She Stoops to Conquer is both perfectly theatrical and perfectly natural. This is the effect which charmed its first audience and has helped the play to hold the stage ever since. It proclaims itself as a piece of theatre at the start when the prologue plunges into a specialised battle, Goldsmith’s vendetta against ‘the mawkish drab of spurious breed,/ Who deals in sentimentals’. Modern audiences seldom hear this in-joke, productions nowadays tending to cut the prologue. But there are plenty of sly allusions inside the play to theatre matters, either explicit or to be deduced: jokes about the audience’s horror of the ‘low’ and Kate’s enquiry to her maid whether she looks ‘something like Cherry in The Beaux’ Stratagem?’ The characters’ thoughts run naturally to play-acting. It is enough for her maid to tell her that Marlow mistook her mistress for a barmaid to inspire Kate with an instant resolve to play the part. The audience attending Goldsmith’s play is called on to have the same alertness as Kate to acting possibilities. From one angle, the play is to be seen as a gigantic histrionic joke, one mistake growing out of another and feeding new roles, as in that most theatrical of forms, the commedia dell’arte.
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