The Virtuoso
by Thomas Shadwell
  

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

first staged in London, 1676

Henry Herringman: London, 1676
vi + 88 pages

scholarly edition —
edited by Marjorie Hope Nicolson
  & David Stuart Rodes
University of Nebraska Press: Lincoln, 1956
xxvi + 153 pages

April 2012

  
Wit versus the Scientific Revolution

For anyone interested in the Scientific Revolution as it unfolded in the Seventeenth Century, and in stage plays combining wit and ideas, The Virtuoso by Thomas Shadwell would seem an ideal confluence. Marjorie Hope Nicolson, an expert on such confluences in the period, finds in this example of Restoration Comedy a revealing satire on the Royal Society and its pioneering scientists. Unfortunately to me the play is an almost total disappointment.

Let's take the wit first. Even setting aside Shakespeare, in the long line of humorous dialogue from Aristophanes to Shaw, as a playwright Shadwell does not come within view, let alone within quipping distance. His would-be witty characters are oafs who scarcely broach the surface of buffoonery.

The play's ostensible subject of the Scientific Revolution provides some glimmers of historical interest. A Virtuoso here is an early collector-experimenter, a man of universal curiosity, pushing back the frontiers of knowledge in dozens of random directions with experiments and theories each of which vies to be more ridiculous than the next. Sir Nicholas Gimcrack's every study-collection is presented as foolish, his every "discovery" is an outrage to common sense. In fact, he shows no sign of Francis Bacon's scientific method. He is sincere, but it is all deployed strictly for audience laughs.

The premier example of this pseudo-science is the scene wherein the Virtuoso is lying upon a table, "tied with a packthread" to a frog in a basin, and using impulses conveyed from the frog as it swims, moving his own arms and legs in the air and thus teaching himself to swim. His spectrum of interests runs from spiders to inter-species blood transfusions to the conflicts of the inhabited countries in the Moon.
  

Most of the plot has to do with two young couples in a crossed-romance, their plans buffeted by the would-be wits. Unfortunately, there are no likable characters aside from the two young women who haven't much to do. There is some disguise and sneaking around, some slapstick, plenty of (to me) tiresome dialogue.
  

In both a "Dedication" and a poetic "Prologue", Thomas Shadwell brags at length on the quality of his play and especially of its wit. "For wit ... should long buried lie / Before it ripens to good comedy ... " Long past ripe, I say, and hardly worth exhuming. The Virtuoso was popular on the stage when new, and had several print editions. Marjorie Nicolson notes that it apparently was last acted professionally in 1705.

  

  
© 2012 Robert Wilfred Franson


  
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