About THE RELAPSE

Red Bull Theater's reading of John Vanbrugh's THE RELAPSE will premiere LIVE in person at 7:30 PM ET on October 24, 2022. The performance will be simulcast online that evening and the recording will be available until Sunday, October 30 at 11:59 PM ET. Get full details here.


The Relapse, or, Virtue in Danger (1696) was written in response to Colley Cibber’s Love’s Last Shift, or, The Fool in Fashion. Cibber’s play is often referred to as a Restoration Comedy for the first four acts and a Sentimental Comedy in the fifth act when Loveless, the philandering husband, repents, thanks to an extraordinary “shift” or trick, in which his abandoned wife impersonates a high-class whore and wins him back following a night of exquisite sexual pleasure. In this reversal, the patient wife’s virtue penetrates the wayward husband’s (basically decent) heart and brings about the sentimental conversion.

Vanbrugh wrote The Relapse in six weeks after seeing Cibber’s play to address what he considered to be an unconvincing depiction of the reformation of Loveless. He added a new character, Berinthia, who fashions her own notions of desire following a typically “loveless” arranged marriage. While the patient wife Amanda still manages to retain her virtue and persuade her aggressive suitor, Worthy, of the greater good of faithfulness, at the very same moment, in the very same house, Berinthia is seducing the unreformed Loveless away from Amanda – or rather they are happily seducing each other though the play of erotic medical terms: she offers to give him ‘ease’; he is ready to lay his ‘case’ before her. As Loveless bears her into her closet, she protests: (Very softly): “Help! Help! I’m ravished! Ruined! Undone! Oh Lord, I shall never be able to bear it.”

After the Glorious Revolution of 1688, economic and political power began to shift from the aristocracy to the burgeoning middle class with increased attention devoted to values of religion, morality, and conventional depictions of gender. Likewise, the theater moved away from Restoration comedy’s sexual frankness toward the more conservative postures of sentimental comedy. This “bloodless revolution” reinforced a puritan, anti-theatrical prejudice, expressed most virulently in Jeremy Collier’s attack on the theater, A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage (1698), in which he condemned Vanbrugh’s play for its explicit sexuality and defense of women’s rights in marriage. Vanbrugh responded with a comic defense, but public opinion was already trending away from Restoration style. Playwrights adopted Collier’s criticisms and embraced the new sentimental ethic; the Act V tears of Loveless in Cibber’s play spelled the end of Restoration Comedy.

Before its demise, however, we have the pleasure of meeting perhaps the greatest of all Restoration fops in the subplot of The Relapse: Sir Novelty Fashion, from Cibber’s play, has bought himself a title and is now Lord Foppington, with Cibber himself reprising his role. After his younger brother steals his intended bride (and more importantly, her substantial dowry), Foppington’s imperturbable selfishness allows him to weather all humiliations: “I think the wisest thing a man can do with an aching heart is to put on a serene countenance; for a philosophical air is the most becoming thing in the world to the face of a person of quality.”

Although Lord Foppington may seem "very industrious to pass for an ass," he is also a superb embodiment of the Restoration code, where freedom of choice remains absolute: to preserve the integrity of the self, one must avoid all constricting social definitions – be they husband, wife, brother or sister. The code is also Epicurean: since sensations of pleasure and pain are the ultimate measures of good and evil, pleasure should be actively pursued. During his astonishing levee, Foppington describes his day: “My life is a perpetual stream of pleasure, that glides through such a variety of entertainments, I believe the wisest of our ancestors never had the least conception of any of ‘em.” Here, at the end of the century, this not-so-witless fop offers a particularly pleasurable eulogy to a very robust era in theatrical history.


KATHLEEN DIMMICK, dramaturg

Red Bull Theater's reading of John Vanbrugh's THE RELAPSE will premiere LIVE in person at 7:30 PM ET on October 24, 2022. The performance will be simulcast online that evening and the recording will be available until Sunday, October 30 at 11:59 PM ET. Get full details here.