Bonamy Dobree points out that in the history of dramatic literature there are some periods which are predominantly comic and some which are difmitely tragic. Tragedy generally flourishes when religious, moral, and social values are more or less fixed and positive; and comedy, when they are uncertain and fluid. The ages of Aeschylus, Shakeapeare, and Corneille were the periods of the dominance of tragedy, and those of Aristophanes, Jonson, and Moliere that of comedy.
The Restoration period, likewise, was a comic period as, to use the words of Dobree, “it was an age of enquiry and curiosity.” Things like sexual morality came to be examined, and new conclusions, mostly tentative, came to be expressed. Comedy was thrown into a more scientific and literally “prosaic” mould, and the imaginative fights of the Elizabethans and the bizarre poetry of the metaphysicals were discarded in favour of a down-to-earth kind of expression. The Restoration age was marked by the establishment of the Royal Society and a great expansion of scientific knowledge. In many departments of life and literature this scientific spirit of enquiry and disbelief was abroad. This temper and spirit of the age found appropriate expression in comedy. Whereas in the field of tragedy the age has none to show except Otway as a true master, in the field of comedy it presents a galaxy of brilliant writers whose work has made this age one of the most splendid in the annals of English drama.
The Comedy of Manners:
Chiefly the Restoration age is associated with the rise and development of what is called “the comedy of manners.” This kind of comedy was indeed a true mirror of the temper and outlook of the society-rather a section of the society-of the age. But it will be a gross error to suppose that the comedy of manners was the only kind of comedy written and appreciated in this age. The chief practitioners of the comedy of manners were:
(i) Sir George Etherege (1635-1691)
(ii) William Wycherley (1640-1715)
(iii) William Congreve (1670-1729)
(iv) Sir John Vanbrugh (1661 -1726)
(v) George Farquhar (1678-1707)
The comedies written by these playwrights, says Dobree, “form but an infinitesimal portion of the many comedies produced during these years.” Their comedy of manners, says the same critic, “did not by any means dominate the world of the theatre: it was rivalled by many another forms which proved as popular, if not more popular, with contemporary audiences” The other forms of comedy v- ere mainly the comedy of humours and the comedy of intrigue. Whereas Shadwell made his mark in the former kind, Dryden, Tate, Durfey, and some others achieved notable successes in the latter. Let us now examine the salient features of the comedy of manners and see how it differs from Elizabethan comedy.
Whereas throughout its long career English tragedy has always accepted foreign influences, English comedy has been less amenable to them. But the Restoration comedy of manners did assimilate a good deal of the Continental spirit. John Wilcox in The Relation ofMoliere to Restoration comedy has tried to dispel the belief that Restoration comedy was substantially influenced by French comedy. Even then it is certain that Moliere was held in much respect by Restoration dramatists. He provided them with quite a few ideas about plot and effective comic characterisation. The strong element of intrigue in the plot is due in some measure to the influence of Spanish drama. As regards the influence of the preceding masters of comedy on Restoration comedy, it is of interest to note that Jonson, Beaumont and Fletcher stand in the forefront whereas Shakespeare is relegated to the background. Restoration comedy lacks the warmth and depth of Elizabethan comedy, but on the side of credit it also eschews its extravagance and lack of realism. Shakespeare’s plays were out of favour,ia this age. Samuel Pepys records in his Diary that once he attended a performance of Shakespeare’s A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream, but he did not like it at all, “for it is the most uninspired play that ever I saw in my life.” Another diarist of the age, Evelyn, in the same tone criticises Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet: “I saw Hamlet played, but now the old plays begin to disgust this refined age, since his majesty’s being so long abroad.” Unlike the “romantic” Shakespeare, Ben Jonson and Beaumont and Fletcher were respected and appreciated by both the dramatists and audiences of the age, Ben Jonson taught the comedy writers a sense of hard realism combined with a hard-hitting satirical temper. Beaumont and Fletcher bequeathed them a courtly spirit. Johnson was directly and even duly copied by his “sons” like Shadwell. But he had also to teach the writers of the comedy of manners quite a few things. Bonamy Dobree avers in this connexion: “Even the masters of the comedy of manners showed that they had learned part of their art at least from the early seventeenth century playwright Ben Jonson.” There is some resemblance of approach and effect between the comedy of humours and the comedy of manners. Both are realistic and satiric. A “manner” is something natural and ingrained; a manner is not so deeply-seated and is the product of social influence which can be easily dated. Humours, on the other hand, are mostly dateless-jealousy greed, sensuality etc. Manners are of the nature of acquired follies and vices.
