Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Etherege, George (1635?-1691)

ETHEREGE, Sir GEORGE (1635?–1691), dramatist, was probably born in 1634 or the beginning of 1635, if we can rely upon a poem addressed to him by Dryden early in 1686, in which he is said to be fifty-one (see Gosse, Seventeenth-Century Studies, p. 234). According to Gildon he was born ‘about 1636,’ and came of an Oxfordshire family. He is said to have been for a short time at Cambridge, to have travelled abroad, as is probable from his knowledge of French, and to have afterwards been at one of the Inns of Court. He had presumably some fortune of his own. He wrote three comedies. The first, called ‘The Comical Revenge, or Love in a Tub,’ was acted at the Duke's Theatre in Lincoln's Inn Fields in 1664, with such success that the company cleared 1,000l. in a month. It was published in the same year. The serious scenes are in rhyme. Dryden had adopted the same plan in a few scenes of his ‘Rival Ladies,’ acted in 1663, and published in 1664, with a dedication, in which this ‘new way’ of writing is defended, and its introduction on the stage ascribed to D'Avenant's opera, ‘The Siege of Rhodes’ (acted 1661). Etherege thus helped to popularise a transitory fashion, and was doubtless influenced by his knowledge of the French stage, of which there are other traces in the play. The ‘Comical Revenge’ won for its author the acquaintance of Lord Buckhurst (afterwards Lord Dorset), to whom it was dedicated, and of the scapegrace courtiers of the day. In 1667 Etherege brought out ‘She would if she could,’ which also succeeded. In 1675 Rochester, in his ‘Session of the Poets,’ complains of the idleness of a man who had as much ‘fancy, sense, judgment, and wit’ as any writer of the day. In 1676 Etherege responded to this appeal by bringing out his last play, ‘The Man of Mode, or Sir Fopling Flutter.’ The success of the play was increased by the fact that many of the characters were taken as portraits; Dorinant being Lord Rochester, and Sir Fopling one ‘Beau Hewit,’ then notorious; while Medley was Sir Charles Sedley or the author. Dean Lockier told Spence that Sir Fopling was an exact portrait of Etherege himself.

In 1676 Etherege was concerned with Rochester in a disgraceful brawl at Epsom, where one of their companions was killed in a scuffle with watchmen, and Etherege with Rochester had to abscond for a time (Hatton Correspondence, 1879, i. 133). In 1680 he was injured by an accident at the tennis-court (ib. ii. 216). By this time he was knighted; and, according to the scandal of the time, he had to buy the honour in order to persuade a rich widow to marry him. He is said to have had a child by Mrs. (Elizabeth) Barry [q. v.], and to have settled 5,000l. or 6,000l. upon her.

Etherege obtained some diplomatic employment. He was sent to the Hague by Charles II. In 1685 he was sent to Ratisbon by James II. He spent some years there gambling, reporting gossip in his despatches, getting into scrapes by protecting an actress in spite of the social prejudices of the Germans, keeping musicians in his house, and begging for stage news from home. Three of his letters (from ‘Familiar Letters of the Earl of Rochester’ and the ‘Miscellaneous Works of the Duke of Buckingham’) are given in full in the ‘Biog. Brit.’ Copies of his despatches are in a letter-book now in the British Museum, of which Mr. Gosse gives a full account. Most of the despatches are political, but others are sufficient to show that he continued his habits of squalid debauchery, and disgusted the Germans by worse things than breaches of etiquette. The last letter is in March 1688. His secretary complains that Etherege had never paid him his proper salary, and had done all his business by lacqueys, not knowing ten words of German. Finally he went off to Paris, after three years and a half at Ratisbon, leaving his books behind him. Etherege was no doubt ruined by the revolution. In February 1690–1 Luttrell (Relation of State Affairs, ii. 171) reports that ‘Sir George Etherege, the late King James's ambassador to Vienna, died lately at Paris.’ Record of the administration to the estate of Dame Mary Etherege, widow, is dated 1 Feb. 1692. He left no children. His brother was an officer under William III, was badly wounded at Landen, died about 1718 at Ealing, and was buried in Kensington Church.

His plays were collected in 1704, 1715, and 1735. Steele speaks of their indecency in the ‘Spectator,’ No. 51. Steele might have found equal grossness in much abler contemporaries. Etherege was clever in catching the fashions of the day; but the vivacity which won popularity for his plays has long evaporated. Etherege also wrote some short poems. Mr. A. W. Verity edited a complete collection of Etherege's works in 1888.

[Biog. Brit. article by Oldys; Langbaine (by Gildon), 1698, p. 53; Jacob's Poetical Register (1723), i. 95, ii. 265; Letter-book in Add. MS. 11513; Gosse's Seventeenth-Century Studies; Genest's Stage; Spence's Anecd. i. 62.]

L. S.