SHE STOOPS TO CONQUER" IN PHILADELPHIA
For the past two centuries, She Stoops to Conquer has been making theatre audiences around the world laugh. Theatregoers at Philadelphia's Walnut Theatre will be next in line to echo the cheers when Oliver Goldsmith's comedy is performed March 2 through April 14.
She Stoops to Conquer is full of comic energy, springing from a classic case of mistaken identity. The mischief-maker behind the confusion is Tony Lumpkin, a lovable buffoon who keeps the play moving at a rollicking pace. One of Tony's pranks causes a young man named Marlow to mistake a gentleman's house for an inn, and the man's daughter for a barmaid. Unknown to Marlow, this is the very young woman he is supposed to marry!
It's the first of many hilarious misunderstandings and the impetus for non-stop fun. Goldsmith's closest friend, writer Samuel Johnson, said, "I know of no comedy for many years that has so much exhilarated an audience, that has answered so much the great end of comedy -- making an audience merry . . ."
Although She Stoops to Conquer is now considered a classic, the play almost didn't make it to the stage. Johnson, to whom Goldsmith dedicated the piece, pushed hard for its production at Covent Garden, where it opened in May, 1773.The difficulty in getting She Stoops to Conquer staged stemmed from the fact it was vastly different from "sentimental" comedies of the day. Sentimental comedy was characterized by an emphasis on morality, the false notion that the good are always rewarded and the bad always punished. In this play, Goldsmith does not preach or judge. There are really no "bad guys." Basically, everyone means well and all mistakes are forgiven in the end.
Sentimental comedy was also known for high-brow, overdone language, but Goldsmith's dialogue was clear and simple.
At first, leading ladies of his day absolutely refused to play the heroine, Kate Hardcastle, because the dialog did not allow them to show off their talents for long, flowery speeches. Kate was a new kind of heroine for Goldsmith's day. Charming without being overly sentimental, and Kate remains a lady, even when stooping to assume the disguise of a barmaid. Some of Goldsmith's contemporaries considered Kate too vulgar!
Because it was expected to be a flop, the play's first production at Covent Garden in London was a half-hearted affair: the play was added as an afterthought to the end of the season and the props and costumes were second-rate.
But opening night was a rousing success -- nearly spoiled by too much applause! Even King George III gave it his stamp of approval. She Stoops to Conquer has been performed all over the world since, with many famous stars in the cast: Charles Kemble, Lily Langtree, Helen Hayes, Michael Redgrave, Celeste Holm and Burl Ives, to name a few.
The upcoming Walnut production will be staged by British director Bob Carlton, who made his American debut last spring at the Walnut with the hit musical Lust. Rodney Ford, who was also part of the Lust creative team, will design the set and colorful period costumes for She Stoops to Conquer.
It seems that time has been Goldsmith's best revenge against his detractors of long ago. The popularity of She Stoops to Conquer has only increased. As one critic said in 1982, "Like a good inn, it is clean, warm and funny ... The production never stoops, the play conquers'."
Tickets for She Stoops to Conquer are now on sale. For tickets and information, call 215/574-3550, ext. 4, from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week.
-- By Ira Kamens