The Centre of Attention: Theatricality and the Restoration Fop
Andrew P. Williams
North Carolina Central University

Williams, Andrew P. "The Centre of Attention: Theatricality and the Restoration Fop." Early Modern Literary Studies 4.3 (January, 1999): 5.1-22 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/04-3/willfop.html>.

Fools which each man meets in his Dish each day,
Are yet the great Regalio's of a Play
            (Prologue to Sir Martin Mar-All)
  1. Displaying a flair for the dramatic typical of the comic playwright, Colley Cibber confesses early in his An Apology for The Life of Colley Cibber (1740) that "nothing gives a Coxcomb more Delight, than when you suffer him to talk of himself" (21). Though speaking of himself, Cibber's simple admission not only sheds light upon this particular comic's psyche, it also reveals a significant aspect of the dramatic representation and characterization of the character type who would become synonymous with Colley Cibber; the Restoration stage fop. More so than any other character type of Restoration drama, the fop "delights" in the social attention that comes from being the focal point of dramatic speech or action. But while the dramatic characterization of the fop requires that his attempts to garner this social attention be comically inept and grounded in the ludicrous, the fop's ability to successfully monopolize and control the locus of attention within his social setting enables him to move from the periphery of the dramatic action and assume a key position within the social dynamics of the stage. Because of the inherent theatricality which defines his dramatic characterization and conduct, the fop not only regularly succeeds in becoming the focus of social attention, he routinely displaces the dramatic centrality of the more culturally adept and masculine rakes, often challenging their hegemonic positions and pushing them toward the unfamiliar territory of the social periphery.



  3. The world of the stage fop is the social scenes of Restoration society. Like any other "player" on stage, the fop is required to adapt his performance to meet the social expectations appropriate to whatever scene he may be playing. Social reality contains certain dramatic and ritualistic elements of social interaction which require that an individual assume various roles. A wedding, funeral, battle, or birth all contain various culturally constructed criteria for realistic or acceptable social behavior which require different guises in the "player's" persona. In order for the stage to represent the social reality of the sophisticated and urbane society of the Restoration, it is necessary to illustrate the contemporary rituals and forms associated with that witty society. The greeting, the challenge, and the conversation are a few of the important social conventions whose representation on stage require an acknowledgment of their ritualized elements and a perceptible acceptance of the proper social role each situation demands. When the performance or representation of these social roles on stage is conducted in a manner that reflects society's codes of normative behaviour, the performer is seen to be acting naturally; however, when those roles are performed with a self-conscious awareness of their dramatic nature beyond the codes of socially acceptable behaviour, then naturalness has been purposefully replaced with the artificial in the form of social theatricality.



  5. While ritual is a fundamental component to social interaction and behaviour, certain social rituals of the Restoration stage which require careful attention to public posturing are more conducive to the exhibition of artificial behaviour than others. These social "scenes," such as the modes of courtship and polite conversation, prove the perfect stage for the fop's grandiose interpretation of contemporary social roles. Differentiating between the natural and artificial actions of a person, Thomas Hobbes illustrated the importance of social role playing: "So that a person, is the same that an actor is, both on the stage and in common conversation" (Leviathan 3:148). What Hobbes called "common conversation" is represented on the Restoration comic stage as a closely knit, but limited theatrical society of dramatic character types whose members, the rake, the witty woman, the cuckold, and the fop, constitute the basic social unit.



  7. If, as Deborah Payne suggests, during the Restoration "social constraints prevented what we might dub 'honest exchange'" and certain social settings "preclude natural behavior"(404-405), then the representation of unnatural or artificial behaviour within the dramatic social unit constitutes a major portion of the comic stage's concern with its imitation of human nature. Of particular importance to the fop is the conflict between the conception of "natural behavior" and the affected mannerisms he tries to pawn off as natural. According to Norman Holland, the Restoration character can be described as "Clearly divided into a nucleus of inner self or nature and a peripheral shell of appearances" (58). As such, the behaviours characteristic of the fop illustrate a devaluation of the internal, or natural self, in favour of the external, or artificial outer shell. This is clearly evident in John Howard's fop Mr. Frenchlove (The English Mounsieur 1663), who calls his clothes, discourse, and fashion a "second nature." Here the fop relinquishes any "honest" claim to a private nature, substituting it with a constructed social persona where the spontaneity and sincerity which accompanies "natural" conduct within social relations is replaced by well rehearsed theatrical behaviour (Theatricality 4).



