She Stoops to Conquer is a comedy by the Irish author Oliver Goldsmith, son of an Anglo-Irish vicar, first performed in London in 1773. The play is a great favourite for study by English literature and theatre classes in Britain and the United States. It is one of the few plays from the 18th century to have an enduring appeal, and is still regularly performed today. It has been adapted into a film several times, including in 1914 and 1923. Initially the play was titled Mistakes of a Night, and indeed, the events within the play happen during the very limited time frame of one night.
Wealthy country man Mr. Hardcastle arranges for his daughter Kate to meet Charles Marlow, the son of a wealthy aristocrat, hoping the pair will marry. Unfortunately Marlow is nervous around upper-class women, yet the complete opposite around the lower-class females. On his first acquaintance with Kate, the latter realizes she will have to pretend to be common, to make marital relations with the man possible. Thus Kate stoops to conquer, by posing as a barmaid, hoping to put Marlow at his ease so he falls for her in the process.
One of the sub-plots to this is a comic misunderstanding between Hastings, Marlow and Mr. Hardcastle. Before his acquaintance with Kate, Marlow sets out for the Hardcastles' manor with his friend George Hastings, himself an admirer of Miss Constance Neville, another young lady who lives with the Hardcastles. During the journey, the two men become lost and stop off at The Three Pigeons pub for directions. Tony Lumpkin (the son of Mrs. Hardcastle and who will acquire a fortune when becoming of "age"), encounters the two strangers at the alehouse, and realizing their identities, plays a practical joke by telling them that they are a long way from their destination and will have to stay overnight at an inn. He furthers the joke by telling the twosome the Hardcastles' old house is the inn, thus the pair arrive and treat it as such, and also treat Hardcastle as the mere inn keeper. This leads to Hardcastle becoming both enraged and convinced that Marlow is inappropriate for his beloved Kate; he changes his mind when realizing the truth behind Marlow’s behavior.
Another sub-plot is that of the secret affair between Miss Neville and Hastings. Neville desperately wants her jewels that were left for her, and that are guarded by her aunt and Tony's mother, Mrs. Hardcastle; the latter wants Neville to marry her son to keep the jewels in the family. Tony despises Constance (Miss Neville), and thus agrees to steal his mother's jewels for Miss Neville, so she will then flee to France with Hastings.
The play concludes with Kate's plan succeeding, thus she and Marlow become engaged. Tony discovers he is of "age", despite his mother not telling him so, thus he receives the money he is entitled to. He refuses to marry Neville, who then is eligible to receive her jewels and to get engaged to Hastings; this she does.
The original production opened in London at Covent Garden Theatre on 15 March 1773 and was an immediate success. Lionel Brough is supposed to have played Tony Lumpkin 7,777 times. In 1881, Lillie Langtry had her first big success in the work.
"She Stoops to Conquer" was recently (Summer 2008) performed by the Oxford University Dramatic Society. The show toured around the country, finishing with a run at the Edinburgh Festival, and finished on the 17th of August 2008. Perhaps one of the most famous incarnations of "She Stoops to Conquer" was Peter Hall's version, staged in 1993 and starring Miriam Margolyes as Mrs. Hardcastle - another is the 1971 BBC version featuring Ralph Richardson, Tom Courtenay, Juliet Mills and Brian Cox, with Trevor Peacock as Tony Lumpkin - this version sits in the BBC archive and deserves a long awaited repeat showing on TV - it was shot on location near Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire, and is not just a filmed version of the stage play. In December 2008 an edited version of the musical (The Kissing Dance, edited by Howard Goodall) will be performed at Queen's College, Taunton.
The type of comedy She Stoops to Conquer is has been much disputed. However there is a consensus amongst audiences and critics that the play is a comedy of manners (see below for details). It can also be seen as one of the following comedy types:
When the play was first produced, it was discussed as an example of the revival of laughing comedy over the sentimental comedy seen as dominant on the English stage since the success of The Conscious Lovers, written by Sir Richard Steele in 1722. In the same year, an essay in a London magazine, entitled "An Essay On The Theatre; Or, A Comparison Between Laughing And Sentimental Comedy", suggested that sentimental comedy, a false form of comedy, had taken over the boards from the older and more truly comic laughing comedy.
Some theatre historians believe that the essay was written by Goldsmith as a puff piece for She Stoops to Conquer, as an exemplar of the laughing comedy Goldsmith (perhaps) had touted. Goldsmith's name was linked with that of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, author of The Rivals and The School for Scandal, as standard-bearers for the resurgent laughing comedy.
The play can also be seen as a comedy of manners, where, set in a polite society, the comedy arises from the gap between the characters' attempts to preserve standards of polite behaviour, that contrasts to their true behaviour.
It also seen by some critics as a romantic comedy, which depicts how seriously young people take love, and how foolishly it makes them behave (similar to Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream); in She Stoops to Conquer, Kate’s stooping and Marlow’s nervousness are good examples of romantic comedy.
Alternatively, it can be seen as a satire, where characters are presented as either ludicrous or eccentric. Such a comedy might leave the impression that the characters are either too foolish or corrupt to ever reform, hence Mrs Hardcastle.
The title refers to Kate's ruse of pretending to be a barmaid to reach her goal. It originates in the poetry of Dryden, which Goldsmith may have seen misquoted by Lord Chesterfield. In Chesterfield's version, the lines in question read:
"The prostrate lover, when he lowest lies, But stoops to conquer, and but kneels to rise." it is the first class comedy
The dramatic technique of the three Unities is employed by Goldsmith in She Stoops to Conquer to respectable degree.
The Unity of Action - This is the one Unity that Goldsmith does not rigorously follow; there is the inclusion of the Constance-Hastings eloping sub-plot that distracts from the main narrative of the play. However, it shares similar themes of relationships and what makes the best ones (mutual attraction or the arrangement of a parent or guardian). Furthermore, the sub-plot is inter-weaving with the main plot, for example, when Hastings and Marlow confront Tony regarding his mischief making.
The Unity of Time - The alternative title of Mistakes of the Night illustrates that the Unity of Time is carefully observed. With all of the events occurring in a single night, the plot becomes far more stimulating as well as more plausibility being lent to the series of unlucky coincidences that conspire against the visitors.
The Unity of Place - Whilst some may question whether She Stoops to Conquer contains the Unity of Place — after all, the scene at the "The Three Pigeons" is set apart from the house — but the similarity between the alehouse and the "old rumbling mansion, that looks all the world like an inn" is one of close resemblance; enough that in past performances, the scenes have often doubled up the use of the same set back drop. Also, there is some debate as to whether the excursion to "crackskull common" counts as a separate setting, but since the truth is that the travellers do not leave the mansion gardens, the Unity of Place is not violated.
There have been a number of film and television adaptations of the play over the years: