Englishman from Paris: A Farce

One of the benefits of working on older books for Distributed Proofreaders is that they give glimpses into the popular culture of their time. Judging from the English farce The Englishman from Paris by Arthur Murphy, the year 1756 was a time of effeminate fops in France and xenophobic hooligans in Britain. No one looked good in this farce, but then that is normal for farces.

The play was made available to us through The Augustan Reprint Society, which reprinted the play in 1969, along with an introduction by Simon Trefman. That introduction tells about the checkered past of this play that had its “first and last performance at Drury Lane on 3 April 1756.”

He was going to write a sequel to one of Foote’s plays, The Englishman in Paris (C. G. 24 March 1753), a popular farce that satirized the boorish antics of a English squire in a country where politeness is the mode. Murphy’s idea was to show this blood returned to England as a Frenchified effeminate fop at odds with his family and former friends. Foote listened closely as Murphy gave him the plot and even some of the dialogue. Then, thinking that no one had a better right to a sequel than the author of the original, Foote, keeping his own counsel, wrote The Englishman Return’d From Paris in time for the new season.

Simon Trefman discusses how, despite similarities that cause Murphy to accuse Foote of plagiarism, there were substantial differences between the two plays.

Interestingly enough, Murphy’s sequel is based on different characters from those appearing in Foote’s play, but it is closer in spirit to the original than Foote’s own sequel. Murphy’s is an ironic and gentle comedy that at first glance seems to be chauvinistically anti-French and pro-English, reflecting public sentiment prior to the outbreak of the Seven-Years’ War with France. Though the climax of the plot is the fop’s rejection of French affectations (and Murphy made sure that the French dogs did not get the best of it), English brutality and intolerance are also exposed; and care is taken that nothing irrevocable is done so that there is room for reformation on both sides.

So how was the play as comedy? It is hard to tell from the printed page. Comedy is best seen acted, instead of read on a printed page or on a computer screen. There are moments where I could see what a good set of actors could do with this material. For instance, there is the Philosopher/teacher who plots against his student:

Florid. (Alone) I have already fixed a ridiculous Aposiation of Ideas in my young Pupil’s Mind concerning Marriage. If I can bring him to decline it, I shall see whether I can’t awaken Miss Harriet’s Affections in my own behalf—I have almost finish’d a short Treatise upon Beauty, which I shall dedicate to her. I must make all I can of this family; and then the pleasures of Imagination will strike the Internal Sense with a finer Impulse, when some Ideas of Property concur.

There is the Country Squire who discounts the advantages of foreign travel with the comment:

Quicksett. I don’t know that Sir Robert; I have seen a great many hopefull, promising young Men, come home such mere Ragouts. I’ll tell you what, Sir Robert—I was hugely pleas’d with one Inscription I once read in a country church-yard. “Here lies John Trott, an honest Man who was never out of his own Country.”

And there is the “hero” Jack, who spouts:

Jack. This Eyebrow is very obstinate today, here La Fleur, arch my Eyebrow. Tell my Lady Betty that I am so deranged by these People, that I must now go and take the Air to recover my Spirits—and tell my Lady Betty if she will come to the Park, we will entertain ouselves with a little Raillery upon the Mob of English Gentlemen. It is well observed by one of the wits of France that few People know how to take a walk, I’ll shew them how to walk. Plus belle que l’Aurora.

Of course, right after this, the mob doesn’t react with the admiration and respect he was expecting, and he barely escapes an angry mob only because they are diverted with beating up on a pickpocket.

And of course there is the unbelievable change in character, as the hero gives up his foolishness:

Jack. You must, Sir, and when you are arriv’d, divest yourself of your Prejudices; don’t follow the Example of Voltaire and Abbé Le Blanc, but dare to speak the Truth. Tell your countrymen you heard here of a King determin’d to prosecute a vigorous War, but more desirous of an honorable Peace—tell ’em we have Ministers who understand the true Interest of their country, and are determin’d to maintain the just rights of Great Britain—tell ’em that plain good Sense, honor, honesty, and a regard for our word, are the characteristicks of the English Nation—and tell ’em the most ridiculous object you saw in this country is a Frenchify’d Englishman.

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