  9. Generally incapable of sincere or spontaneous social intercourse, the fop's "conversation" and conduct are staged to fit the demands of whatever social situation he may find himself. Much like the fop Flash's admission in Charles Johnson's The Gentleman-Cully (1702), that he interjects unfamiliar, French, "alamode" words into conversation, or the reliance on a stockpile of what Neal Norrick calls "stock conversational witticisms" such as Novelty Fashion's "Stop my vitals" (Love's Last Shift 1696), the range of the fop's discourse is limited to such an extent that he cannot adequately improvise alternative conversational scripts. From William Wycherley's The Gentleman Dancing Master (1672), the fop, Monsieur De Paris, places such stock in French lexical refinements and witticisms that he is incapable of recognizing the value of true, conversational ease. When questioned by Hippolita, Paris admits to Gerrard's natural conversational ease, describing his rival as, "witty, brave, and de bel humeur" (1.1.133-134). But, in the fop's estimation, Gerrard lacks wit because he "can't dance a step nor sing a French song nor swear a French oate nor use the polite French word in his conversation" (1.1. 148-150). Paris, like any fop worth his periwig, consciously devalues natural conversational ease, and instead, relies upon a rehearsed lexicon which serves to do little more than draw attention to his excessively theatrical mode of social interplay.



  11. Theatricality within social conversation and interaction, as Elizabeth Burns points out, is not so much a specific type of behavior or expression as a condition applied "to any kind of behavior perceived and interpreted by others and described (mentally or explicitly) in theatrical terms" (13). The identification of behavior as theatric is most often associated with the over-playing of social roles which foregrounds the dramatic or artificial side of social intercourse. James Howard's stage direction for Frenchlove's first exit - "he makes Ridiculous legs and goes off" - illustrates the comic impetus of the fop's brand of social theatricality. Frenchlove cannot just turn and take his leave of Lady Wealthy, his propensity for affectation forces him to transform the simple social ritual of a farewell into histrionic excess. Frenchlove's over-playing is an unconditionally public display, a conscious performance that demands attention, even if that attention comes in the form of comic ridicule and abuse. As Frenchlove departs, Mr. Welbred remarks on the variety of fools who have come to London, to which Lady Wealthy adds: "Indeed I think this fellow not inferior to any kind of Ass that ever I saw-pray let's make good use of him" (1.1.183-184).



  13. Lady Wealthy's observation of Frenchlove's social inadequacy demonstrates the necessity of understanding the codes of social conduct in order to judge an action as natural or not. She is quite aware that certain social situations and rituals require that one speak and act within certain established forms, what John Shotter calls "social accountability" (143), and that any excessively dramatic deviation from those norms is open game for abuse. Lady Wealthy possesses the social knowledge which permits her both to recognize Frenchlove's behavior as artificially excessive and to provide comic commentary on it.



  15. Because it requires social recognition, theatricality is contingent upon a public forum where the behavior under observation takes on a greater degree of performance than is socially required. Cognizant of the dramatic forms associated with social interaction, the fop approaches his social performance with an artificiality and sense of excess that not only magnify his comic ridiculum, they also direct his audience's attention onto his own stage presence. His theatric and affected behavior often results in the fop acting as a one man metatheater within the larger context of the Restoration stage. For example, Cibber's Novelty Fashion takes full advantage of what Montague Summers calls the "curious custom" (4) of allowing free admission to the theater for anyone who did not intend to stay for more than one act to root himself squarely as the center of dramatic attention through a calculated display of theatrics:

