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i'll tell you what
14 february 2016
I'll Tell You What is a good clean dirty play from 230 years ago. I can find no record of a recent production, though the results of five minutes' Googling should never be invoked to prove a negative. But I think that Elizabeth Inchbald's bedroom comedy would work pretty well on a modern stage, perhaps pruned and shaped a little. Certainly its racy characters and sharp dialogue would still draw laughs in the 21st century.
Scholarship on Elizabeth Inchbald has proliferated in recent years. Her plays and novels are a mine of historical data regarding late 18th-century political and social concerns. I'll Tell You What has been somewhat neglected in this revival; it's not a very topical play and hardly needs footnotes. I'll Tell You What is standard battle-of-the-sexes stuff, with faithless wives, horny husbands, raised eyebrows, and a melodramatic turn or two.
The plot is just complicated enough. Mr. Anthony Euston is back in London from a trip to manage his estates in the West Indies. (Actually there are two Mr. Eustons, both uncles, both just back from the Caribbean, and that's one uncle too many; but it turns out not to be a plot point, just clutter.)
Anthony had been reported dead but is very much the reverse. Things are tense in the Euston family. Anthony has disinherited his only son for marrying below the Euston dignity. Meanwhile his nephew Sir George hasn't burnished that dignity much. Sir George has divorced his wife Lady Harriet and remarried, sending Lady Harriet off into a new marriage with her lover Major Cyprus.
The divorce/remarriage subplot occasions some hilarious misunderstanding for Anthony when he gets off the boat, but the best part in the play is Lady Harriet, who's starting to rue her decision to cheat on Sir George:
He is too fond of the pleasures of this life—Dear pleasures, which he wanted to retrench me in. (Act 1, Scene 2)At one point or another in the ensuing four acts, pretty much every element of the Euston/Cyprus romantic square wants to pair off with another (at least along hetero lines) and to go off in other directions simultaneously. Even a character named Sir Harry Harmless gets a love-note from the second Lady Euston.
Meanwhile Anthony is riding in a coach with a certain Lord Layton (who never actually appears on stage) when his lordship picks up a streetwalker. Anthony outbids the peer for her services – though he claims his intentions are chivalrous. He takes her home and discovers that she's the low woman that his son had married. Anthony experiences a change of heart, and redirects his legacy – though not before narrowly averting a challenge from his own son, incensed that somebody would try to pick his wife up for a trick.
All ends amicably enough, with the help of a convenient closet that shelters Lady Harriet's serial lovers. The one hook that this mild farce offers to new historicism is the fact that the elder characters are absentee slaveholders – but the hook is weakly baited, and there's not much politics here to snap at.
The 1987 University Press of America reprint edition was edited by Roger Manvell, just before his death. Manvell seems to have been a fairly amazing intellectual character – I wonder if he was all the same person. He had either a brand too few or several too many, being a leading expert on film history and technique, early women actors and playwrights, and illustrious Nazis.
Inchbald, Elizabeth. I'll Tell You What. 1785. In Selected Comedies. Edited by Roger Manvell. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1987. PR 3518 .A6