Restoration comedy, which comes under the broader heading of comedy of manners, is a type of witty, bawdy comedy written after the restoration of Charles II in 1660. The Restoration comedy of manners describes the life, manner, ways, love intrigues, and foppery of the upper and the aristocratic classes of society. Love and marriage are the two dominant themes of Restoration drama. Continental writers, especially the French dramatist Moliere and the Spanish dramatist Caldron, considerably influenced the form developed in the Restoration period. Satire is an integral part of the comedy of manners. It also utilized the power of wit. The ridiculous violations of social conventions and decorum by stupid characters such as would-be-wits, jealous husbands, and foppish dandies are the things that were dealt with in Restoration comedy. On Restoration comedy, the influence of Ben Jonson was the strongest. Though Jonson’s comedy of humor was both more moral in tone and purpose and more cunningly designed in patterned plot and imagery, Restoration dramatists derived the basis of their comedy from Jonson’s tone and manner. (Daiches, 1998: 540)
The earliest of the writers to practice the comedy of manners was Sir George Etherege (1635-1691). He is remembered for three comedies: The Comical Revenge (1664), She Would If She Could (1668) and The Man of Mode (1676). Etherage was the first who realized that comedy in the manner of Moliere could be exploited in English (Evans, 1990: 110)). His realization in fact proved to be right and his play became very popular. So successful was his second play. The Man of Mode, typical of his plays, has very little story or plot. There is love intrigue, but as everyone is engaged in that all the time it seems a routine rather than part of a plot. The hero is Dormont. He is a fashionable character who can turn the temper of a woman with an epigram and excuses his own conduct with a paradox. In his love intrigues, he exploits the foolishness of Sir Fopling Flutter, a pseudo-courtier full of French fashions.
The next to follow Etherage was William Wycherley (1640-1716) who produced four comedies between 1671 and 1676. They are—Love in a Wood (1671), The Dancing-Master Gentleman (1672), The Country Wife (1675), and The Plain Dealer (1676). It is clear from Wycherly’s plays that he never completely accepted the standards of the Restoration. There is savagery in his plays, a brutal insistence on the unscrupulous selfishness and obsessive animality of all men and women, on the cruel dishonesties implied in the ordinary courtesies of social life. It appears that he was haunted with a sense that the plague was rising all over the society he was living in.The element of Jonsonian humor can also be seen in Wycherly to a greater degree than in other writers of comedies in the Restoration period.
John Dryden, who knew well how to adapt himself to the varying modes of his time, produced comedies of manners too. In fact at the center of Restoration comedies stood John Dryden. His early plays were modeled on the Spanish comedies of intrigue, sometimes with serious melodramatic scenes in rhyming couplets in addition to Jonsonian humor and love disputes and wit-combats. His The Wild Gallant, The Rival Ladies, Secret Love, and Martin Mar-all, all have some elements of Restoration comedy of manners.
William Congreve was the last and greatest of Restoration writers of comedy. Suddenly at the age of twenty-five, he achieved fame with The Old Bachelor (1693). It was followed by three plays: The Double Dealer (1693), Love for Love (1695), and The way of The World (1700). In the middle of these, he wrote a tragedy, The Mourning Bride (1697). At the age of thirty, his career as a dramatist was over. There is very little true comedy in English and in that small circle, Congreve is supreme. His comedies observed the principle that the comic writer should hold up the mirror of the society to his age depicting all the eccentricities and its deviations from some agreed norm. If the society is moral the comedy will reveal the variations from a moral norm, but in Restoration comedy, the errors are not of a moral code but of deviations from wit and good manners. And the Restoration comedy exposed the licentiousness in society.
Congreve, unlike Shakespeare, built one world in his plays, and the same values hold for all his comedies. A character could walk from one play to another and still find him at home. Like any other Restoration comedy, his plays also have two groups of characters, the ‘wits’ who claim our sympathy and the ‘gulls’, the dull ones. The conclusion is not a triumph of good over evil, but of the keen over the stupid. Both sides may be equally bad, but that this does not count in the play. The ‘wits’ whatever they may lack, do at least possess grace and style. They retain attractiveness whatever they may do.
In Restoration comedy, the looseness of the plot can very easily be perceived. This was mainly because of the fact that the Restoration dramatists gave attention only to depicting society. Even Congreve’s best play The Way of the World suffers from this shortcoming. He meditated long on the plot. He rids himself of such devices as the aside and soliloquy which he had freely used in The Double Dealer. But in doing so, he leaves the movement of the action a little more
The vogue of Restoration comedy was partly affected by the attack in 1698 by Jeremy Collier, entitled Short View of the Profaneness and Immorality of the English Stage. Besides, his publication coincided with the beginning of a change in public taste. The comedy of manners, however, did not disappear completely, for in the early years of the new century it was broadened and humanized by two competent practitioners, George Farquhar and Sir John Vanbrugh. Farquhar began with two comedies of no particular distinction, Love in a Bottle (1699) and A constant Couple (1699). These two comedies were followed by two more interesting comedies, The Recruiting Officer (1706) and The Beaux Stratagem (1707).
- Daiches, D. (1998). A Critical History of English Literature, Vol-III. New Delhi: Allied Publishers.
- Evans, B. I. (1990). A Short History of English Drama. Kalyani Publishers.