      Sir Nov.- I'll come to you presently, Madam, I have just done: Then you must know, my Coach and equipage are as well known as my self; and since the Conveniency of two Play-houses, I have a better opportunity of shewing them: For between every Act-Whisk- I am gone from one to th'other:-Of! what Pleasure 'tis at a good Play, to go out before half an Act's done!
      Nar.- Why at a good Play?
      Sir Nov.- O! Madam, it looks Particular, and gives the whole Audience an Opportunity of turning upon me at once: Then do they conclude I have some extraordinary Business, or a fine Woman to go to at least.
    Novelty's admission that his conduct "looks particular" situates the action within a social script that he routinely employs for the purpose of shifting the attention of his fellow theater-goers away from the action of the stage and on to himself. However, what Novelty does not readily acknowledge is the artificiality of the act. Though the fop is successful in garnering the attention he desires, the superficiality of his actions is not likely to lead his audience to conclude that he must attend to "some extraordinary Business or a fine Woman." Rather, as Etherege's Gatty in She Would if She Could (1668) recognizes, this type of theatrical display is more a sign of personal vanity than pressing business. Speaking of the type of men who dash from one playhouse to the another, Gatty says:
      they seldom stay any longer than the combing of their periwigs, or a whisper or two with a friend; and then they cock their caps, and out they strut again.
      (1.1 170-174)

    But while Gatty is certainly not impressed by their behavior, the fops, with their strutting and preening, have definitely captured her attention.

  17. The manifestation of social theatricality in the fop's behavior is most apparent in his attempts to enhance the effect of his already noticeable presence through monopolizing the social space available to him. Michael Ketcham illustrates the intricate relationship between the world of the stage and social reality when he defines social space as a type of theatrical setting: "there are certain regions in which social performance can take place; there are certain 'stages' on which a social actor can present an image of himself" (399). The fop is jealous of the attention that can be garnered in these "certain regions," and he does everything that he can to monopolize the attention of the other "actors" who share the social setting. W. Gerald Marshall cites this particular form of theatricality in Wycherley's The Country Wife as central to "the play's innovative sense of the comic" (411). Sparkish's introduction of Harcourt to Alithea is, Marshall claims, a "dramatic improvisation in which he creates his own little stage" (417). Sparkish positions Harcourt as a spectator to his display of his prospective wife, playing the part of the nonchalant "wit" much in the same vein as his previous performance as the "poet's rival" at the play-house. Sparkish's role playing is readily seen by both the audience in general and the audience on stage as inappropriate and insincere, especially when it becomes obvious that Harcourt is not performing the role of fellow "wit" that Sparkish has assigned to him. Though Sparkish may see his social performance as a success, his inability to determine the sincerity of Harcourt's praise of Alithea proves him a comic failure as the fop inadvertently sets the stage for the loss of his own fiancée. Sparkish is too concerned with his public performance to realize that his attempt to control social space, although it garnered him some temporary social attention, also magnified his laughable social ineptitude.



  19. Sparkish's dramatic display illustrates his attempt to manipulate a closely knit social space and control the centre of conversation between himself and Harcourt, as well as that between Harcourt and Alithea. On a larger scale, the attempts of Etherege's Sir Fopling Flutter to position himself as the focal point of social attention in whatever social space he occupies are routinely grounded in his ability to dominate conversations. Prior to Fopling's first entrance in The Man of Mode (1676), several of the play's "wit" characters, Dorimant, Medley, Lady Townley, Emilia and Bellinda, are engaged in a conversation about reputation and jealousy. Apart from an interlude where Bellinda and Dorimant privately discuss their assignation, the group's discussion remains consistently balanced and interactive. Even after Bellinda departs, no one voice dominates the conversation. However, upon the entrance of Sir Fopling the conversational dynamics of the scene change as the fop positions himself at the center of conversational attention. He casually kisses Lady Townley's hands then turns to Dorimant while Emilia, Lady Townley and Medley act as an audience for the fop's exaggerated greeting. Fopling stops talking to Dorimant only after Lady Townley informs him of a possible breach of social etiquette because he has not greeted Emilia. Fopling deftly shifts from Dorimant to Emilia with "A thousand pardons Madam" (3.2. 196), and quickly praises her before turning back to Dorimant and inquiring if the other spectator to his entrance is Medley. Dorimant informs him that it is, to which Fopling turns again with a formal "Forgive me sir in this embarra of civilities" (3.2. 209-210).



