Restoration Comedy is the name given to English comedies written and performed in the Restoration period from 1660 to 1700. After public stage performances had been banned for 18 years by the Puritan regime, the re-opening of the theaters in 1660 signaled a rebirth of English drama. What would emerge from this period would be one of the greatest epochs in the history of the English theater, though it would be completely unlike the Jacobean and Elizabethan dramas which had preceded it. In the first half of the seventeenth century, tragedies, such as those penned by Shakespeare and Marlowe, were the dominant form of drama for serious playwrights. Comedies, while popular, were seen as a secondary literary form. However, in the wake of the bloodshed and trauma of the Restoration, comedy was much needed and it would become far and away the most popular form of drama and literature for nearly half a century.
The era of Restoration Comedy is seen as the high point for literary freedom of expression in monarchial England. Censorship, under Charles II's reign, was loosened. By the mid-seventeenth century, the opinions and moral climate of the English public were, like those on the rest of the European continent, beginning to change. Playwrights in the Restoration period were able to write about romance, courtship, marriage, and sex in ways that had previously been inconceivable, and the result was one of the more libertine periods in English literary history. While decidedly ribald at times, the Restoration was nonetheless a major turning point in the history not only of the English stage, but also of European comedy in general. The stately comedies of the French theater, such as those written by Jean-Baptiste Molière, and the comedies of manners of the Elizabethan period would give way to an entirely novel (and at times, strikingly modern) type of performance.
Although it would come to an abrupt end at the dawn of the eighteenth century, the Restoration theater's attitudes would influence the writings of virtually every major playwright, poet, and novelist writing in English for the next hundred years. The Restoration theater in many ways marks the transition in English literature from the seventeenth to the eighteenth centuries, and, subsequently, serves as one of the turning points from the Renaissance to The Enlightenment.
Charles II was an active and interested patron of drama. Soon after his restoration, in 1660, he granted exclusive play-staging rights, so-called Royal patents, to the King's Company and the Duke's Company, led by two middle-aged Caroline playwrights, Thomas Killigrew and William Davenant. The patentees scrambled for performance rights to the previous generation's Jacobean and Caroline plays, which were a necessity for economic survival before any new plays could be written. Their next priority was to build new, splendid patent theaters in Drury Lane and Dorset Gardens, respectively. Striving to outdo each other in magnificence, Killigrew and Davenant ended up with quite similar theaters, both designed by Christopher Wren. Both theaters optimally provided for music and dancing, and both fitted with moveable scenery and elaborate machines for thunder, lightning, and waves.
The audience of the early English Restoration period was not exclusively courtly, as has sometimes been supposed, but it was quite small and could barely support two companies. There was no untapped reserve of occasional playgoers. Ten consecutive performances constituted a smash hit. This closed system forced playwrights to be extremely responsive to popular taste. Fashions in the drama would change almost week-by-week rather than season-by-season, as each company responded to the offerings of the other, and new plays were urgently sought. The King's Company and the Duke's Company vied with one another for audience favor, for popular actors, and for new plays, and in this hectic climate the new genres of heroic drama, pathetic drama, and Restoration comedy were born and flourished.
Both the quantity and quality of the drama suffered when in 1682 the more successful Duke's Company absorbed the struggling King's Company and the amalgamated United Company was formed. The production of new plays dropped off sharply in the 1680s, affected by both the monopoly and the political situation (see Decline of comedy below). The influence and the incomes of the actors dropped, too. In the late 1680s, predatory investors ("Adventurers") converged on the United Company, while management was taken over by the lawyer, Christopher Rich. Rich attempted to finance a tangle of "farmed" shares and sleeping partners by slashing salaries and, dangerously, by abolishing the traditional perks of senior performers, who were stars with the clout to fight back.
