RESTORATION COMEDY OF MANNERS
It is now an established fact that all the cultural productions—be it popular or serious and be it a production on the celluloid or on the stage—are actually produced on the invisible matrices of a particular culture at a particular time, and what makes the acceptance or refusal of a particular art form possible is the operation of ideology or ideologies in the society. This is more prominently understandable in the rise and development of Restoration Comedy, which coincided with the restoration of monarchy, of king Charles II (1660) after England had gone through a political. England had previously seen a king being murdered and a Protector clamping strictest moral restorations of Puritan faith. It was not only a restoration of monarchy but also of drama, because during Cromwell’s regime the theatres were branded as immoral. Between 1642 and 1660 English theatre virtually did not exist. The natural reaction of moral starvation was extreme profligacy. The king himself was an indolent sensualist who patronised an atmosphere of hedonistic liveliness of court. As David Daiches put it, “Charles set the tone for the court wits and court wits set the tone for…dramatic comedy.” The playwrights concerned themselves with the veneer and polished personality if men and women, that is, their manners, where ‘manners’ means a quality acquired by person from social intercourse with cultivated men and women. This type of comedy, however, owed as much to the native Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists like Jonson, Beaumount and Fletcher, as to the foreign influences of the French dramatists like Moliere, Racine, Corneille and Calderon. The comic element in the Italian Commedia dell’ Art also provided a note.
George Etherege first realized that the comedy in the manners of Moliere could be exploited in English. The Comical Revenge, the first of its kind, contained a comic plot dealing with the fools, bullies and the ladies of varying degrees. The Man of Mood is Etherege’s last and most brilliant comedy. In William Wycherley’s plays there is a savagery, a brutal insistence on the unscrupulous selfishness and obsessive animality of all men and woman. In his best plays, The Country Wife and The Plain Dealer, he almost turned a cynic and leashed his mockery at disillusioned figures who were oblivious to anything else in the world being busy in a mad race of pleasure.
William Congreve was the most representative and accomplished dramatist of the period. It was left to him to retrieve the Restoration Comedy from cynicism and boisterous virility. In his first play The Old Bachelor, he lays down his purpose, where Bellmour says to Vainlive:
“Come, leave business to Idlers and wisdom to Fools…Will be my Occupation and let Father Time shake his glass.”
The Double Dealer bears the stamp of his thinking about plot and about the theory of drama. Love for Love was the most satirical of his plays, and in its Prologue Congreve deliberately stated his intention of lashing the age. In Way of the World, his masterpiece, the construction, characterisation, dialogue are alike brilliant. This play contains some standard elements of Restoration Comedy—such scenes as those where reputations are murdered by gossip, such characters as Mrs. Millament and Mirabell, the flashes of wit in the dialogues, the amorous widow, the country square, intrigues, adulteries and all usual tensions between desire and reputations. Congreve’s credit lies in the fact that he handled the materials towards a steady resolution so that people could be able to choose the correct practical way—the way of the world.
Among other Restoration Comedy writers John Vanbrugh’s plays lack the art and elegance of Congreve’s comedy, but they are full of energy and geniality. Of Farquhar’ seven plays only two speak of his dramatic talent—The Recruiting Officer and The Beaux Stratagem.A Short View of the Immorality and Profanity of the Stage. Among minor Restoration dramatists Sir Charles Sedley, Thomas Sadwell, John Crowne, Thomas Urfrey and Mrs. Aphra Behn may be mentioned. The comedies came to an abrupt end, partly because the possibilities of a limited convention have been exhausted, partly because Farquhar died and Congreve became blind and Vanbrugh became engrossed in his architecture. These events had nothing to do with Jeremy Colier’s essay, The verdict of posterity had not been always favourable to the foibles and follies of the Restoration comedies. It has been criticised for being trivial, dull and gross by such critics as L. C. Knight, who claims that it lacks the essential stuff of human experience. In fact, the comedies represent not so much an immoral attitude but lack of maturity. For example, the plots are too involved, which provoked Granville Barker to ask, ”How could an audience be both clever enough to understand it and stupid enough to be interested by it?” The Restoration dramatists, however, had keen interest in social achievements and follies of their extraordinary society. Besides this, its various qualities—experimentalism and scepticism, cynicism and satiric investigation, re-examination of the social contact, its moral indifference and shallow intellectualising, the modern theatre with its picture-frame stage, its actresses taking parts, its movable scenery, its artificial light—all were reflected and developed during the Restoration period. Finally, Restoration Comedy played a vital role in the refinement and improvement of the English language.