What: In Act V of Colley Cibber’s 1704 comedy The Careless Husband, upon finding her husband asleep beside her handmaiden, Lady Easy [Takes a Steinkirk off her Neck, and lays it gently on his Head.]

Why: Following up his popular sex farce Love’s Last Shift, in which the moral is “a wife is as good in bed as a hooker,” Cibber wove another play around the wackiness of infidelity. In The Careless Husband, Sir Charles Easy is a world-class philanderer, spending most of the play bedding noblewomen and servants. In the climax, his wife Lady Easy comes upon Sir Charles in the most compromising position one could stage at the time: sitting asleep in an easy chair alongside her maidservant Mrs. Edging, his periwig fallen to the floor. (Feel free to gasp.) At this point, most authors would have Lady Easy smack him on the head, unleashing a wave of ever-more-hilarious denials. Not Cibber. He has Lady Easy soliloquize about the thousand little requisites that warm the heart to love, and then gently, tenderly, drape her Steinkirk neckerchief across his uncovered head. When Sir Charles awakens, his wife is gone. He realizes that Lady Easy has passed up the opportunity for great scandal. He is at once shamed by his unfeeling actions and resolved to treat her better. It’s a clever bit of emotional theater, one that had to impact the wandering husbands in the audience. All through the careful placement of decorative cloth.

Impact: Three centuries past, Colley Cibber is a forgotten playwright, but not for lack of trying. Cibber was a hack, and a delightful one. As an actor, he was a ham; as a manager of actors, he consistently promoted himself into roles in which directors wanted to cast his other actors. He gleefully butchered Shakespeare’s Richard III for the masses, actioning it up like a Bruckheimer blockbuster. As a versifier, he weaseled himself a Poet Laureateship, roughly akin to 2 Live Crew’s Luther Campbell getting the post now. He was a dunce in the truest sense, becoming the hero of Alexander Pope’s poem The Dunciad, in which all manner of scandalous acts were alleged. Not to be outdone, Cibber penned an autobiography titled An Apology for the Life of Colley Cibber, in which he not only admitted such acts, but reveled in even more of them. He was a man completely at peace with his flaws. Would were we all.

Personal Connection: It is hardly possible to have a personal connection with Cibber’s plays. I can’t find evidence that any have been staged in America in my lifetime. So this seems as good a time as any to talk about the impact of Wikipedia, which is where I came across Cibber’s mindblowing biography four years ago. Prior to Wikipedia, there was no global method of cataloguing the unusual parts of the universe. Now, the collective efforts of thousands of editors and administrators (of which I am one) will force such things into your fertile brain, if you’re willing to subject yourself to it. This may be the most democratic learning tool of all time. (Though it does need an entry on The Careless Husband….)

Other Contenders: Shakespeare bookends the scene with The Tempest‘s [Enter Mariners, wet] and The Winter’s Tale‘s [Exit, pursued by a bear] (like I’d leave that out!); Anton Chekhov has Smirnov say [Rudely] I love you! in The Bear; David French is delightfully nonspecific when he writes [Robert reacts to this] in the apron scene in Jitters.