A young United Company employee, Colley Cibber, explained the situation. The company owners, she wrote, "who had made a monopoly of the stage, and consequently presum'd they might impose what conditions they pleased upon their people, did not consider that they were all this while endeavoring to enslave a set of actors whom the public were inclined to support." Performers like the legendary Thomas Betterton, the tragedienne Elizabeth Barry, and the rising young comedienne Anne Bracegirdle had the audience on their side and walked out in protest.
The actors gained a Royal "license to perform," thus bypassing Rich's ownership of both the original Duke's and King's Company patents from 1660, and formed their own cooperative company. This unique venture was set up with detailed rules for avoiding arbitrary managerial authority, regulating the ten actors' shares, the conditions of salaried employees, and the sickness and retirement benefits of both categories. The cooperative had the good luck to open in 1695 with the première of William Congreve's famous Love For Love and the skill to make it a huge box-office success.
London again had two competing companies. Their dash to attract audiences briefly revitalized Restoration drama, but also set it on a fatal downhill slope to the lowest common denominator of public taste. Rich's company notoriously offered Bartholomew Fair-type attractions—high kickers, jugglers, ropedancers, performing animals—while the cooperating actors, even as they appealed to snobbery by setting themselves up as the only legitimate theater company in London, were not above retaliating with "prologues recited by boys of five, and epilogues declaimed by ladies on horseback" (Dobrée, xxi). The demand for new plays stimulated William Congreve and John Vanbrugh into writing some of their best comedies, but also gave birth to the new genre of sentimental comedy, which was soon to replace Restoration comedy in the public favor.
Restoration comedy was strongly influenced by the introduction of the first professional actresses. Before the closing of the theaters, prepubescent boys had played all of the female roles, and the predominantly male audiences of the 1660s and 1670s were curious, censorious, and delighted at the novelty of seeing real women engage in risqué repartee and take part in physical seduction scenes. Samuel Pepys refers many times in his famous diary to visiting the playhouse in order to watch or re-watch the performance of some particular actress, and to how much he enjoyed these experiences.
Daringly suggestive comedy scenes involving women became especially common, although of course Restoration actresses were, just like male actors, expected to do justice to all kinds and moods of plays. (Their role in the development of Restoration tragedy is also important.)
A new specialty introduced almost as early as the actresses was the breeches role, which called for an actress to appear in male clothes (breeches were tight-fitting knee-length pants, the standard male garment of the time) in order to play a witty heroine who disguises herself as a boy to hide or to engage in escapades disallowed to girls. A quarter of the plays produced on the London stage between 1660 and 1700 contained breeches roles. Playing these cross-dressing roles, women behaved with the freedom society allowed to men, and some feminist critics, such as Jacqueline Pearson, regard them as subversive of conventional gender roles and empowering for female members of the audience. Elizabeth Howe has objected that the male disguise, when studied in relation to playtexts, prologues, and epilogues, comes out as "little more than yet another means of displaying the actress as a sexual object" to male patrons, by showing off her body, normally hidden by a skirt, outlined by the male outfit.
Successful Restoration actresses include Charles II's mistress Nell Gwynn, the tragedienne Elizabeth Barry who was famous for her ability to "move the passions" and make whole audiences cry, the 1690s comedienne Anne Bracegirdle, and Susanna Mountfort (a.k.a. Susanna Verbruggen), who had many breeches roles written especially for her in the 1680s and 1690s. Letters and memoirs of the period show that both men and women in the audience greatly relished Mountfort's swaggering, roistering impersonations of young women wearing breeches and thereby enjoying the social and sexual freedom of the male Restoration rake.
During the Restoration period, both male and female actors on the London stage became for the first time public personalities and celebrities. Documents of the period show audiences were attracted to performances by the talents of their favorite actors as much as by the play itself. Authors were relatively unimportant (as no performance was advertised by author until 1699). Although the playhouses were built for large audiences—the second Drury Lane theatre from 1674 held two thousand patrons—they were of compact design, and an actor's charisma could be intimately projected from the thrust stage.
