Restoration Comedy of Manners: in English Literature

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      During The Restoration period of chief dramatic mode was comedy. Inspite of the prohibition of play acting during the Commonwealth, comedy had still been performed from time to time, chiefly in the form of droll. Immediately after the Restoration, there was an eager recurrence to the Jonsonian tradition which is evident in The Chents (1662) by Wilson. The comedy of Intrigue did not win popularity until the eighteenth century. Many of Restoration comedies contain the element of intrigue.

During the Restoration period of chief dramatic mode was comedy. Inspite of the prohibition of play acting during the Commonwealth, comedy had still been performed from time to time, chiefly in the form of droll. Immediately after the Restoration, there was an eager recurrence to the Jonsonian tradition which is evident in The Chents (1662) by Wilson.
Restoration Comedy of Manner

      English Renaissance theatre or Elizabethan theatre refers to the theatre of England between 1562 and 1642. It is also known as Early Modern English theatre. When the English Civil War had begun earlier in 1642, major number of people lost their interest in going to the theatre. They considered it frivolous to serve any kind of diversions or amusements in such troublous times. Further, the rise of Puritanism had already begun to chip away at theater attendance because Puritans considered such forms of entertainment to be corrupting influences. Puritanism was established in the British Parliament in 1642, giving them the power to shut down all theaters. Puritans even began to demolish those theaters; just to be sure they could not be used. In the meantime, anyone caught going to a theatrical production could actually be fined. The war not only affected the theater, but it forever changed the way the English monarchy and Parliament would function. On the 6th of September, 1642, the theaters were closed by ordinance. When the civil wars shut the doors of the theaters, many of the comedians, who had youth, spirit, and vigor of body, took up arms in defense of their royal master. When they could no longer serve him by the profession of acting, they boldly vindicated his cause on the field. Those who were too far advanced in age to give martial proofs of their loyalty were reduced to the alternative of starving, or engaging in some employment to support their wants. During the first years of the unnatural contest between King and Parliament, the players were not unwelcome guests to those towns and cities which espoused the royal cause; but in London, where bigotry and opposition to the King were triumphant, they experienced nothing but persecution.

      Restoration literature is the English literature written during the historical period commonly referred to as the years from 1660 to 1689, which corresponds to the last years of the reign of Stuarts in England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. In general, the term is used to denote roughly homogeneous styles of literature that center on a celebration of or reaction to the restored court of Charles II (King Charles), after England had gone through a political upheaval which saw a king being killed and a protector clamping strictest moral restrictions of puritanical faith. The English monarchy was restored when Charles II of England (above) became king in 1660. In general, scholars use the term ‘Restoration’ to denote the literature that began and flourished under Charles II, whether that, literature was the laudatory ode that gained a new life with restored aristocracy, the eschatological literature that showed an increasing despair among the Puritans, or the literature of rapid communication and trade that followed in the wake of England’s mercantile empire. One of the most significant aspects of Restoration literature is the return of the drama and theatre, because during Cromwell’s regime, the theatres were closed having been branded as immoral. As a result of the influence of religious and political leaders who believed it to be sinful, the theatre had been closed for 18 years. Charles II, however, was a huge fan of drama and quickly allowed and encouraged the theatre’s presence. This period saw many innovations in theatre, including the important new genre called Restoration comedy. In stark contrast to the humble spiritual themes that were common to the literature before 1660, Restoration comedy was frequently crass, largely sexual, and often focused on the interactions of the elite members of English society.

      The Elizabethans as well as the Puritans are persuaded by the strong and sturdy of the galaxy of playwrights like Shakespeare, Ben Jonson and Marlow. Those were the ages of imagination and emotion, but at the beginning of the Restoration period there dawned the era of reason which guided actions in every walk of life. The drama of this time reflects the thought current of life. The restoration playwrights start polishing the personality of men and women, i.e. their manners. That is why the comedy written in this time is also called the Comedy of Manners. To any other age, except this one, manners are only an artificial aspect of a personality of man, something which is acquired and learned. This is for this reason that Restoration Comedy is also known as Artificial Comedy. English Restoration comedies were influenced by the French comedy writers, especially by Moliere, Racine, and Corneille etc. But in reality in spite of French influence in theme and style, Restoration comedy is a continuation of the native traditions of the earlier drama which held the stage before 1642 when parliament closed theatre. Restoration comedy holds the mirror of the contemporary life. It gives a faithful and realistic picture of the society. The society of the mid-seventeenth century was frivolous and to some extent dissolute. To us Restoration may look vulgar and immoral, yet there are vitality and zest of life. Emotion is replaced by wit. Poetry gives way to pointed and clear prose. But characters are largely and poorly conceived woody beings. The themes are very intricate and frail; intrigues are rampant.

