Military Characters

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Introduction to Character Type

Military characters play an important role in the action of the plays in this collection. The recurrence of military characters recalls the military service of some of the playwrights (Bickerstaff and Burgoyne), but the characters' presences in other dramatists' plays suggests that the military played a significant role in the public consciousness. Many of the plays have an exclusively military focus, including Bickerstaff's The Recruiting Serjeant (1770), Kemble's The Female Officer (1763), and Richard Brinsley Sheridan's St. Patrick's Day (1775; published 1788) and The Camp (1778; published 1795). Other plays contain military characters to contrast the civilians morally and linguistically. An examination of the military characters within the collection reveals a few trends, such as the close relationship between the military and the Irish, and the characters' tendency to incorporate military terminology into standard speech.

The speech of military characters distinguishes them from the other figures in the plays, as many of the military characters rely on military-related expressions in non-military settings. One extreme example of this is General Savage in Kelly's The School for Wives (1773; published 1774). Savage tries to run his house with military precision, to the amusement and annoyance of the other characters. This aspiration manifests itself linguistically, as his proposal of marriage demonstrates:

Gen. Generously said, Madam: Then give me leave, without any masked battery, to ask, if the heart of an honest soldier is a prize at all worth your acceptance.

Miss Wal. Upon my word, Sir, there's no masked battery in this question.

Gen. I am as fond of a coup de main, Madam, in love, as in war, and hate the tedious method of sapping a town, when there is a possibility of entering sword in hand.

Miss Wal. Why really, Sir, a woman may as well know her own mind, when she is first summoned by the trumpet of a lover, as when she undergoes all the tiresome formality of a siege. You see I have caught your own mode of conversing, General (29-30).

The General's use of military terminology ("masked battery", "prize", "coup de main", "in love, as in war", "sapping a town", "entering sword in hand") does not go unnoticed by Miss Walsingham, who spiritedly picks up the idioms while thinking that the proposal is coming from his son. Similarly, military vocabulary is used for romantic purposes in The Female Officer and Love-a-la-Mode (1759; published 1779). Military jargon is frequently commented upon in the collection of plays. In Richard Brinsley Sheridan's The Camp, a character remarks upon the fashions of military speech among civilians:

Sir Harry. Universal, indeed; and the ridicule of it is, to see how this madness has infected the whole road from Maidstone to London. The camp jargon is as current all the way as bad silver; the very postilions that drive you talk of their cavalry, and refuse to charge on a trot up the hill; the turnpikes seem converted into redoubts, and the dogs demanded the countersign of my servants instead of the tickets; then, when I got to Maidstone, I found the very waiters had got a smattering of tactics---for, inquiring what I could have for dinner, a cursed drilled waiter, after reviewing his bill of fare with the air of a field marshal, proposed an advanced party of soup and bouille, to be followed by the main body of ham and chickens, flanked by a fricasee, with sallads in the intervals, and corps de reserve of sweetmeats, and whip'd syllabubs to form a hollow square in the centre (28).

This excerpt suggests that the military was seen as fashionable, a fact that helps explain the recurrence of this character type in plays designed to appeal to the fashions of London audiences. The continued presence of the military character type throughout the collection suggests that it did not lose its appeal over time.

Military characters of Irish origin occur several times in the collection, making prominent appearances in The West Indian (1771), Love a-la-Mode, and St. Patrick's Day. The first of these plays features O'Flaherty, an honest Irish soldier who has served in a variety of posts in different countries. Although he does not take a military role in the play, O'Flaherty is instrumental to the action, as he spies on Lady Rusport and Varland and makes Varland give up the false will. Love-a-la-Mode sports a similar character, Sir Callaghan O'Brallaghan, whose honesty and moral fortitude serve him well and ultimately win him Charlotte's hand. Finally, St. Patrick's Day includes an Irish lieutenant and a few Irish soldiers. The Irish soldier is without exception a lighthearted and well-intentioned character. Linguistically, this character type is of some interest, as the military jargon of the soldier is coupled with the Irish accent and vocabulary, as in this example from St. Patrick's Day :

3d Sol. Ay, ay, let him have our grievances in a volly, and if we be to have a spokesman, there's the Corporal is the Lieutenant's countryman, and knows his humour.

Cor. Let me alone for that, I serv'd three years within a bit, under his honour, in the Royal Inniskillions, and I never will see a sweeter tempered gentleman, nor one more free with his purse. I put a great shamrogue in his hat this morning, and I'll be bound for him, he'll wear it, was it as big as Steven's green (3).

In this excerpt, the soldiers use military terminology when speaking of other non-military matters ("grievances in a volly"), and the corporal employs the Irishman's vocabulary ("shamrogue").

Several female characters play military roles, as in The Female Officer and The Camp. In both cases, the women are using the military institution as a way of being united with their lovers. Although it at first seems far-fetched, the fact that women are able to disguise themselves as soldiers draws attention to the military's employment of boys and young men. This example of class-crossing would have been particularly amusing to audiences, as the all-male military institution is very far removed from eighteenth-century conceptions of femininity.

Military characters and language form a cornerstone of the eighteenth-century comedic genre. The continuity of the sub-types of military characters (e.g. honest Irish military men, and women soldiers) throughout the examined era suggests that the military presence on the stage was appealing and even fashionable to London audiences. The recurring profession-centred vocabulary of the military characters indicates that this is a particular character type; however, the nuance and development of many military characters exceeds that of most other stock characters in this collection of plays.

Works Cited:

Kelly, Hugh. The School for Wives. London: T. Becket, 1774. Literature Online. 13 August 2008.

Sheridan, Richard Brinsley. The Camp. 1795. London: 1829. Literature Online. 13 August 2008.

Sheridan, Richard Brinsley. St. Patrick's Day. London: for the Booksellers, 1788. Literature Online. 13 August 2008.

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List of Plays

The Recruiting Serjeant (Bickerstaff)

The West Indian (Cumberland)

Lovers' Resolutions (Cumberland)

The Passive Husband (Cumberland)

The Mayor of Garratt (Foote)

The School for Wives (Kelly)

The Female Officer (Kemble)

Love A-La-Mode (Macklin)

St. Patrick's Day (R.B. Sheridan)

The Camp (R.B. Sheridan)

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©2008 Arden Hegele