With two companies competing for their services from 1660 to 1682, star actors were able to negotiate star deals, comprising company shares and benefit nights as well as salaries. This advantageous situation changed when the two companies were amalgamated in 1682, but the actors' rebellion and formation of a new company in 1695 illustrates how far their status and power had developed since 1660.
The greatest fixed stars among Restoration actors were Elizabeth Barry ("Famous Mrs Barry" who "forc'd Tears from the Eyes of her Auditory") and Thomas Betterton, both of whom were active in organizing the actors' revolt in 1695 and both original patent-holders in the resulting actors' cooperative.
Betterton played every great male part from 1660 into the eighteenth century. After watching his portrayal of Hamlet in 1661, Samuel Pepys reports in his diary that the young beginner Betterton "…did the prince's part beyond imagination." Betterton's expressive performances seem to have attracted playgoers as magnetically as did the novelty of seeing women on the stage. He was soon established as the leading man of the Duke's Company, and played Dorimant, the seminal irresistible Restoration rake, at the première of George Etherege's Man of Mode (1676). Betterton's position remained unassailable through the 1680s, both as the leading man of the United Company and as its stage manager and de facto day-to-day leader. He remained loyal to Rich longer than many of his coworkers, but eventually headed the actors' walkout in 1695, becoming the acting manager of the new company.
Variety and dizzying fashion changes are typical of Restoration comedy. There was a rapid evolution of English drama over these forty years based partly on social and political causes, partly on theater company competition and playhouse economics.
Restoration comedy peaked twice. The genre came to spectacular maturity in the mid-1670s with an extravaganza of aristocratic comedies. Twenty lean years followed this short golden age, although the achievement of Aphra Behn in the 1680s is to be noted. In the mid-1690s a brief second Restoration comedy renaissance blossomed, aimed at a wider audience. The comedies of the golden 1670s and 1690s peak times are extremely different from each other. An attempt is made below to illustrate the generational taste shift by describing The Country Wife (1676) and The Provoked Wife (1697) in some detail. These two plays differ from each other in some typical ways, just as a Hollywood movie of the 1950s differs from one of the 1970s. The plays are not, however, offered as being "typical" of their decades. Indeed, there exist no typical comedies of the 1670s or the 1690s; even within these two short peak-times, comedy types kept mutating and multiplying.
The drama of the 1660s and 1670s was vitalized by the competition between the two patent companies created at the Restoration and the creation of new plays, as well as by the personal interest shown by Charles II. They stole freely from the contemporary French and Spanish stage, from English Jacobean and Caroline plays, and even from Greek and Roman classical comedies, and combined the looted plotlines in adventurous ways. Resulting differences of tone in a single play were appreciated rather than frowned on, as the audience prized "variety" within as well as between plays. Early Restoration audiences had little enthusiasm for structurally simple, well-shaped comedies such as those of Jean-Baptiste Molière; they demanded bustling, crowded multi-plot action and fast pace. Even a splash of high heroic drama might be thrown in to enrich the comedy mix, as in George Etherege's Love in a Tub (1664), which has one heroic verse "conflict between love and friendship" plot, one urbane wit comedy plot, and one burlesque pantsing plot. (See illustration, top right.) Such incongruities contributed to a low opinion of Restoration comedy during the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but today the early Restoration total theater experience is again valued on the stage, as well as by postmodern academic critics.
The unsentimental or "hard" comedies of John Dryden, William Wycherley, and George Etherege reflected the atmosphere at Court, and celebrated with frankness an aristocratic macho lifestyle of unremitting sexual intrigue and conquest. The Earl of Rochester, real-life Restoration rake, courtier and poet, is flatteringly portrayed in Etherege's Man of Mode (1676) as a riotous, witty, intellectual, and sexually irresistible aristocrat, a template for posterity's idea of the glamorous Restoration rake (actually never a very common character in Restoration comedy). Wycherley's The Plain-Dealer (1676), a variation on the theme of Molière’s Le misanthrope, was highly regarded for its uncompromising satire, earning Wycherley the appellation "Plain Dealer" Wycherley or "Manly" Wycherley, after the play's main character, Manly. The single play that does most to support the charge of obscenity leveled then and now at Restoration comedy is probably Wycherley's The Country Wife (1675).
