Comedy of Manners: Restoration Period - Analysis

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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

      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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