The Conscious Lovers by Richard Steele is a play about young love. Basically Lucinda Sealand has three suitors and is a very desirable bride because of her family's good social standing and her father's fortune. All sorts of drama ensues during her courtship because the parents all want their children to marry people in whom the kids have no interest. Myrtle is the one who really loves Lucinda, but he can't marry her because he's too poor. When the girl who Bevil Jr. -- one of the suitors -- loves is discovered to be the long-lost daughter of Mr. Sealand, she suddenly stands to inherit half of his fortune. Now she and Lucinda are equally valuable brides, but Lucinda is finally able to marry Myrtle. Bevil Jr. is allowed to marry Indiana, his true love. And Cimberton is returned to his youthful ignorance without the pressure of an impending marriage.
Steel's basic purpose in writing the play is to combat the indulgent comedy of the age. The Conscious Lovers premiered in 1722. During that time, so-called Restoration drama had taken hold of European theater. In these plays, characters engaged in all sorts of greedy and wicked behavior in order to provide comic relief for the audience members who enjoyed these foolish depictions of what not to do. Born and raised in Ireland, Steele has a distaste for this sort of superficial, disgusting theater. With The Conscious Lovers he introduces the world to sentimental comedy, a genre characterized by virtue. Steele is trying to depict good role models while relying upon plot points for humor, a direct defiance of the significantly easier to write Restoration dramas. The play was not an instant success nor perfect as critics have long accused Steele of mistaking common sense for moral virtue. Nevertheless audiences were challenged by the ideas presented in this play, and Steele's popularity resulted in many more dramatic contributions.
In keeping with his commitment to presenting a sort of purified comedy, Steele turned to history for help. He adapts his play from Terence's The Woman of Andros, an old Greek play. Knowing that his audience would be familiar with this play, Steele is intentionally referencing the ancient arts. This was a common practice in the 18th century. Critics have observed, however, that Steele's version adequately captures the stern intensity of the Greek play. This is Steele's true advantage and contribution to the genre, a return to sincerity.