The Country Wife has three interlinked but distinct plots, which each project sharply different moods:
1. Horner's impotence trick provides the main plot and the play's organizing principle. The upper-class town rake Horner mounts a campaign for seducing as many respectable ladies as possible, first spreading a false rumor of his own impotence, in order to be allowed where no complete man may go. The trick is a great success and Horner has sex with many married ladies of virtuous reputation, whose husbands are happy to leave him alone with them. In one famously outrageous scene, the "China scene," sexual intercourse is assumed to take place repeatedly just off stage, where Horner and his mistresses carry on a sustained double entendre dialogue purportedly about Horner's china collection. The Country Wife is driven by a succession of near-discoveries of the truth about Horner's sexual prowess (and thus the truth about the respectable ladies), from which he extricates himself by quick thinking and good luck. Horner never becomes a reformed character, but keeps his secret to the end and is assumed to go on merrily reaping the fruits of his planted misinformation, past the last act and beyond.
2. The married life of Pinchwife and Margery is based on Molière's School For Wives. Pinchwife is a middle-aged man who has married an ignorant young country girl in the hope that she will not know how to cuckold him. However, Horner teaches her, and Margery cuts a swathe through the sophistications of London marriage without even noticing them. She is enthusiastic about the virile handsomeness of town gallants, rakes, and especially theater actors (such self-referential stage jokes were nourished by the new higher status of actors), and keeps Pinchwife in a state of continual horror with her plain-spokenness and her interest in sex. A running joke is the way Pinchwife's pathological jealousy always leads him into supplying Margery with the very type of information he wishes her not to have.
3. The courtship of Harcourt and Alithea is a comparatively uplifting love story in which the witty Harcourt wins the hand of Pinchwife's sister Alithea.
When the two companies were amalgamated in 1682 and the London stage became a monopoly, both the number and the variety of new plays being written dropped sharply. There was a swing away from comedy to serious political drama, reflecting preoccupations and divisions following the Popish Plot (1678) and the Exclusion Crisis (1682). The few comedies produced also tended to be political in focus, the Whig dramatist Thomas Shadwell sparring with the Tories John Dryden and Aphra Behn. Behn's unique achievement as an early professional woman writer has been the subject of much recent study.
During the second wave of Restoration comedy in the 1690s, the "softer" comedies of William Congreve and John Vanbrugh reflected mutating cultural perceptions and great social change. The playwrights of the 1690s set out to appeal to more socially mixed audiences with a strong middle-class element, and to female spectators, for instance by moving the war between the sexes from the arena of intrigue into that of marriage. The focus in comedy is less on young lovers outwitting the older generation, more on marital relations after the wedding bells. Thomas Southerne's dark The Wives' Excuse (1691) is not yet very "soft": it shows a woman miserably married to the fop Friendall, everybody's friend, whose follies and indiscretions undermine her social worth, since her honor is bound up with his. Mrs Friendall is pursued by a would-be lover, a matter-of-fact rake devoid of all the qualities that made Etherege's Dorimant charming, and she is kept from action and choice by the unattractiveness of all her options. All the humor of this "comedy" is in the subsidiary love-chase and fornication plots, none in the main plot.
In Congreve's Love for Love (1695) and The Way of the World (1700), the "wit duels" between lovers typical of 1670s comedy are underplayed. The give-and-take setpieces of couples still testing their attraction for each other have mutated into witty prenuptial debates on the eve of marriage, as in the famous "Proviso" scene in The Way of the World (1700). Vanbrugh's The Provoked Wife (1697) follows in the footsteps of Southerne's Wives' Excuse, with a lighter touch and more humanly recognizable characters.
The Provoked Wife is something of a Restoration problem play in its attention to the subordinate legal position of married women and the complexities of "divorce" and separation, issues that had been highlighted in the mid-1690s by some notorious cases before the House of Lords (see Stone).