  21. Fopling's entrance signals his domination of the group's discussion. The fop's "formal" apologies act as theatrical clues signifying a change in the direction of his conversational discourse. While before Fopling's entrance no one voice dominated the conversation, after his arrival, the only other voices that are heard are those with whom the fop is speaking at the time. The remainder of the scene's dialogue is constructed in a singular pattern of Fopling speaking and one character at a time replying to what the fop has just said. All commentary is directed toward the fop as it becomes increasingly apparent that Fopling has made himself the center of attention and has virtually silenced the other witty characters, including the rake, Dorimant. When the direction of the conversation turns toward an inventory of Fopling's garniture, the fop gains complete control of the group's social space as the topic of discussion revolves solely upon his physical and fashionable presence. In a rather playful manner, the "wit" characters emphatically list Fopling's fashion accessories, all to the fop's delight:

    1. L. Town.- The suit.
      Sir. Fop.- Barroy.
      Emilia.- The garniture.
      Sir Fop.- Le Gras-
      Med.- The shoes!
      Sir Fop.- Piccar!
      Dor.- The periwig!
      Sir Fop.- Chedreux.
      Town and Emilia.- The gloves!
      Sir Fop.- Oregerii!
      (3.2. 250-259)

    The enthusiasm illustrates an almost game-like atmosphere to the exchange in which Fopling relishes his role as both a player in the game as well as the field of play itself.

  22. After Fopling exits with his signature "a Revoir" and call that his "people be ready," the conversation returns to its pre-Fopling balance as the "wit" characters critique Fopling and his social behavior. Dorimant calls him "brisk and insipid" while Medley refers to him as "Pert and dull." Emilia, however, does not find it necessary to condemn Fopling and even offers some defense for the fop stating, "I'le lay my Life he passes for a Wit with many" (3.2. 291-292). It is apparent that Fopling's theatrical domination of the conversational space did not irritate Emilia as it did her male counterparts who have more personal reasons for their condemnation. After all, the more social space an artificial being like Fopling is able to control, the less opportunity the wittier and more "sincere" rakes have to manipulate that space for their own ends. As "Pert and dull" as he may be, Fopling's command of social space threatens the more rakish and witty males, making them acutely aware of their own needs to control social space.



  24. The fop's monopolization of conversational space constitutes his most effective display of artificial theatricality. Occasionally fops do sing or dance for attention, but generally, the fop is most adept at reinforcing his social presence through conversational means. Wycherley's Dapperwit (Love in a Wood 1671) and Congreve's Petulant and Witwould (The Way of The World 1700) rely upon their conversational raillery in acquiring social attention to such an extent, that in the case of Petulant and Witwould, Katherine Lynch remarks that without their raillery, the two fops "could not even exist" (207). Another of Congreve's fops, Tattle (Love For Love 1695), secures conversational attention by inappropriately revealing personal intimacies, while at one point, John Crowne's Sir Mannerly Shallow (The Country Wit 1676), becomes the focus of conversational attention by fervently describing his own theatrical experiences as a singer and actor.



  26. The most common method of acquiring conversational attention is for the fop to turn himself into the topic of conversation or commentary. Like Fopling Flutter, Cibber's Novelty Fashion (Love's Last Shift) successfully becomes the centre of social attention through an inventory of his dress, but Novelty also succeeds in inverting a major portion of the ritualized component of contemporary Restoration courtship dialogue when he turns the topic of his second act conversation with Hillaria from flattering the young woman to coaxing out compliments from her cousin Narcissa. Flattery is an accepted and expected component of Restoration social intercourse, and obtrusive and excessive flattery is, of course, a hallmark of the fop. Novelty, however, senses that his scripted praises of Hillaria - "Your Beauty, like the Rack, forces every Beholder to confess his Crime-of daring to adore you" (2.1.4-5) - are ineffective, so he feigns a self-depreciating attitude in the hopes of impressing Narcissa with his "modesty." Novelty's complaint that he has a "more hellish Complexion than a stale Actress in a Morning" draws Narcissa's quick rebuttal: "Now you are too severe, Sir Novelty," and the fop's request to be told "one tolerable thing about me" draws out the compliment, "Oh, Sir Novelty, this is unanswerable; 'tis hard to know the brightest part of a Diamond" (2.1. 32-33).



  28. Novelty directs the conversation with Narcissa toward the stroking of his own vanity, but when Narcissa tries to do the same by engaging the fop in a compliment contest with Young Worthy, Novelty again uses the occasion to flatter not the witty woman, but himself. After detailing the excellent nature of his carriage and "publick Reputation," Novelty explains why it is more important for him to publicly illustrate his fine points than those of the lady:

      Why, Madam, don't you think it more Glory to be belove'd by one eminently particular Person, whom all the Town knows and talks of; than to be ador'd by five hundred dull Souls that have lived incognito?

