The Fashionable Lady is written in the style of a rehearsal. Mr. Ballad and Mr. Drama have composed a work in honor of Ballad’s son’s upcoming wedding, and they, along with Mr. Modely and Mr. Meanwell sit as critics to review the rehearsal.
The four observers begin by discussing the differences between English and Italian opera. While Modely and Meanwell prefer Italian opera, Ballad and Drama seek to convince them that English opera is preferable for British audiences. As the rehearsal commences, they observe throughout. The action centers around Mrs. Foible, a young maiden whose only passion is keeping up with the latest fashion and who is being sought by a number of suitors, among them the lovesick Mr. Smooth, the fashionable Mr. Merit, the coarse Captain Hackum, the “virtuoso” Mr. Trifle, and the humorist Mr. Whim, all of whom seek her hand. (N.B. The title Mrs. in 1730 was simply a title of respect given to all ladies, whether married or not. Clearly, none of the characters in the opera are married.) To add to the plot, Foible’s cousin, Mrs. Sprightly, is in love with Merit and seeks to turn his attentions away from Foible. Smooth visits Harlequin the Conjurer but becomes terrified when Harlequin transports him skyward while his man Mr. Voice looks on. To restore himself to Harlequin’s good graces, Smooth agrees to send Harlequin a world of customers, “All the Fools I know, that is to say all my Acquaintances.” He asks that when they arrive Hackum be frightened in the same manner as he. In the closing scenes Hackum seeks to ingratiate himself more to the lovely Foible.
The four critics continue their debate about the contrast of Italian and English opera as the rehearsal continues. Merit and Sprightly discourse regarding whether Foible or Sprightly should be the object of Merit’s affections. Foible enters and makes sport of Merit’s feelings for her as he is not sufficiently a man of fashion. Smooth entertains the idea that he is a better choice for Foible’s affections, but Foible disparages him as well. Together Foible, Merit, and Smooth decide to pay a visit to the Conjuror Harlequin. Sprightly and Trifle, who both have been likewise slighted by Foible, conspire to be revenged on them by arranging for Sir Peevish Terrible, a critic, to arrest Harlequin and have him stand trial before the Poetical Inquisition. The scene now shifts to Harlequin’s abode where a troupe of Sailors have entered to regale themselves with drink at the invitation of Voice. They are later joined by Hackum, Merit, Smooth, and Foible, but the entertainment is rudely interrupted by the arrival of several Poets who arrest Harlequin to bring him before the Inquisition.
The Act begins with the trial of Harlequin who is found guilty of disparaging art. Voice, Smooth, and Foible plead for his acquittal, but the Inquisitor condemns him to be banished from the stage and exiled to the Continent. Before he can be taken to the ship which is to transport him away, Harlequin manages through a series of tricks to evade the circumstance and once again is at liberty. The focus then turns back to who should win Foible’s heart. After a lengthy discourse between passion and reason, Merit concludes that Foible is not for him and at last falls into the expectant arms of Sprightly. The others likewise come to the realization that, having been so rudely treated by the “Fashionable Lady,” they too will renounce their aspirations for her hand. The group therefore conspire to demand that Foible name her choice of suitor, knowing that whoever she names will rebuff her offer. Thus deserted by all her suitors, Foible swoons and in the end is left only with Harlequin, the “Dumb Conjuror.”
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