Restoration England and its Comedy of Manners

The budding spirit of the Renaissance was ensconced in the emotional exuberance of the Elizabethan Age. Decadence entrenched itself, as the metaphysical poets broke the praxis of facile optimism and introduced intellectual impulse. Despite this dawn of fresh interest, drama, barring dispersed purple patches, had become frivolous and extravagant. The Puritans since the epoch of Robert Aschams had looked doubtfully at Theatre. The lowered vitality of the Caroline Age made Cromwell seize power and close the doors of English Theatre. English drama was eclipsed till the Great Restoration of Charles II to the English monarchy in 1660. Weary of the rigorous Puritan absolutism and Richard Cromwell’s instability at the empyrean, the Englishmen clamoured for the restoration of Charles II to the throne, en masse. Here dawns The Age of Restoration (1660 – 1700).

Charles II’s crowning imported a gamut of French manners and fashions into the English court. The common subjects emulated this French artificiality of behaviour at the cost of English authenticity. The French façade dominated every realm of society. Literary output was negligible vis-à-vis the poetic corpus of the preceding ages. Superficial fancy in literature overshadowed passion and profundity. Restoration Comedy of Manners made portraits of the nitty-gritty in fashions, manners and speech at that time. It voiced a reaction against Puritanism and its sexual repression. At prima facie, it broke new grounds but in reality, it was a continuation of native traditions preceding the closing of theatres in 1642. The local inspirations seem to be Ben Jonson, Fletcher and Beaumont. Continental influence was superimposed in the pre-eminent French – Moliere, Racine and Corneille – apart from the Spaniard Calderon. Albert remarks, “Moliere provided English dramatists with an idea for plots and with an example of comic characterization; Spanish drama served to strengthen that love of intrigue and incident already firmly established in English comedy.”

Despite presenting cynical elegance in a dissolute society, Comedy of Manners is free from didacticism and merely parodies the nonchalance in the upper strata of society.

Comedy of Manners is light, bright and sparkling. It mirrors the pseudo-French vices that had swamped the court of the Stuart Kings. The sacrosanct stage became a pleasure-house of the rich, the fops and dandies, beaux and belles. Theatre became a courtly affair. The involvement of the middle classes in theatre was abrogated. The pursuit of sensuality in the upper classes was candidly documented. It presents the gallant aristocracy and makes their “follies” conspicuous. The course of refinement is coarse. A whore is called “a mistress”, “a friend” et al. Instead of adequately reflecting the life of common people, Comedy of Manners adjusted its habits and values to the entertainment of the privileged. With the familiarity of location, the action is confined to fashionable parks (like Hyde Park, St. James’ Park), coffee houses, exclusive clubs, taverns, drawing rooms and leisure environs. The charming world is breached only in the quest of amorous intrigue. Commenting on the vitality on stage, Charles Lamb observes, “(The Restoration comedies) are a world of themselves almost as much as fairyland.”

Comedy of Manners is famed (rather infamous) for its licentiousness, profligacy, obscenity and immorality. Love is a physical appetite and marriage, mundane. Passion and affection are hyphenated. Free love is advocated, and marriage is considered to be a mere social performance. It demonstrated the misbehaviour of “Rocesters, Buckinghams, Killigrews…” (the chivalry). Love is perceived as an enticing “chase”. These comedies are both hedonistic and iconoclast in the sense they present social institutions like marriage in an obnoxious light. John Brute in The Provoked Wife complains –“Two years of marriage has debauched my five senses.”

Sex antagonism is underscored. A woman is an equal of man with a mesmerizing persona and resistance to patriarchal domination. She is considered fashionable only when she stocks paramours. The artifice of sharp meaningless talk is held as a social grace. Men of “pleasure and wit” and women of “quality and intellect”, “meet and clash” in Comedy of Manners. The “careless, frank and debonair wit” is swiftly managed between the gallant and the mistress. There is normalization of impropriety with an undercurrent of intellectual honesty. The thrust is thus on the manners more than the matter. The incoherent and loose-knit progression deploys a “spatial”, not “temporal” plot. Parts and subplots have more import than the complicated whole. Dialogues are sparkling and repartee is the soul of exchange. LC Knights observes –

“Halifax is a witty writer; his wit springs naturally from situations. Congreve’s wit is entirely self-regarding.”

Bargaining in matrimony is a major theme. There exists a proviso-scene where the hero and heroine work out conditions of nuptial bondage. Dryden, a master stereotyped this by burlesques and imitation. Following is an instance from Act IV, Scene V of The Way of the World by Congreve –

“Millamant: …I won’t be called names after I’m married…
Mirabell: Names?
Millamant: Ay, as a wife, spouse, my dear…nor kiss before folks…Let us not visit together…as if we were not married at all.
Mirabell: Have you any more conditions to offer? …”

Quoted below is another excerpt from Phodophil in Marriage A La Mode by Dryden –

“If our wives would suffer us but now and then to make excursions, the benefit of our variety would be theirs; instead of one continued, lazy, tired love, they would in their turns have twenty vigorous, fresh and active lovers.”

Characters are types and dispositions are unearthed in the oddity of names. Names like Squire Sullen, Lady Bountiful display characterization of the Jonsonian creed with pronounced humour of Every Man in His Humour. These caricatures from situations form a lively medley.

The primary Restoration Comedy of Writers includes William Congreve with his The Way of the World, The Old Bachelor et cetera. Wycherley wrote The Country Wife and Etherege, She Would If She Could. Other playwrights include Vanbrugh and Farquhar.

The Restoration Comedy of Manners is clever, light and a true mirror of the age. However, after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, Restoration Comedy of Manners started to decline 1700 circa. It resurfaced somewhat a hundred years later in Oliver Goldsmith’s Anti-sentimental Comedy: She Stoops to Conquer. It gave way to prose and newspaper. However, it has both its defenders and detractors.

Restoration Comedy of Manners is applauded by critics such as Allardyce Nicholl who believe that the objective was to display the fashionable life of the time, not to indicate the superior mental and moral qualities of a past age or to prophesy the improvements of the future. For them, Restoration Comedy expressed not licentiousness or extravagance, but a deep curiosity and desire to try new ways of living. Hence, Charles Lamb inevitably finds in it the utopia of gallantry rather than the photographic representation of reality.

The strain of appreciation has in no way hindered the much justified literary denunciation. Leslie Stephens goes to the extent of claiming that such comedy is written by black guards for black guards. In fact, with intrigue as plot and obscenity as wit – vice always found a sympathetic friend.

Boris Ford has berated the dramatic tropes on another plane,  “Sex is a hook baited with tempting morsels; it is a thirst quencher, it is a cordial, it is a dish to feed on.”

Ergo, P.A.W Collins rightly raises the pointed objection, “The criticism that defenders of Restoration Comedy need to answer is not that comedies are immoral, but they are trivial, gross and dull.”

Picture Courtesy- The British Library



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