    Narcissa does not agree with Novelty's logic and chides the fop for not playing by the conversational rules of fashionable society: "He's so in love with himself he won't allow a Woman the bare Comfort of a cold Compliment" (2.1. 312-313). Though Young Worthy is quick to play by society's rules and flatter Narcissa's "satyrical Smile" and "blushing Laugh," it is apparent that Novelty's control of the conversation threatens the "wit" characters' control of the social space. Narcissa finds it necessary to condemn Novelty while Young Worthy pushes the fop to the ground after Novelty successfully silences Young Worthy's conversational prowess and reveals Narcissa's own streak of vanity.

  30. The attempt to control conversational space is central to the theatrical display of the fop's understanding and representation of social forms and manners. The fop sees that social space as another context for performance, another opportunity to be noticed. The inherent theatricality of the fop is also verified by the fop's visual presence. Restoration playwrights commonly accentuate the theatrical nature of the fop's characterization by creating a visual, histrionic spectacle for his first appearance on stage. By deferring the fop's arrival, oftentimes until the second or third act of the play, the playwrights could enhance a certain degree of comic anticipation. Titular fops such as Sir Fopling Flutter and John Crowne's Sir Courtly Nice (Sir Courtly Nice 1685) are both mentioned early in the plays which bear their names, yet neither appear on stage until the third act. This distancing between announcing his existence and the arrival of the fop anticipates the fop's comic presence where the audience knows that it will see a pert coxcomb sometime in the play but does not know when.



  32. With the notable exception of Timothy Tawdry from Aphra Behn's The Town Fop (1676), the character of the fop is rarely the centre of social attention when the curtain goes up on the first act of a Restoration comedy. This position is primarily occupied by the male, "wit" characters whose conversation usually provides the exposition of the play. Generally, the fop appears later in the scene, sometimes inserting himself into the conversation of the witty men (Flash, The Gentleman- Cully, Mr. Frenchlove, The English Mounsieur, De Boastado, The Careless Lovers 1673), or he makes his first appearance as a part of a larger company of other characters (Dapperwit, Love in A Wood, Novelty Fashion, Love's Last Shift). Rarely does the fop first appear on stage alone or as the only major character, but on those occasions when he does, playwrights usually maximize the comic potential of this moment through a demonstration of the theatrical nature of the fop's excessive and affected persona. Such is the case in both John Crowne's Sir Courtly Nice and John Vanbrugh's The Relapse (1696), where the initial entrances of the fops are marked by a distinct magnification of the explicit theatricality of their dramatic presence.



  34. Sir Courtly's first appearance on stage squarely positions the fop as the centre of theatrical attention as the scene shifts in Act 3 from Farewell and Crack's conversation in Covent Garden Square to Sir Courtly's chamber. Courtly is first seen in the midst of dressing while a man and a woman sing a love song to the fop:

      Woman- I fear to yield but cannot deny.
      Man- If you do not I shall die.
      Woman- So shall I.
      Both- So shall I.

    Though the insipid sentiment of the song seems to be catering to the fop's fancy, this singing dialogue of three verses functions as a directional controlling device which steers the audience's locus of attention directly toward the fop. Crowne specifically points out in the scene description that the song is not merely background entertainment for the fop's pleasure or a brief musical interlude common in Restoration comedies, but that the song is being sung to Courtly Nice as the fop is in the process of dressing: "Scene, a CHAMBER- Sir Courtly Nice dressing, Men and Women singing to him" (3.2). The inclusion of a chorus joining the main singers accentuates Crowne's emphasis on dramatic spectacle as the song ends with all the singers joining in a rousing climax:

      Then come to joy-come to joy,
      Better love than we shou'd die.
      Come to joy, come to joy!

    This musical accompaniment creates a much heightened awareness of Courtly's every move as the fop's dressing ritual becomes a choreographed display of musical theatre. As the song ends so too does Courtly's dressing ritual; he sends the singers off and immediately complains about the quality of their singing. Compliance, he tells his servant, is the mark of a gentleman: "Wherever I go, all the world cries that's a gentleman, my life on't a gentleman; and when y'ave said a gentleman, you have said it all" (3.2. 38-40).

