Etherege’s The Man of Mode is a good reminder in the dangers of reading biographically. Etherege was a libertine, and pretty good pals with the Earl of Rochester. His plays almost plead one to try to find Etherege himself in his works (and critics have not ignored this plea). But from what I’ve gleaned about the libertine aesthetic, Etherege’s play is almost more about the failures of that aesthetic (or perhaps it would be more fair to say that the play shows one libertine’s capitulation to traditional codes of sexual behaviour). Man of Mode‘s Dorimant ultimately gets married — either for love or money, depending on how cynical you’re feeling — and moves to the country with the (possibly hollow) promise to give up his rakish habits with women. But the libertine aesthetic eschewed marriage and the idealisations of romantic love (faithful, chaste, eternal) in favour of sexual liberality and excess. Even if Etherege was a more conservative sort of libertine, his play seems to almost mourn the loss of an ideal version of manhood rooted in Caroline romance. At least, it doesn’t present Cavalier and libertine philosophy as a wholly satisfactory replacement for pre-civil-war ways of living. Men in Restoration London are reduced to performing and impotent fops or aggressively sexual but unproductive rakes. And even the most earnest libertines are as affected as everyone else. The play undoes its celebration of libertine philosophy even as it performs it.
Incidentally, if Dorimant is based on Rochester, then Etherege’s version is far more decorous in his language than in any of Rochester’s poems.
16 March 2013 ~ Hamilton
Etherege, George. The Man of Mode. Ed. W.B. Carnochan. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1966.