1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Etheredge, Sir George
ETHEREDGE [or Etherege], SIR GEORGE (c. 1635–1691), English dramatist, was born about the year 1635, and belonged to an Oxfordshire family. He is said to have been educated at Cambridge, but Dennis assures us that “to his certain knowledge he understood neither Greek nor Latin.” He travelled abroad early, and seems to have resided in France. It is possible that he witnessed in Paris the performances of some of Molière’s earliest comedies; and he seems, from an allusion in one of his plays, to have been personally acquainted with Bussy Rabutin. On his return to London he studied the law at one of the Inns of Court. His tastes were those of a fine gentleman, and he indulged freely in pleasure.
Sometime soon after the Restoration he composed his comedy of The Comical Revenge or Love in a Tub, which introduced him to Lord Buckhurst, afterwards the earl of Dorset. This was brought out at the Duke’s theatre in 1664, and a few copies were printed in the same year. It is partly inheroic verse, like the stilted tragedies of the Howards and Killigrews, but it contains comic scenes that are exceedingly bright and fresh. The sparring between Sir Frederick and the Widow introduced a style of wit hitherto unknown upon the English stage. The success of this play was very great, but Etheredge waited four years before he repeated his experiment. Meanwhile he gained the highest reputation as a poetical beau, and moved in the circle of Sir Charles Sedley, Lord Rochester and the other noble wits of the day. In 1668 he brought out She would if she could, a comedy in many respects admirable, full of action, wit and spirit, although to the last degree frivolous and immoral. But in this play Etheredge first shows himself a new power in literature; he has nothing of the rudeness of his predecessors or the grossness of his contemporaries. We move in an airy and fantastic world, where flirtation is the only serious business of life. At this time Etheredge was living a life no less frivolous and unprincipled than those of his Courtals and Freemans. He formed an alliance with the famous actress Mrs Elizabeth Barry; she bore him a daughter, on whom he settled £6000, but who, unhappily, died in her youth. His wealth and wit, the distinction and charm of his manners, won Etheredge the general worship of society, and his temperament is best known by the names his contemporaries gave him, of “gentle George” and “easy Etheredge.” Rochester upbraided him for inattention to literature; and at last, after a silence of eight years, he came forward with one more play, unfortunately his last. The Man of Mode or Sir Fopling Flutter, indisputably the best comedy of intrigue written in England before the days of Congreve, was acted and printed in 1676, and enjoyed an unbounded success. Besides the merit of its plot and wit, it had the personal charm of being supposed to satirize, or at least to paint, persons well known in London. Sir Fopling Flutter was a portrait of Beau Hewit, the reigning exquisite of the hour; in Dorimant the poet drew the earl of Rochester, and in Medley a portrait of himself; while even the drunken shoemaker was a real character, who made his fortune from being thus brought into public notice. After this brilliant success Etheredge retired from literature; his gallantries and his gambling in a few years deprived him of his fortune, and he looked about for a rich match. He was knighted before 1680, and gained the hand and the money of a rich widow. He was sent by Charles II. on a mission to the Hague, and in March 1685 was appointed resident minister in the imperial German court at Regensburg. He was very uncomfortable in Germany, and after three and a half years’ residence left for Paris. He had collected a library at Regensburg, some volumes of which are in the theological college there. His MS. despatches are preserved in the British Museum, where they were discovered and described by Mr Gosse in 1881; they add very largely to our knowledge of Etheredge’s career. He died in Paris, probably in 1691, for Narcissus Luttrell notes in February 1692 that “Sir George Etherege, the late King James’ ambassador to Vienna, died lately in Paris.”
Etheredge deserves to hold a more distinguished place in English literature than has generally been allotted to him. In a dull and heavy age, he inaugurated a period of genuine wit and sprightliness. He invented the comedy of intrigue, and led the way for the masterpieces of Congreve and Sheridan. Before his time the manner of Ben Jonson had prevailed in comedy, and traditional “humours” and typical eccentricities, instead of real characters, had crowded the comic stage. Etheredge paints with a light, faint hand, but it is from nature, and his portraits of fops and beaux are simply unexcelled. No one knows better than he how to present a gay young gentleman, a Dorimant, “an unconfinable rover after amorous adventures.” His genius is as light as thistle-down; he is frivolous, without force of conviction, without principle; but his wit is very sparkling, and his style pure and singularly picturesque. No one approaches Etheredge in delicate touches of dress, furniture and scene; he makes the fine airs of London gentlemen and ladies live before our eyes even more vividly than Congreve does; but he has less insight and less energy than Congreve. Had he been poor or ambitious, he might have been to England almost what Molière was to France, but he was a rich man living at his ease, and he disdained to excel in literature. Etheredge was “a fair, slender, genteel man, but spoiled his countenance with drinking.” His contemporaries all agree in acknowledging that he was the soul of affability and sprightly good-nature.
The life of Etheredge was first given in detail by Edmund Gosse in Seventeenth Century Studies (1883). His works were edited by A. W. Verity, in 1888. (E. G.)