Sir John Brute in The Provoked Wife is tired of matrimony. He comes home drunk every night and is continually rude and insulting to his wife. She is meanwhile being tempted to embark upon an affair with the witty and faithful Constant. Divorce is not an option for either of the Brutes at this time, but forms of legal separation have recently come into existence, and would entail a separate maintenance to the wife. Such an arrangement would not allow remarriage. Still, muses Lady Brute, in one of many discussions with her niece Bellinda, "These are good times. A woman may have a gallant and a separate maintenance too."
Bellinda is at the same time being grumpily courted by Constant's friend, Heartfree, who is surprised and dismayed to find himself in love with her. The bad example of the Brutes is a constant warning to Heartfree to not marry.
The Provoked Wife is a talk play, with the focus less on love scenes and more on discussions between female friends (Lady Brute and Bellinda) and male friends (Constant and Heartfree). These exchanges, full of jokes though they are, are thoughtful and have a dimension of melancholy and frustration.
After a forged-letter complication, the play ends with marriage between Heartfree and Bellinda and stalemate between the Brutes. Constant continues to pay court to Lady Brute, and she continues to shilly-shally.
The tolerance for Restoration comedy even in its modified form was running out at the end of the seventeenth century, as public opinion turned to respectability and seriousness even faster than the playwrights did. Interconnected causes for this shift in taste were demographic change, the Glorious Revolution of 1688, William's and Mary's dislike of the theater, and the lawsuits brought against playwrights by the Society for the Reformation of Manners (founded in 1692). When Jeremy Collier attacked Congreve and Vanbrugh in his Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage in 1698, he was confirming a shift in audience taste that had already taken place. At the much-anticipated all-star première in 1700 of The Way of the World, Congreve's first comedy for five years, the audience showed only moderate enthusiasm for that subtle and almost melancholy work. The comedy of sex and wit was about to be replaced by the drama of obvious sentiment and exemplary morality.
During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the sexual frankness of Restoration comedy ensured that theater producers cannibalized it or adapted it with a heavy hand, rather than actually performing it. Today, Restoration comedy is again appreciated on the stage. The classics, Wycherley's The Country Wife and The Plain-Dealer, Etherege's The Man of Mode, and Congreve's Love For Love and The Way of the World have competition not only from Vanbrugh's The Relapse and The Provoked Wife, but also from such dark unfunny comedies as Thomas Southerne's The Wives Excuse. Aphra Behn, once considered unstageable, has had a major renaissance, with The Rover now a repertory favorite.
Distaste for sexual impropriety long kept Restoration comedy not only off the stage but also locked in a critical poison cupboard. Victorian critics like William Hazlitt, although valuing the linguistic energy and "strength" of the canonical writers Etherege, Wycherley, and Congreve, always found it necessary to temper aesthetic praise with heavy moral condemnation. Aphra Behn received the condemnation without the praise, since outspoken sex comedy was considered particularly offensive coming from a woman author. At the turn of the twentieth century, an embattled minority of academic Restoration comedy enthusiasts began to appear, for example the important editor Montague Summers, whose work ensured that the plays of Aphra Behn remained in print.
"Critics remain astonishingly defensive about the masterpieces of this period," wrote Robert D. Hume as late as 1976. It is only over the last few decades that this statement no longer appears to be true, as Restoration comedy has been acknowledged a rewarding subject for high theory analysis and Wycherley's The Country Wife, long branded the most obscene play in the English language, has become something of an academic favorite. "Minor" comic writers are getting a fair share of attention, especially the post-Aphra Behn generation of women playwrights which appeared just around the turn of the eighteenth century: Delarivier Manley, Mary Pix, Catharine Trotter, and Susannah Centlivre. A broad study of the majority of never-reprinted Restoration comedies has been made possible by Internet access (unfortunately by subscription only) to the first editions at the British Library.
This section lists a selection of seminal critical studies.
All links retrieved July 28, 2019.
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