Epsom Wells by Thomas Shadwell
When Thomas Shadwell’s comedy Epsom Wells was first performed on 2 December 1672, Charles II was present. He liked it so well that he saw it again two days later, and on the 27th December the play was given at Whitehall when Queen Catherine also attended.
Compared with Congreve and Vanbrugh, Shadwell was not a great Restoration dramatist, but he was prolific, and popular in his day. It has been said that he gives a faithful picture of his age, roughly rather than finely drawn. Certainly, Epsom Wells is noted more for its gutsy broad humour than for more subtle qualities. The plot is hardly profound: an assorted collection of London tradesmen and their wives, men about town, ‘young ladies of wit, beauty and fortune’, and a bumbling country Justice, pursue amorous intrigues while taking the waters. The Justice, Clodpate, is made a fool of and tricked into a marriage with the seventeenth-century version of a gold-digger.
It would be good to be able to report that this comedy of life in Epsom in the seventeenth century gives useful historical information about the town, but in fact there are few topographical references. The characters do mention the New Inn; this would have been the inn now called the White Horse, on the Dorking Road, and not what is now Waterloo House; although that building has sometimes been referred to as the New Inn, New Tavern is more correct. In any case, the Waterloo House building was not there in Shadwell’s time since it was built in about 1690. There are references to a bowling green and to Clay Hill, which is now called West Hill, and which is known to have had a bowling green at an early date. If the dialogue is little help, the stage directions are even less; they indicate changes of scene but do not describe them.
Although Epsom Wells does not tell us much about the bricks and mortar of Epsom, it reveals a great deal about what people were up to and how they behaved. Shadwell’s characters may not have been finely drawn, but they were blocked in with a sure touch in vivid colours, so that even a reading of the play brings them to life in all their lusty vigour. In the words of the Man of Wit, Rains, when rebuked for burning the candle at both ends, ‘Is it not better to let life go out in a blaze than a snuff?’
Perhaps the preoccupation with sexual adventures was exaggerated, but one would not expect the wives of Restoration London to behave like Queen Victoria. They had lived through the Plague and might well have thought ‘so what the hell’. And maybe the Epsom waters were capable of more than a cleansing of the system! Clearly there was some truth in the observation of one character that ‘the freedom of Epsom allows almost nothing to be scandalous’.