Marriage a-la-mode was one of Dryden's most successful comedies. A
venerable praiser of the past time, in a curious letter printed in the
Gentleman's Magazine for 1745, gives us this account of its first
representation. "This comedy, acted by his Majesty's servants at the
Theatre-Royal, made its first appearance with extraordinary lustre.
Divesting myself of the old man, I solemnly declare, that you have
seen no such acting, no, not in any degree since. The players were
then, 1673, on a court establishment, seventeen men, and eight women."
_Gent. Mag._ Vol. xv. p. 99. From a copy of verses, to which this
letter is annexed, we learn the excellence of the various performers
by whom the piece was first presented. They are addressed to a young
Henceforth, in livelier characters excel,
Though 'tis great merit to act folly well;
Take, take from Dryden's hand Melantha's part,
The gaudy effort of luxuriant art,
In all imagination's glitter drest;
What from her lips fantastic Montfort caught,
And almost moved the thing the poet thought.
These scenes, the glory of a comic age,
(It decency could blanch each sullied page)
Peruse, admire, and give unto the stage;
Or thou, or beauteous Woffington, display
What Dryden's self, with pleasure, might survey.
Even he, before whose visionary eyes,
Melantha, robed in ever-varying dies,
Gay fancy's work, appears, actor renowned.
Like Roscius, with theatric laurels crowned,
Cibber will smile applause, and think again
Of Harte, and Mohun, and all the female train,
Coxe, Marshal, Dryden's Reeve, Bet Slade, and Charles's reign.
Mrs Monfort, who, by her second marriage, became Mrs Verbruggen, was
the first who appeared in the highly popular part of Melantha, and the
action and character appear to have been held incomparable by that
unquestionable judge of the humour of a coquette, or coxcomb, the
illustrious Colley Cibber. "Melantha" says Cibber, "is as finished an
impertinent as ever fluttered in a drawing-room; and seems to contain
the most complete system of female foppery that could possibly be
crowded into the tortured form of a fine lady. Her language, dress,
motion, manners, soul, and body, are in a continual hurry to be
something more than is necessary or commendable. And, though I doubt
it will be a vain labour to offer you a just likeness of Mrs Monfort's
action, yet the fantastic expression is still so strong in my memory,
that I cannot help saying something, though fantastically, about it.
The first ridiculous airs, that break from her, are upon a gallant
never seen before, who delivers her a letter from her father,
recommending him to her good graces as an honourable lover. Here, now,
one would think she might naturally shew a little of the sex's decent
reserve, though never so slightly covered. No, sir, not a tittle of
it: Modesty is a poor-souled country gentlewoman; she is too much a
court lady to be under so vulgar a confusion. She reads the letter,
therefore, with a careless dropping lip, and an erected brow, humming
it hastily over, as if she were impatient to outgo her father's
commands, by making a complete conquest of him at once; and, that the
letter might not embarrass the attack, crack! she crumbles it at once
into her palm, and pours down upon him her whole artillery of airs,
eyes, and motion; down goes her dainty diving body to the ground, as
it she were sinking under the conscious load of her own attractions;
then launches into a flood of fine language and compliment, still
playing her chest forward in fifty falls and risings, like a swan upon
waving water; and, to complete her impertinence, she is so rapidly
fond of her own wit, that she will not give her lover leave to praise
it. Silent assenting bows, and vain endeavours to speak, are all the
share of the conversation he is admitted to, which, at last, he is
removed from by her engagement to half a score of visits, which she
swims from him to make, with a promise to return in a twinkling."
_Cibber's Apology_, p. 99.
By this lively sketch, some judgment may be formed of the effect
produced by the character of Melantha, when ably represented; but, to
say the truth, we could hardly have drawn the same deduction from a
simple perusal of the piece. Of the French phrases, which the affected
lady throws into her conversation, some have been since naturalized,
as _good graces_, _minuet_, _chagrin_, _grimace_, _ridicule_, and
others. Little can be said of the tragic part of the drama. The sudden
turn of fortune in the conclusion is ridiculed in "The Rehearsal."
The researches of Mr Malone have ascertained that "Marriage A-la-Mode"
was first acted in 1673, in an old theatre in Lincoln's Inn Fields,
occupied by the King's company, after that in Drury-Lane had been
burned, and during its re-building. The play was printed in the same