      The age produced no great tragedy; it produced great comedies. Foreign influences, especially of French and Spain, were transformed into something essentially English contemporary. Ben Jonson’s influence is great, so much so, that Thomas Shadwell called himself the son of Beil. There was a revival of Ben Jonson’s humors as much as of Fletcher’s dramas. Etheredge and Wycherley are the pioneers of this new type of comedy. It is the comedy of manners which is the glory of the Restoration period. It was pre-eminently a revival of the methods of earlier comedies of Shakespeare. One satirical theme dominates all other: the teasing aimed at the fallen puritan regime. They were scornfully condemned of religious and moral hypocrisy.

      A historical reason behind the extreme prevalence of comedy in the period is to avoid tragedy. According to literary historians, tragedy is a positive drama which is “an artificial predilection for what is hard, awful, evil, and problematical in existence owing to fullness of life”. Tragedy develops during a period of stability — social, political and religious. While in a period of adjustment it is comedy that reflects the spirit of the age. This was an age of experimentation and re-adjustment; and the comedy was able to comment upon the foils of the people without hurting anyone. It tended to laugh the people out of their follies. That is why it is called the Critical Comedy too.

      Popular writers of Restoration comedy include John Dryden (1631- 1700), George Etherege (1635-91), William Wycherley (1640-1715) and William Congreve (1670-1729). Dryden turns his versatile talent to comedy in his The Wild Gallant (1663). He carried on the tradition of Beaumont and Fletcher. Among his popular comedies, Marriage A-la-Mode, The Spanish Friar, An Evening’s Love etc. deserve a great significance. After Dryden, Etheredge introduced a new note. Free from moralizing realism and doctrinal intention, Etheredge shows a mocking image of the carefree society. With irony and epigram, he exposes the evils of the aristocratic class. His The Comical Revenge, She Would if She Could, The Man of Mode etc. show gradual progress of Restoration comedy to excellence. William Wycherley’s Love in Wood, The Country Wife, and The Plain Dealer show witty dialogue but sharp and distorted vision of human weakness. He is a writer of ‘manly’ plays which could keep the audience in good humor. Congreve was to take up the comedy of Etherege and enrich it. He is the greatest of Restoration comedy writers. He gives a faithful picture of the upper-class life of his days. His characters are well-drawn; his prose shows lucidity, wit and rhythm. The. Way of the World is his masterpiece; The Double Dealer is a brilliant comedy of manners, which is free from coarseness and realism. Sir John. Vanbrugh (1664- 1726) was an architect, but as a dramatist he was extremely popular. His famous comedies are The Relapse, The Provoked Wife, The Confederacy etc. Vanbrugh was the one of the dramatists of the age “to show people what they should do by representing them on the stage doing what they should not do”. Thomas Shadwell (1642-92) came from a good family and was an out and out Whig. He was a prolific author. His best-known plays are The Sullen Loners, Epsom Wells, Bury Fairs, The Squire of Alsatia etc. George Farquhar’s (1678-1707) comedies include The Recruiting Officer, Love and a Bottle, The Constant Couple, The Beaux Stratagem etc.

      However, Restoration comedy had a vogue of approximately fifty years, from 1668 to the 1710’s. Built around a central group of young men and women, “its essential ingredients are wit, urbanity and sophistication. The scene is almost invariably London — its streets, parks and coffee houses. The themes are, almost exclusively, love, sexual intrigue and cuckoldry”. Also referred to as the Comedy of Manners because the chief characters are usually members of high society, the Restoration comedy tends to feature recurring types - “the graceful young rake, the faithless wife, the deceived husband, and perhaps, a charming young heroine who is to be bestowed in the end on the rake”. Finally, great emphasis is placed on witty dialogue and repartee for its own sake. Morrah remarks, “It was in this emphasis on wit, the insistence on elegance in writing, on tidiness of mind that the age differed from its predecessor”. According to Charles Lamb, “Restoration comedies are a world of themselves almost as much as fairyland.” The Restoration comedy can be a window into a unique period of English history. Following the political and social turmoil of the English Civil War, the Restoration Age was characterized by a sense of loss and cultural disillusion coupled with efforts to restore social stability and cohesion. These conditions were associated with a diminishment in the influence of traditional institutions such as religion and the aristocracy and the rise of new institutions to replace them.

