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Spectacles and Pitfalls of Performance in The Man of Mode

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George Etherege’s The Man of Mode criticizes the rakish society in which it is set, yet is more critical of the foolishness and desperation that women display in pursuit of romantic love, as by-products of the rakish ideals. In particular, Bellinda and Mrs. Loveit employ performance and deception in romantic pursuits and become disempowered spectacles as a result. Although various characters exhibit theatrical behaviors in the play, these women fall victim to their own theatricality, as their deliberate performances within the narrative make them into central spectacles of the criticisms embodied by the play.

Bellinda and Dorimant set the play off with corresponding acts of deceptive performance culminating in eventual unequal degrees of censure for their actions. When Bellinda deceives Mrs. Loveit first through pretending to think Mrs. Loveit was the vizard entertaining Dorimant at the theatre the previous night, she stages the interaction with fluid conversation, directing it in such a way that Mrs. Loveit is unnecessarily distraught. This cruelty is heightened by the fact that Bellinda stresses Dorimant’s treatment of the “mask” was “with more respect than the gallants do a common vizard” and that both Bellinda and Dorimant claim to believe that the woman was Mrs. Loveit merely for their own convenience and amusement (McMillin 107). It is apparent that Bellinda aims to upset Mrs. Loveit more than necessary in order to carry out the deception when she tells her “Till the play was done, and then led her out; which confirms me it was you,” but prior to fooling Mrs. Loveit, Bellinda reveals in an aside that “nothing but love could make [her] capable of so much falsehood” (McMillin 107, 108). The confession equips Bellinda with human qualities so she can be sympathized with, but it also robs her character of dignity. She is portrayed as pathetic since she is aware of Dorimant’s tendencies—is willing to deceive her friend for him—yet is blinded by her feelings and rendered powerless against his motives. The fact that Bellinda wore the mask not only gave forth the impression of her coquetry and artificiality, but it made her into a spectacle, which is taken further when she and Bellinda publicly criticize his actions. Bellinda’s words “Do not think of clearing yourself with me. It is impossible. Do all men break their words thus” only make her look foolish for having believed him rather than harming his reputation (McMillin 163). In combination with her earlier run-ins with being exposed, this scene gives her character questionable morals as well as falseness.

Female powerlessness in the face of Dorimant’s whims is an implicit theme throughout. The first scene shows another invented role for Dorimant, in his letter to Mrs. Loveit. As he refers to her as a last resort, his letter that reads “I never was a lover of business, but now I have a just reason to hate it, since it has kept me these two days from seeing you” has the effect of creating satire surrounding his courtship rituals and the false persona he creates (McMillin 94). This scene criticizes the way Dorimant uses women which is emphasized by Medley’s statement that he “love[s] mischief well enough to forward this business [him]self” and also by Dorimant’s confession that he has not had the “pleasure” of upsetting a woman or making her sullen for three days (McMillin 94). However, this subtle critique is nowhere near as salient as the portrayal of Mrs. Loveit as erratic when she demands “Tell me, for I will know, what devil masked she was, you were with at the play yesterday” and cries “Horror and distraction seize you! Sorrow and remorse gnaw at your soul and punish all your perjuries to me” (McMillin 109). Mrs. Loveit’s reaction to Dorimant’s misogyny strikes the reader as outrageous and excessive; although she is showing honest emotion, the fury she evokes when she tears her fan into pieces and weeps, among Dorimant’s and Bellinda’s calculated deception and their relative calmness, becomes a spectacle more satiric than the earlier description of the very misogyny at work.

As a result of their respective theatrical acts as plots to counter the inevitability of Dorimant’s libertinism, Bellinda and Mrs. Loveit are depicted as vapid and as singularly focused on acquiring Dorimant’s love. These characterizations of the women also take into account that they know better than to continually seek out Dorimant’s affection, as they both explicitly state, for example, when Bellinda says “H’as given me the proof which I desired of his love; but ‘tis a proof of his ill nature too. I wish I had not seen him use her so” and when Mrs. Loveit says, “Oh, that my love would but be calm awhile, that I might receive this man with all the scorn and indignation he deserves” (McMillin 112, 151). Despite Mrs. Loveit’s awareness of Dorimant’s ill intentions and his past deception, her desire for Dorimant to have feelings for her causes her to use Sir Fopling as heedlessly as she would use a stage prop and to flirt with him to arouse Dorimant’s jealousy, which she admits shamelessly when she says “’Tis the strongest cordial we can give to dying love. It often brings it back when there’s no sign of life remaining” (McMillin 129). Mrs. Loveit takes such measures as molding her personality to be compatible with Sir Fopling’s by discussing fabrics and gloves and gossiping about “all the ill-fashioned things [they] meet” to provoke Dorimant’s jealousy (McMillin 130-31).

