George Farquhar

George FarquharGeorge Farquhar, the successor of Wycherley and Congreve, was the son of an Irish clergyman, Londonderry being his native city and Trinity college, Dublin, his alma mater. He was entered as a sizar or servitor, a class of poor scholars, who were compelled to wear a peculiar dress and perform menial offices. These are no longer exacted from their successors, but Goldsmith, sixty years after Farquhar's admission, had to submit to the same humiliations--to sweep out the college courts, to carry up the fellow's dinner to table, and to wait in the hall till the fellows had dined. It certainly implied a contradiction, as Goldsmith observed, for men to be "at once learning the liberal arts, and at the same time treated as slaves," and neither in the case of Farquhar nor of Goldsmith was the system attended with favorable results. The former soon broke away from his studies, attached himself to a strolling company of players, and after a single season appeared as an actor on the Dublin stage. He had the advantage of a good person, though with a weak voice, but was timid and sensitive, and an accident which happened to him when he had only been a twelvemonth on the boards made him resolve to quit the profession. When performing the part of Guyomar in Dryden's Indian Emperor, he had omitted to exchange his sword for a foil, and in a fencing scene wounded a brother performer so severely that his life was endangered. Farquhar never again returned to the stage. The earl of Orrery gave him a lieutenancy in his regiment then in Ireland, and as a soldier Farquhar is said to have given proofs of his courage and good conduct, though none are recorded. Even in his own letters, written from Holland at this time, no mention is made of his military services. In the reports of his superior officers, however, there is nothing to his discredit.

The Constant Couple

While yet a minor Farquhar appeared as a dramatist, producing his comedy of Love and a Bottle at Drury Lane when twenty years of age. Its success far exceeded his expectations, and his next comedy, The Constant Couple, was still more favorably received. Wilks, a popular comedian and a special friend of Farquhar's, by his performance of the part of Sir Harry Wildair contributed very much to the popularity of the play. "He made the part," says Farquhar; but it was the lively acting of the beautiful Peggy Woffington, and the glee and spirit which Mrs. Jordan afterward threw into it, which gave Sir Harry Wildair a permanent foothold on the stage, his strong animal spirits and untamable vivacity recommending him, for more than a century, to the play-going public.

Sir Harry Wildair

As a sequel to The Constant Couple, Farquhar brought out Sir Harry Wildair, with the acting of Wilks again a strong attraction; but like all continuations--that of Don Quixote alone excepted--the second part was far inferior to the first. Leigh Hunt tells us that Mrs. Oldfield performed to perfection the character of the heroine, Lady Lurewell. It is even said that she took to the stage by Farquhar's advice, and certain it is that she played in the two last and best of his comedies. For a time Mrs. Oldfield became the theatrical idol of the day; her exquisite acting and ladylike carriage were the delight of her contemporaries, and her beauty and generosity found innumerable eulogists--

Engaging Oldfield, who, with grace and ease,
Could join the arts to ruin and to please.

In 1702 Farquhar published a volume of "Miscellanies"--poems, letters and a discourse on comedy. The poems are below mediocrity and the letters are written in the overstrained style of gallantry and smartness which was then fashionable and considered witty. In one he gives a lady a picture of himself, "drawn from the life." His mind, he says, was generally dressed, like his person, in black; he was taken for an easy-natured man by his own sex, and an ill-natured clown by the ladies; strangers had a worse opinion of him than he deserved, but this was recompensed by the opinion of his acquaintance, which was above his desert. Self-portraiture is seldom faithful, but we may conclude from this outline that the young dramatist was somewhat grave and reserved, and wanting in address for general society. He was liveliest with the pen in his hand. The discourse on comedy is more worthy of the author than his poems or letters. In it he defends the English disregard of the dramatic unities. "The rules of English comedy," he says, "don't lie in the compass of Aristotle or his followers, but in the pit, box and galleries." Soon Farquhar had another comedy on the stage--The Inconstant, or the Way to Win Him--the hint of which, he says, he took from Fletcher's Wild Goose Chase, but was charged with spoiling the original. The poetry of Fletcher certainly evaporates when its scenes are transmuted into the prose dialogue of Farquhar.

Farquhar's Wife

About this time the dramatist was betrayed into what was perhaps the greatest blunder of his life. A lady conceived a violent passion for him, and, though penniless like himself, contrived to circulate a report that she was possessed of a large fortune. Farquhar snapped at the gilded bait. He married the lady, and found too late that he had been deceived. It is related, however, that he had the magnanimity to pardon a deception which must have appeared a compliment to his genius, and in truth there was something to forgive on his own part for having been so readily entrapped, contrary to all the rules of love and drama. Increased exertion, however, was necessary, and in 1704 he produced The Stage Coach, a piece which he adapted from the French, in conjunction with Anthony Motteux, a clever playwright and essayist, and remarkable as having, though a Frenchman, given to the world the best English translation of Don Quixote. Three more comedies were written before Farquhar's career was sadly closed at the age of thirty--The Twin Rivals, The Recruiting Officer and The Beaux Stratagem. The last two are vastly superior to Farquhar's other plays, and are the works by which he is now remembered.

The Beaux Stratagem was written in six weeks, while death was impending over its author. Before he had finished the second act he knew that he was stricken with a mortal illness, but it was necessary to persevere to be "consumedly lively" to the end; for he had received in advance £30 for the copyright. The play was brought on the stage, and Farquhar lived to have his third night, as was the custom, and an extra benefit on the day, it is said, when he died. He left his two children to the care of his friend Wilks, to whom he writes:

"Dear Bob: I have nothing to leave thee to perpetuate my memory but two helpless girls. Look upon them sometimes and think of him that was to the last moment of his life thine,


Wilks obtained a benefit for the dramatist's widow, and the daughters had each a pension of £30 a year, which one of them was receiving as late as 1764.

Farquhar's Works

The plots of Farquhar's comedies are skillfully conducted and evolved; his situations are well chosen and his dialogues are full of life and spirit. To the polished wit and brilliancy of Congreve he has no pretension. His scenes are light and sketchy, and his characters altogether on a lower level than Congreve's, but they are quite equal to them in stage effect. He has also several distinct and original characters which long charmed on the stage, while the incidents with which they are mixed--the unexpected encounters, adventures, artifices and disguises--are irresistibly comic and attractive in representation. Pope considered Farquhar a mere farce writer, while Goldsmith, who evidently adopted him as a model, preferred him to Congreve. On the stage, with good actors, he might be so preferred, but never in the library. He had the advantage of being less licentious than Congreve, for he was the cleanest comic writer of his age. Love intrigues then formed the chief business of comedy, and in the management of them the homely domestic virtues that form the happiness and cement of society were disregarded or made the subject of ridicule.

†This article was originally published in The Drama: Its History, Literature and Influence on Civilization, vol XIV ed. Alfred Bates. New York: Historical Publishing Company, 1906. pp. 128-134.

Farquhar's Plays  |  Biographies


Farquhar's Plays


Related Sites

George Farquhar

George Farquhar: Poems

Related Playwrights

William Congreve

John Dryden

William Wycherley

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