      The Comedy of Manners has made the Restoration rich in drama. The skeleton of this type was, however, produced much earlier but it found a rich flowering in the hands of Etherege, Wycherley, Congreve, Vanbrugh and Farquhar. 'Manners' mean a quality acquired by a person from free social intercourse with cultivated men and women. The Comedy of Manners always seeks to give a real picture of one section of contemporary life, high in social stature with all its sophistication, conversation and an emphasis on careless gaiety. The purpose of this comedy is to give a criticism of society with skilful satiric touches. The success of a comedy of manners depends on the dramatist's capacity to present the unemotional treatment of sex. It is rich with wit and satire and gives the image of the time. The heroine is more important and interesting than the hero in a Comedy of Manners. The hero of this type of comedy is well-born, well dressed and capable of contest of wit. The heroine too, is a paradox of virtues and affectations, and is as self possessed and witty as her male opponent. They are surrounded by a set of fops, wits, half wits, who carelessly laugh at all social and moral codes. The Restoration comedy of manners aimed at presenting the life of the age. But in doing this, it overstepped the bounds of decency.

      The first Comedian of manners is Sir George Etherege. He has left three comedies - Love in a Tub, She Would if She Could and The Man of Mode which represents the first true Comedy of Manners. It deals with a particular type of people who seem to live upon the surtace of life. The plot is slight. The dialogue is full of sparkling wit. Etherege was concerned with morals and not with manners. His plays carry none of the social criticism implicit in the comedy of Moliere. He is important historically as having helped to set the mode of Restoration Comedy.

      Wycherley moulds the Comedy of Intrigue and the Comedy of Manners into a refreshing original type. His fame depends on his four comedies: Love in a Wood, The Gentleman Dancing Master, The Country Wife and The Plain Dealer. These plays are extremely witty with all their coarseness. Wycherly impresses the readers by sheer vehemence of language and the energy of characterisation. He has the first satirical power of Jonson. The atmosphere of The Plain Dealer is that of the Puritan rather than the Restoration Comedy of Manners.

      Congreve once more took the Comedy of Manners to its proper channel. He wrote five comedies - The Old Bachelor, The Double Dealer, Love for Love, The Mourning Bride, The Way of the World. Of these, The Way of the World is considered the flower of Restoration comedy. The plot of the comedy is developed skilfully and the love scenes between Mirabel and Millamant have been treated with tenderness and sensitivity. In construction and grasp of characters he steadily improved with each play. But from the very first he showed his capacity for light and witty dialogue. In The Way of the World, Congreve deals with a serious theme of sexual relationship through a variety of characters and situations. He shows the affectations and conspiracies and sexual Hypocricies of the age, but there is true love between Millamant and Mirabel. The proviso scene shows his rational attitude to love and marriage. Here also we find the strength of newly developed English prose.

      Vanbrugh and Farquhar kept alive something of the spirit of Restoration Comedy of Manners after Congreve. Vanbrugh wrote mainly three comedies - The Relapse, The Provoked Wife and The Confederacy. Vanbrugh's plays lack the art and elegance of Congreve's but they are full of energy and genial humour. In construction, characterisation and dialogue his plays are admirable and he has a sheer genius for farcical situations.

      Farquhar wrote seven plays which bear upon them the imprint of his good humoured, happy go lucky personality. His best work is contained in his last two plays, The Recruiting Officer, The Beaux Stratagem. The last play specially is unflagging in its humour and there is an open air atmosphere about his work that gives it a distinctive place in the Restoration drama.

      The fine society thus mirrored in the Comedy of Manners was careless, intent only on pleasure and amorous intrigue. Verbal repartee is the most important and interesting characteristic of this drama. It subordinates plot to dialogue. The Comedy of Manners gives the picture of the society of Charles II's court. The language of the conversation sometimes borders on the indecent and immoral.

      Many critics condemn the Restoration comedies as immoral. In 1698 Jeremy Collier wrote 'A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage'. The book had an immense effect on the literary critics. Charles Lamb in his essay "On the Artificial Comedy of the Last Century" says that the Restoration comedies "are a world of themselves almost as much as fairy land". Lamb was anxious to reconcile his enjoyment of the plays of Wycherley and Congreve with the moral disapproval of his contemporaries. Macaulay attacked Charles Lamb and indicated that unsound morality was always set off to every advantage and sound morality was insulted and derided in the Restoration Comedy of Manners. Dobree points out that the Restoration Comedy is concerned with rationalising sexual relationships. L. C. Knights however says that in the matter of sexual relations, the Restoration comedy is entirely dominated by a narrow set of conventions.

      It has however to be admitted that the society that the Restoration comedies mirrored was itself dilettante. lf we condemn the society of the Restoration court we cannot condemn the dramatists of the period. There is an air of abandon and immorality in these comedies. There are passages in some of these comedies which overstep the bounds of decency and good taste. But these plays possess the gift of laughter and that gift was particularly refreshing in the face of rising sentimental and moral movement. The brilliant wit, the bright dialogues and hilarious laughter it produced are of enduring interest to all lovers of literature. Moreover, Restoration comedies have to be studied not in the light of present-day theories, beliefs but in the spirit of the age in which they were written. The Restoration comedies give a true picture of their society, their portraits of gallants and belles are true to life.

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