The other Belle's Stratagem
By Michael Caines
The story goes – if I haven't muddled my theatrical anecdotes of the eighteenth century – that when Goldsmith decided he would call his new play She Stoops To Conquer, his friend Sir Joshua Reynolds suggested an alternative . . . .
The Belle's Stratagem. Sir Joshua was insistent about it, in (vaguely remembered) fact. If the play wasn't retitled according to his wishes, he would turn up on the opening night and heckle or hiss (I might have invented that alliterative threat; he probably threatened to "damn" the play).
In the event, Goldsmith stuck to his guns, and his allusion to Dryden: She Stoops To Conquer, "low" humour and all, turned out to be a great success; and a few years later, The Belle's Stratagem would actually be used by another playwright, Hannah Cowley.
Cowley's Belle's Stratagem was recently revived at the Southwark Playhouse, and I wrote then that I thought 2011 had been a good year for eighteenth-century drama (and that it didn't take much to make it a good year for eighteenth-century drama . . .).
But, as if I need to ask, what do I know? Now it's 2012, and it's Goldsmith's turn: She Stoops To Conquer opens tonight at the National Theatre. That's followed shortly by The Recruiting Officer by George Farquhar at the Donmar Warehouse. And there's even, for one night only, The Clandestine Marriage (1766) by David Garrick and George Colman the Elder in a semi-staged reading at Dr Johnson's House.
That's all good news, I think, but I have a particular interest in the Goldsmith play because I've had the privilege of working as one of the historical consultants for the NT's production, which meant, apart from anything else, sitting in on the first couple of days of rehearsal, seeing the model box, meeting the cast (as embedded, above), and losing my way backstage – so I have an idea about how much excellent work had already gone into the production before rehearsals even started.