The Comical Revenge: Or, Love in a Tub, pr., pb. 1664
She Would if She Could, pr., pb. 1668
The Man of Mode: Or, Sir Fopling Flutter, pr., pb. 1676
The New Academy of Complements, 1669
A Collection of Poems, Written upon Several Occasions, 1673
Restoration Carnival, 1954 (V. De Sola Pinto, editor)
Poems, 1963 (James Thorpe, editor)
The Letterbook of Sir George Etherege, 1928 (Sybil Rosenfeld, editor)
Letters of Sir George Etherege, 1973
The Works of Sir George Etherege: Containing His Plays and Poems, 1704
The Works of Sir George Etherege: Plays and Poems, 1888 (A. W. Verity, editor)
Sir George Etherege (EHTH-uh-rihj) is one of those intriguing figures in history about whom biographers, literary historians, and other scholars wish they knew more. Only a few facts covering a relatively short period in his life are known. He was born about 1635, the second child and first son of George Etherege and Mary Powney of the Thames village of Maidenhead. Sometime in the year of young George’s birth the elder George became the purveyor to Queen Henrietta Maria, whom he followed into exile in France in 1644, leaving his wife and children in the care of his own father. It is possible that young George spent some time in France with his father before the latter’s death in September, 1650. Tradition suggests that the future playwright attended Cambridge briefly, but no evidence exists to support that idea.
Better documented are the four years from 1654 to 1658 that George Etherege spent as a law apprentice to George Gosnold of Beaconsfield in Buckinghamshire. Gosnold’s influence helped Etherege to gain admission to study law at Clement’s Inn in London, and Etherege began his formal law studies on February 19, 1659. There is no information about his activities for the next five years, although textual evidence in his plays suggests that he may have been in Paris for a time and that he availed himself of the opportunity to attend the theater in London.
Etherege’s first play, The Comical Revenge: Or Love in a Tub, was first produced in 1664 (probably in March) at the Duke’s Playhouse in London. More successful than any previous comedy in Restoration England, the play is considered by scholars to be the first comedy distinctly in the tradition of the Restoration period, when Charles II was on the British throne. The accent of the play is on wittiness, and the theme is a “war” between the sexes.
In the years that followed Etherege became a figure of some notoriety in Restoration London. A compatriot of Sir Charles Sedley and the infamous Lord Rochester, both notorious rakes and scoundrels, Etherege cut a wide swath as a beau and wit, almost like one of the characters in a comedy of the times. He is thought to have had a love affair with the well-known actress Mrs. Barry, and she and he allegedly had a daughter.
The year 1668 proved a period of much activity for Etherege. On February 6, his second play, She Would if She Could, opened at the Duke’s Playhouse. Samuel Pepys and Thomas Shadwell both record that Etherege was unhappy with the poor acting exhibited by the cast; certainly the play was not the success that Etherege’s first attempt had been. In July of the same year Etherege was sworn a Gentleman of the Privy Chamber in Ordinary; in August he left for Constantinople as secretary to Sir Daniel Harvey. In 1671 Etherege traveled to Paris, and by 1673, or perhaps earlier, he was back in London.
No records exist for Etherege’s activities from 1671 to 1676. In March, 1676, his third play, The Man of Mode: Or, Sir Fopling Flutter, opened at the Dorset Garden Theatre and was a great success, enjoying revivals on the London stage until the 1750’s. Sometime later in 1676 Etherege was involved with Lord Rochester (on whom the main character in The Man of Mode was based) in a brawl with the watchmen at Epsom.
Etherege was knighted in 1679. Later that year he married Mary Sheppard Arnold, the wealthy widow of a successful London attorney. Although the marriage apparently was not a love match, Etherege corresponded regularly with his wife while he was away on his diplomatic missions. Rumor at the time said that he had either bought his title to win her or that he was given the title as a reward by the king for having done so.
In 1685 he was appointed British ambassador to the Diet of the Empire at Ratisbon, and from his letters written while in that official capacity come most of the information known of him. These documents indicate that he was tolerant and well-mannered–too tolerant and well-mannered to become a great diplomat or a great playwright; he adopted the pose at least of a man who shunned enthusiasms. In 1689 George Etherege left Ratisbon to join the exiled King James of England in Paris. What he did for the next three years is unclear, but he almost certainly remained in France.
On May 10, 1692, according to the testimony of a nephew who had remained in touch with Etherege, “Sr. George Etherege dyed without Issue.” In many ways Etherege was typical of the man-about-town, the loyal courtier of Charles II. He invented the comedy of intrigue, but others developed it. Perhaps money, fame, and women came too easily for him. Certainly his contemporaries all admitted that he was an affable and good-natured companion, for which they nicknamed him “Gentle George” and “Easy Etherege.”