  36. Crowne's inclusion of the song to mark Courtly's appearance magnifies the histrionic excess the fop attaches to his daily routine. Specifically, this initial exhibition of affectation illustrates a systematic display of theatricality in which the fop clearly demonstrates his privileging of the artificial over the natural. From this opening image, the audience is made aware that Courtly not only places a premium on appearance and being the centre of visual attention, he is the self-styled embodiment of the theatre itself; he is creature born of dramatic excess, possessing equal parts critic, audience, and player.



  38. In John Vanbrugh's The Relapse, Lord Foppington also makes his first appearance on stage in a dressing scene, but unlike Crowne's Courtly Nice, Vanbrugh's fop does not require musical accompaniment to emphasize the ritualistic pageantry he associates with this daily routine. Instead, Foppington's running commentary concerning the social significance of his fashion accessories clearly reveals the extent of his excessive affectations as the fop turns the act of dressing into a carefully staged theatrical production. The audience gets its first glimpse of the newly elevated Lord Foppington as the fop, clad only in his nightgown, waits for his retinue of servants to assist in his dressing. In what can be seen as a parody of the ritualized donning of the knight's armour, this introductory dressing scene allows the audience to witness the process by which the ex-Sir Novelty Fashion is transformed into Lord Foppington. Calling for his tailor, shoemaker, and periwig maker, Foppington inspects their wares and proceeds to comment on how they fail to properly flatter him. The pocket in the tailor's suit is much too high ("the Packet becomes no part of the Body but the Knee"), the thickness of the hosier's stockings make Foppington's legs look too healthy ("If the Town takes notice my Legs are fallen away, 'twil be attributed to the Violence of some new intrigue"), and the two inches of Foppington's face that Mr. Foretop's periwig does not cover is two inches too much ("a Periwig to a Man, should be like a Mask to a Woman, nothing should be seen but his Eyes"). In his attempt to be fashionable, Foppington reveals the extent of his own misunderstanding of fashion and society. He is aware of the ritual accoutrements of masculine dress, yet his penchant for theatrics results in an excess of accessories.



  40. Like the audience, Foppington's brother, Young Fashion, acts as witness to the fop's dressing ritual commenting on the artificial transformation that is taking place:

      Thou sayst true, for there's that fop now, has not by nature wherewithal to move a cook-maid, and by that time these fellows have done with him, egad he shall melt down a countess.
      (1.3. 42-45)

    Young Fashion's comment indicates the primary basis of Foppington's ridiculous nature. The fop's affected excesses are planned and purchased with the intent of impressing society, but this opening dressing scene also allows the audience to witness the private making of the fop. Unlike the other characters who see Foppington only after the transformation is complete, the audience joins Young Fashion in recognizing the extent of Foppington's affectations, and as a result, his comic artificiality. While Foppington cavorts through the remaining acts, his characteristic unnaturalness is magnified because of this introductory image of the fop before he is "made" by his clothes. Foppington projects an image to the other members of the theatrical society moulded by the way he wishes to be perceived, but Vanbrugh's dressing scene allows the audience to view the comic reality behind that image.

  42. The introductory dressing scenes of Lord Foppington and Sir Courtly Nice emphasize the affected nature of the fop's characterization by dramatizing his reliance on histrionic excess and exposing the need for theatrical display inherent to his identity. Even such private actions as dressing must be performed with an acute attention to flair and pageantry. As what Dryden called the "great Regalios of the Play," fops are conscious of the intricacies of their social performance and jealously guard that social space which serves as the setting for their own private production. As a result, the Restoration fop not only sees the world as a stage, but adopts the social sphere of fashionable London society as his own personal performing grounds. He is the era's most consummate showman, a creature of society whose person and identity are solely defined by fashionable and lexical props which he can never fully master. Though ridiculed and often cruelly abused, the fop acts out his few social scenes with a flair for the dramatic unrivaled on the Restoration stage; and where "honest exchange" is an anomaly, perhaps the fop's brand of personal and social theater reflects the heart of Restoration manners and conduct more so than "genteel society" would like to admit.
Works Cited


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