Love's Last Shift can be seen as an early sign of Cibber's sensitivity to shifts of public opinion, which was to be useful to him in his later career as manager at Drury Lane (see Colley Cibber). In the 1690s, the economic and political power balance of the nation tilted from the aristocracy towards the middle class after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and middle-class values of religion, morality, and gender roles became more dominant, not least in attitudes to the stage. Love's Last Shift is one of the first illustrations of a massive shift in audience taste, away from the analytic bent and sexual frankness of Restoration comedy and towards the conservative certainties and gender role backlash of exemplary or sentimental comedy. The play illustrates Cibber's opportunism at a moment in time before the change was assured: fearless of self-contradiction, he puts something into his first play to please every section of the audience, combining the old outspokenness with the new preachiness. The way Vanbrugh, in his turn, allows the reformed rake to relapse quite cheerfully, and has the only preaching in the play come from the comically corrupt parson of "Fatgoose Living", has made some early 20th-century critics refer to The Relapse as the last of the true Restoration comedies. However, Vanbrugh's play is also affected by the taste of the 1690s, and compared to a play like the courtier William Wycherley's The Country Wife of 20 years earlier, with its celebration of predatory aristocratic masculinity, The Relapse contains quite a few moments of morality and uplift. In fact it has a kind of parallel structure to Love's Last Shift: in the climactic scene of Cibber's play, Amanda's virtue reforms her husband, and in the corresponding scene of The Relapse, it reforms her admirer Worthy. Such moments have not done the play any favours with modern critics.
Love's Last Shift plot
Love's Last Shift is the story of a last "shift" or trick that a virtuous wife, Amanda, is driven to reform and retain her rakish husband Loveless. Loveless has been away for ten years, dividing his time between the brothel and the bottle, and no longer recognises his wife when he returns to London. Acting the part of a high-class prostitute, Amanda lures Loveless into her luxurious house and treats him to the night of his dreams, confessing her true identity in the morning. Loveless is so impressed that he immediately reforms. A minor part that was a great hit with the première audience is the fop Sir Novelty Fashion, written by Cibber for himself to play. Sir Novelty flirts with all the women, but is more interested in his own exquisite appearance and witticisms, and Cibber would modestly write in his autobiography 45 years later, "was thought a good portrait of the foppery then in fashion". Combining daring sex scenes with sentimental reconciliations and Sir Novelty's buffoonery, Love's Last Shift offered something for everybody, and was a great box-office hit.
The Relapse plot
Vanbrugh's The Relapse is less sentimental and more analytical than Love's Last Shift, subjecting both the reformed husband and the virtuous wife to fresh temptations, and having them react with more psychological realism. Loveless falls for the vivacious young widow Berinthia, while Amanda barely succeeds in summoning her virtue to reject her admirer Worthy. The three central characters, Amanda, Loveless, and Sir Novelty (ennobled by Vanbrugh into "Lord Foppington"), are the only ones that recur in both plays, the remainder of the Relapse characters being new.
In the trickster subplot, young Tom tricks his elder brother Lord Foppington out of his intended bride and her large dowry. This plot takes up nearly half the play and expands the part of Sir Novelty to give more scope for the roaring success of Cibber's fop acting. Recycling Cibber's merely fashion-conscious fop, Vanbrugh lets him buy himself a title and equips him with enough aplomb and selfishness to weather all humiliations. Although Lord Foppington may be "very industrious to pass for an ass", as Amanda remarks, he is at bottom "a man who Nature has made no fool" (II.i.148). Literary historians agree in esteeming him "the greatest of all Restoration fops" (Dobrée), "brutal, evil, and smart" (Hume).