exquisite fop and pitchfork-wielding country bumpkins.[10] The Man of Quality (1870) was one such robust production, Miss Tomboy (1890) another. Vanbrugh's original Relapse was staged once, in 1846, at the Olympic Theatre in London.

During the first half of the 20th century The Relapse was relatively neglected, along with other Restoration drama, and experts are uncertain about exactly when Vanbrugh's original again resurged to prominence on the stage and thereby marginalised Sheridan's version. These experts now believe the play may have been first brilliantly rehabilitated by Anthony Quayle's 1947 production at the Phoenix Theatre, starring Cyril Ritchard as Lord Foppington and brought to Broadway by Ritchard in 1950.[11] A musical version, Virtue in Danger (1963), by Paul Dehn and "John Bernard", opened to mixed reviews. John Russell Taylor in Plays and Players praised the cast, which included Patricia Routledge as Berinthia and John Moffatt as Lord Foppington, but complained that the production was "full of the simpering, posturing and sniggering which usually stand in for style and sophistication in Restoration revivals."[12] Following Donald Sinden's outstanding and award-winning performance at the Aldwych Theatre in the mid-1970s Vanbrugh's original play is now again a favourite of the stage. A 2001 revival by Trevor Nunn at the National Theatre was described by Sheridan Morley as "rare, loving and brilliantly cast." As so often with commentary on The Relapse, Morley focused on the role of Lord Foppington and its different interpretations: "Alex Jennings superbly inherits the role of Lord Foppington which for 20 years or so belonged to Donald Sinden, and for another 20 before that to Cyril Ritchard."[13]

Restoration Comedy, a play by Amy Freed that draws on both The Relapse and its predecessor, Colley Cibber's Love's Last Shift, premiered at Seattle Repertory Theatre in 2005, starring Stephen Caffrey as Loveless, Caralyn Kozlowski as Amanda, and Jonathan Freeman as Lord Foppington, and directed by Sharon Ott.[14]

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