The manners which the comedy of manners reveals were not the manners of all classes of Restoration society; they were rather the manners of the courtly classes only. Thus an important difference between Elizabethan and the Restoration comedy of manners concerns the extent of the areas of their appeal. Elizabethan drama was a national affair, and the London of that age supported no fewer than six companies of players; bjut in Restoration London at no time could be found more than two. The players catered for the taste of only the courtly classes. The playwrights themselves were gentlemen, or, at least, pretenders to gentility. Congreve is said to have once told Voltaire that he wished to be regarded not as a literary man but as a gentleman. Dryden complained that the Elizabethan dramatists’ wit “was not the wit of gentlemen.” Even Steele asserted that “the chief qualification” of a dramatist was “to be a very well-bred man”. Thus the comedy of manners was written by “gentlemen”, for “gentlemen”, and about “gentlemen”. According to Archer, this very quality was a fatal weakness of Restoration comedy which, as he puts it, “was essentially coterie talk, keyed up to the pitch of a particular and narrow set.” P.A.W. Collins in his essay oiv Restoration comedy in The Pelican Guide to English Literature, Vol. IV avers: “The presence of the upper class at the centre of the comic action marked off Restoration comedy from its predecessors. Traditionally, comedy dealt with lower class persons, and one of the limitations which the Restoration found in Elizabethan comedy was its poor showing in ‘gentlemen’. The Restoration comedy of manners concentrated on the activities, intrigues and amorous achievements of gay, frivolous, rakish type of young men and women.” “Restoration comedy is,” says Allardyce Nicoll in British Drama, “wholly aristocratic, the manners, displayed being not those of men in general (such as Jonson showed in his homours) but the affectations and cultured veneer of finer society. For these men a manner was not a trait native to an individual, but a quality acquired by him from social intercourse.”
Realism, Social Analysis, and Satire:
Unlike the Elizabethan romantic comedy, the comedy of manners is characterised by realism, social analysis, and satire. Its use of prose served to heighten the realistic effect. Says a critic: “In the school of Etherege and Wycherley, idealism entirely disappeared: their aim was to copy minutely the manners of domestic life. Vice and folly were not to be moralised about or ridiculed, they were to be photographed. Realism is everything, morality is nothing”. These dramatists held a mirror to the finer society of their age. “This fine society,” says Allardyce Nicoll, “thus mirrored in the comedy of manners, as it was the society of Charles II’s Court, was dilettante, careless, intent only on pleasure and amorous intrigue, so that the comedy which depicted it has an air of abandon and of immorality which is markedly different from the manlier temper of the Elizabethan stage.” The scene of most comedies of manners is London, more specifically its coffee-and chocolate-houses, clubs, and gambling houses which were haunts of the corrupt and fashionable ladies and gentlemen of the age. Apart from these ladies (mostly flirts) and gentlemen (mostly rakes) we hawas typical characters the foolish country squire, the male bawd, and so on. Love intrigues, clandestine love affairs, gossip, character-assasination, drinking, gambling, womanising, and scandal-mongering are some of the pursuits of these characters and as such they provide the staple of the plots. These comedies are thus true pictures of the noble society of the age. But they are much more. To quote George Sherburn in A Literary History of England, ed. Albert C. Baugh, “Restoration comedy is rather an anatomy of life, not more a representation than a commentary on life and on various social schematisms.” Further he says that “Restoration comedy is rather less a representation of life than it is a commentary upon manners.” This “commentary” is satirical in its nature. All satire admits of an element of exaggeration, and Restoration comedy is not without it. If we base our ideas regarding the higher society of the Restoration age entirely on the comedy of manners we will be treading unsafe grounds. We have to tone the colours down to arrive at the truth.
One feature of Restoration comedy which has been often condemned and almost as often defended, is its immorality. The following points are worthy of notice in connexion with this alleged immorality:
(i) Restoration comedy held a mirror to the high society of the Restoration age. The society was immoral, so was image as represented by the comedy.
(ii) The persistent attack on the sanctity of the marital bond made by the comedy writers and the parallel advocacy of free love (mainly to cater for the needs of the libido) imparts to the comedy of manners a pronounced immoral note.
(iii) Most comedy writers relished the presentation of scenes and acts suggestive or even clearly indicative of sexual grossness.’
(iv) The comic dialogue was bristling with salacious innuendoes. The choicest obscenities were put into the mouths of female players who were selected to speak out the epilogues.
(v) The introduction for the first time of actresses on the stage also lowered the level of morality. These actresses were mostly women of easy virtue.
Jeremy Collier was the first to raise his powerful voice against the immorality of Restoration stage. Dr. Johnson, Macaulay, Leslie Stephen, and many more have since followed his lead, even though with not the same fanaticism. In his Prologue spoken….at Drury Lane (1747) Dr. Johnson writes thus about Restoration comedy writers:
Themselves they studied, as they felt they writ; Intrigue was plot, obscenity was wit.
Vice always found a sympathetic friend;
They pleas’d their age, and did not aim to mend.
