The more I got to know this play, the more I was convinced that Act 5 rather sneaked up on the author, Oliver Goldsmith. It seemed to me that he reached the fifth act with all his plots lines and sub-plots neatly woven into a multi-coloured cloak of confusion, misunderstanding, social satire and general good-natured mayhem and then realised that it was time to bring it all to an end, so that his audiences could make their way through the darkened streets of London before midnight.
So… back to the story.
Kate Hardcastle has promised Sir Charles that if he and her papa should conceal themselves behind a screen, they would see for themselves the ardour of Marlow’s love for her. When the play was originally produced in 1773, there was obviously plenty of room for a screen in Hardcastle’s drawing room.
The Brighton Little Theatre had to think of a more creative and space saving place for the two old gentlemen to hide themselves while they eves-dropped on the conversation between Marlow and Kate.
So as Marlow professes his undying devotion to Kate…
… the portrait of the two old friends that has hung at the back of the stage since the beginning of the play suddenly opens to reveal the two astonished listeners.
To compound poor Marlow’s embarrassment, Hardcastle and Sir Charles come on stage to seek further explanations and to bring matters to a head. Sir Charles is mightily confused.
SIR CHARLES: (to his son Marlow) Charles, how hast thou deceived me! Is this your indifference, your uninteresting conversation.
HARDCASTLE: What have you to say now?
MARLOW: That I’m all amazement! What can it mean?
HARDCASTLE: It means that you can say and unsay things at pleasure. That you can address a lady in private and deny it in public. That you have one story for us and another for my daughter.
MARLOW: Daughter! This lady your daughter!
HARDCASTLE: Yes, sir, my only daughter. My Kate, whose else should she be?
And so with the firm smack of dramatic irony ringing in our ears, Marlow is made aware of what we, the audience, have know for a long while. He has been the well-deserved victim of the tissue of deceit spread out before him by the infinitely wily and irresistibly manipulative Kate Hardcastle.
Enter Mrs Hardcastle with her long-suffering son, Tony. She is furious that her niece Miss Neville has eloped with Hastings but consoles herself that, at least, Miss Neville’s jewels are safe and will remain in the family.
Mr Hardcastle seeks to instruct his wife on the finer points of the contract under which Mrs Hardcastle has charge of the jewels.
HARDCASTLE: But you know if your son, when of age, refuses to marry his cousin, her whole fortune is then at her own disposal.
MRS HARDCASTLE: Ay, but he’s not of age, and she has not thought proper to wait for his refusal.
At this point, to Mrs Hardcastle’s consternation, Miss Neville and Hastings appear from the garden. Miss Neville has had a last-minute rethink about the wisdom of eloping with Hastings and leaving her fortune behind.
MISS NEVILLE: In an hour of levity, I was ready even to give up my fortune to secure my choice. But I’m now recovered from the delusion.
Much as she loves Hastings, she hasn’t altogether forgotten that being in possession of a considerable fortune is no bad thing either.
Hardcastle is delighted to see her back and calls Tony forward to launch the final twist in the plot.
HARDCASTLE: Come hither, Tony boy! Do you refuse this lady’s hand which I now offer you.
LUMPKIN: What signifies my refusing? You know I can’t refuse her till I’m of age, father.
HARDCASTLE: While I thought that concealing your age, boy, would conduce to your improvement, I concurred with your mother’s desire to keep it secret. But since I find that she turns it to a bad use, I must now declare, you have been of age these three months.
Tony is delighted with the news. The last thing he wants is to be tied in virtuous matrimony to his cousin, Constance. He still has his sights set on the lovely Bet Bouncer.
LUMPKIN: Of age! Am I of age father? Then you’ll see the first use I make of my liberty. (taking Miss Neville’s hand) Witness all men by these presents, that I, Anthony Lumpkin, Esquire, of blank place, refuse you, Constantia Neville, spinster, of no place at all, for my true and lawful wife. So Constance Neville can marry whom she pleases and Tony Lumpkin is his own man again.
All that remains is for Kate and Marlow to be brought together for the inevitable happy ending to become a reality. And so it falls to Mr Hardcastle to give his blessing to the union of his darling daughter and the arrogant, bullying, lascivious, deceitful, predatory, money-driven and class-ridden snob that is Mr Marlow.
But, hey, a man has got to get his daughter married off somehow, doesn’t he? Otherwise, she’ll be on the payroll for ever!
MR HARDCASTLE: Mr Marlow, if she makes as good a wife as she has a daughter, I don’t believe you’ll ever repent your bargain… So, boy, take her, and, as you have been mistaken in the mistress, my wish is that you may never be mistaken in the wife.