The degree of desperation that governs this performance is revealed when Mrs. Loveit and Dorimant have a subsequent argument and after telling Dorimant that she is indifferent towards him and she prefers Sir Fopling, she pleads with Dorimant to stay, saying “I hate that nauseous fool, you know I do” (McMillin 154). Since this betrays to Dorimant her intentions in engaging Sir Fopling that night, Mrs. Loveit resolves to quit the staging of her false feelings; again, because her feelings are intense, Mrs. Loveit is made to look like a fool, especially when Dorimant, with ambiguous intent, asks her to satisfy his love and she responds that she would “die to satisfy that” (McMillin 154). When Mrs. Loveit refuses to act out this role Dorimant suggests to salvage his vanity and ego, ironically, he calls Mrs. Loveit false and allows her to see that he is toying wit her emotions. Still, her jealousy of the supposed mysterious woman he was with cause her desire to “pluck her mask off, and expose her bare-faced to the world” (McMillin 154-56). Mrs. Loveit’s anger and “restlessness” is genuine, yet she strikes the reader and Bellinda as volatile and her emotional responses are conveyed as potentially humorous. Her sincerity, since she is not composed, causes her feelings to be exposed repeatedly and made into social critique. It also renders her silent in the end, when Harriet mocks her fixation on Dorimant, calling him Mrs. Loveit’s “God almighty;” Harriet’s condescending insult echoes societal judgment, solidifying it as the perspective for the narrative (McMillin 165). These women, because of the goals of their theatrical endeavors, are portrayed as narrowly focused, as relentlessly devoid of self-respect, and self-interested at the expense of others. They are the epitome of women fallen and rendered voiceless to the male-dominated libertine society.

Dorimant escapes a similar depiction even though he is more false and more characteristically ill intentioned than Mrs. Loveit and Bellinda. Although he is immersed in a misogynistic lifestyle, such a role in a man is more widely accepted than the role of a sightless or fallen woman. Since Dorimant does not turn himself into a spectacle, he is able to live his life unhindered. There are glimpses of punishment for Dorimant that suggest that his theatrical tendencies—such as over-stating his regard for certain women, being implicit in deceiving them for sport, and pretending to be Mr. Courtage to win the favor of Harriet’s mother—are shameful. However, his misfortunes are few and short-lived. While Dorimant invokes theatricality for courtship, like the women, this quality is more accepted in a man, perhaps because his focus is less singular, and people see him as less desperate. Dorimant’s jealousy when he sees Sir Fopling and Mrs. Loveit together serves as a repercussion for deceiving Mrs. Loveit, but he retains a superior stance because she all but admits that her actions were to provoke him (McMillin 130, 154). Bellinda and Mrs. Loveit were degraded to foolishness and insipidity by their performances in respect to Dorimant, whereas Dorimant’s performances had a neutral influence over his reputation and affairs. However, Harriet, in connection with Dorimant, manipulated theatricality to her advantage and redeemed Dorimant’s character.

Harriet employed mimicry and performance as a means of separating herself from the typical members of society that she was among and simultaneously drawing Dorimant to her, which glorified them both by association. Within the narrative of the play, her manipulations of theatricality always successfully diverted any of the corrupt attention from influencing her character, diverted an undesired marriage, and she stands as the model of empowerment through careful use of performance. Harriet is never a spectacle, although her bold use of imitation as commentary on Dorimant’s behavior proved an enigmatic method of attracting him to her. Harriet is the antithesis of artificiality and falsehood as evidenced by her criticisms on the dissolute society, such as when she tells Young Bellair “He’s agreeable and pleasant, I must own, but he does so much affect being so, he displeases me” (McMillin 124). Harriet’s very perception of the affectation present in Dorimant is what makes her desirable to him. The narrative progresses in such a way that, although ultimately the patriarchal atmosphere of the setting is the reason for women to fall to obsessing over courtly love like Mrs. Loveit and Bellinda do, Harriet is admired for her individuality among the others. Along with this uniqueness comes a common tendency for her to imitate actions to serve various purposes, namely, to pretend there is a flirtation between her and Young Bellair so that they can outsmart their relatives, and to call out Dorimant for displaying artifices (McMillin 116, 126). As Harriet is starkly contrasted against the other women, her purposes for performance of this kind are nearly opposite theirs. In mocking Dorimant’s affectations and having sound distance from and resistance to Dorimant’s charms, Harriet is able to reach him in a way no other woman can. When Harriet accuses Dorimant of begging “the ladies’ good liking with a sly softness in [his] looks and a gentle slowness in [his] bows,” her complete lack of artifices surfaces as the only force that can redeem his character somewhat, so that he doesn’t end up dissipated, the way Mrs. Loveit and Bellinda are damaged (McMillin 126). Her unique perspective and her resistance to immersion in the cultural atmosphere deflect the potential for her theatricality to represent the play’s core critiques.

The play suggests that women’s deliberate use of theatricality for courtship by means of artifices or disguises degrades them and turns them into spectacles. While Harriet has individuality and certain related merits, the enigmatic role she plays by virtue of being so oppositional to the other women degrades them further. Since her theatrical intentions are carried out cleverly and discerningly, she is a heroine among the corrupt. She will not fall into spectacle like Mrs. Loveit and Bellinda, and her use of performance, instead, empowers herself and Dorimant, redeeming his character from his prior pitfalls that the society partially condemns and partially accepts. Although it cannot be exclusively attributed to one character, Mrs. Loveit’s and Bellinda’s final silence is aggravated by all of the events that suggest women must marry and be validated by a man, yet condemn women who focus too exclusively on such matters.

Works Cited:

McMillin, Scott. Restoration and Eighteenth-century Comedy. New York: W.W. Norton &, 1997. Print.

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