Leslie Stephen says that the comedy of manners is a comedy “written by blackguards for blackguards.” Lamb maintained that he did not take the immorality of the comedy of manners seriously as it did not strike him as realistic but only a “utopia of gallantry.” Dobree and Nicoll “defend” the comedy of manners for almost the same reason-it was immoral because the society it mirrored was immoral. “If, says Nicoll, “we condemn the society of the Restoration Court we need not thereby condemn the dramatists of that period….” But a mirror has no power of thinking or feeling; the comedy writers did have. And they positively show that they reUsh immorality, perhaps’ because it is a passport to success with their restricted audience. Much of their wit is concerned with the expression or insinuation of obscenities. Cuckoldom is the theme dearest to them. The restrictions of marriage are their bete noire. Lady-killing is glorified (not just represented) as the distinguishing mark of a gentleman. Gambling and drinking are made noble pursuits. The hero is always a gentleman-rake poised to cuckold a gull or some other gentleman-rake. The whole concept of love is anti-romantic and even cynical. This cynicism is also apparent in characterisation. All virtuous characters, whenever they are represented, are shown as uninteresting fools meant only to be hoodwinked by some clever scoundrel.
Plot-construction and Dialogue:
The writers of the comedy of manners gave much more importance to the wit and polish of their dialogue than to the construction of their plot-which Aristotle thinks is the soul of a tragedy (and therefore o,uite important for a comedy too). Some love intrigue or love intrigues provided them with the ground-work of their plot. But they seldom harmonised or even developed their plot with much architectonic skill. The lesson of Ben Jonson in this sphere was entirely lost. What was important for these playwrights was the dialogue and the individual scene or episode. They did not mind incorporating into a comedy numerous plots and sub-plots. Thus, for instance, Etherege’s Comical Revenge has no fewer than four plots. These dramatists often looked for guidance to the French comedy writers and Ben Jonson, but they showed no evidence of having learnt their architectonic skill.
The dialogue in the comedy of manners was sought to be made oy its writer witty, polished, and crisp. The verbal fireworks of this comedy are both pleasing and displeasing. Bonamy Dobree points out: “By the quality of its wit Restoration comedy is immediately dated. It is this persistent attempt to be witty that makes many people regard Restoration comedy as tedious, undramatic stuff, during the action of which persons come upon the stage to fire off epigrams at one another. Though we may now and again find the method tiresome, yet it has its interest and even its beauty.” L. C. Knights criticises the comedy of manners not because it is immoral but because it is dull in spite of its constant effort to be witty.
The two periods important for the comedy of manners were 1668-76 and 1693-1707 because during them most of such comedies were written.
The first true practitioner of the comedy of manners was Etherege whose important works include Love in a Tub, She Wou’dlf She Coicd, and The Man of Mode, or Sir Fopling Flutter. Etherege himself was a courtier and naturally adept at revealing the manners of courtiers. “His laughter”, says Dobree, “is always that of delight at being very much alive, and is only corrective here and there by accident.” Etherege lacks the brilliance and polish ofCongreve, but he has a naturalness and airy grace of his own.
Wycherley’s reputation is based upon four plays: Love in a Wood, The Gentleman Dancing-Master, The Country Wife, and The Plain Dealer. The first three of them are after the mould of Etherege. They deal with fops and gallants and seem to revel in their contemptible intrigues. The Country Wife is the most indecent of all. However, in The Plain Dealer Wycherley emerges in the role of a satirist rather than a reveller. But his real attitude and moral standing are somewhat ambiguous. He lacks the airy wit of Etherege, but in-plot-construction he is much ahead of him; His plots are well harmonised and rounded entities.
Congreve lacks the strength of Etherege and Wycherley. According to Dobree, “his whole power is centred on an airiness of fancy and delicacy of style eminently adapted to the expression of the conventional conversation of the fine society of his time.” According to Henley “he is saved from oblivion by the sheer strength of style.” Congreve’s most important comedies are The Old Bachelor, The Double Dealer, Love for Love, and The Way of the World. In his comedies he creates a world of his own. It is a superficial and trivial world, no doubt, but it is interesting, and Congreve knows its ins and outs.
Farquhar wrote some seven plays, the most outstanding of which are The Recruiting Officer and The Beau’s Stratagem. He is much less witty and polished than Congreve. His dialogue is nearer the language of normal conversation. P.A.W. Collins says: “If his plays lack the nicer insights of Congreve and the mordancy of Wycherley, they are more generally humane than theirs and are the most attractive (as they were long among the most popular) of Restoration comedies.” Farquhar does not flout moral standards and in this respect he looks forward to the drama of Steele and the succeeding age.
Vanbrugh is known chiefly for his comedies The Relapse, The Provoked Wife, and The Confederacy. The second named is his masterpiece; the third named is the most immoral. All of them are concerned with unhappy marriages. Vanbrugh lacks the wit and elegance of Congreve, but his plots are better constructed. He relishes farce and caricature and lacks the intellectual force of Congreve. Even then, his plays are readable today on account of their genial humour, even though often of the farcical kind.