Saturday, December 17, 2016

Restoration Comedy - a Reflection of Society?

by Annie Whitehead

Perhaps I should begin by defining ‘comedy’ in the theatre. Tragedies invariably centre around the main character and his psychological struggles: Macbeth with his ambition, Coriolanus with his pride. In general, comedies take a light-hearted, sometimes cynical look at the central character and the situation in which he finds himself; in short, at the man in his society. So how far was Restoration comedy a reflection of restoration Society, and how far was it a product of that Society?*

The Restoration of 1660 heralded a new era for the English theatre. Curtailed during the civil war and the years of the Commonwealth, entertainment of this kind was once again in demand. The general consensus of opinion is that if Restoration comedy owed anything at all, it was to France, in particular to Molière, rather than to pre-war comedies (with perhaps the exception of Shadwell.)

It is natural enough to expect the returning Cavaliers to have developed a taste for French theatre during their exile. In this respect then, Restoration comedy was a product of the age. Another distinction can be found in the composition of the theatre companies. The two which dominated London were Thomas Killigrew’s King’s Company and Sir William Davenant’s Duke’s Company. For the first time, actresses played the female roles, and a great deal of the sex and sensuality to be found in Restoration comedies resulted from the introduction of women to the stage. [1]

Nell Gwyn

So who were the playwrights, and what were their aims?  This was a period when the court had a genuine influence on literature in general, and Charles II took an intelligent interest. Most of the playwrights were as well known to their audiences as the actors were, and would be on friendly terms with the like of the Duke of Newcastle, the Earl of Rochester and Sir Charles Sedley. These men wrote themselves, and would be in a position to give advice to the dramatists. Patronage played an important part in the world of the theatres and there is little doubt that the playwrights attempted to meet the demands of their patrons and their audience. Dryden was one who did not participate in the way of life he portrayed in his plays. He constantly played down to contemporary taste, and Sutherland [2] suggested that this was the reason for the startling indecency in some of his comedies. His The Kind-Keeper had to be censored before it could be performed on the stage.

William Wycherley
Etherege did not portray anything he would have been ashamed to do himself, but Wycherley viewed Society as one based on hypocrisy, although he nevertheless wrote to satisfy his audience. Shadwell's comedies were criticised by Dryden, but he had a talent for reproducing contemporary conversation. John Crowne, according to Sutherland, would have written less indecently had the audience not been so demanding. On the whole these men were member of the very Society they were holding up for ridicule. But this should not be seen as a criticism of the world in which they lived. They were projecting an image of the morality of the day and making fun of it, much as Oscar Wilde did in the 1890s.

If these men were attempting to meet the demands of their audience, it must follow that the audience enjoyed what was being offered to it. This begs the question, who went to the theatre? The theatre audience was not just an extension of the court. Theatre-going was an habitual part of day-to-day living for those of the ‘town’. Newton, John Locke, and Mr and Mrs Pepys were frequent attenders. In 1668 Samuel Pepys went to the theatre 73 times in eight months. Davenant’s innovative use of scenery and his inclination towards farce drew in a more bourgeois and less intellectually demanding audience. When the two companies merged in the 1690s farcical comedy became more popular as intellectual standards lowered.

Samuel Pepys

Audiences often contained many people who were seeing the play for a second or third time, and in general these were the fashionable people living outside the city, while quite often the London middle classes shunned the theatres as haunts of iniquity. Many among the audience attended just to be seen in public. They loved wit, cleverness and fine language.

If we are to assume that Restoration Society itself stimulated the new comic impulse, then nowhere can this be seen more clearly than in the plays themselves. The most common style was the Comedy of Intrigue, where the plot involved one or more cynical gallants who sought to seduce a number of brisk young ladies. There was also the Comedy of Humours, the purpose of which was to inculcate morality by displaying humours - caricatures of folly and vice - upon the stage.

Etherege, Wycherley, Congreve, and Farquhar built their plays on these stock formulae. Their plays were often called Social Comedies as they contained some social criticism, dealing wittily with the manner, but more often they are classed as Comedies of Manners. In The Man of Mode (Etherege) and The Way of the World (Congreve), a contrast within Society is portrayed very clearly. There are those who intelligently uphold the standards imposed, and those who are ludicrous through failing to do so. Lynch [3] defined this as the ‘unfailing identification mark’ of all Restoration comedy.

Dorset Gardens playhouse in 1673

Cowley’s Cutter of Coleman Street was too concerned with ‘low’ characters to please the Restoration audience. The returned Cavaliers perhaps expected nothing but eulogy from their playwrights. Sir Robert Howard’s The Committee (1662) was a more pleasing portrayal of middle class vulgarity, portraying two Cavaliers as person of high quality in contrast. In Etherege’s plays, his libertine attitude is expressed through the young men of fashion who are normally the heroes, and sometimes through the witty young women whom they marry. Later in the period the rake-hero gives way to the man of sense, and the influence of the female part of the audience begins to be felt, as the rake is reformed. A well-established character is the English Francophile, easily recognisable at a time when a large part of Society had spent many years in France, and when the king displayed pro-French tendencies.

A well-known and fairly typical example of Restoration comedy is Etherege’s The Man of Mode. John Dennis said of it, “Upon the first acting of this Comedy it was generally believed to be an agreeable Representation of the Person of Condition of both sexes, both in Court and Town.” [4] There is no certainty that the characters are meant to be real people. They reflect Etherege’s success in creating an image of contemporary Society which would be eagerly approved. The character Dorimant’s sexual ambition is a sustaining force in the comedy, but carries with it a threat of disorder. This is controlled in the first place by the Town which imposes its own decorum. To join a company at Lady Townley’s house, Dorimant has to resort to imposture. Character contrasts define and limit Dorimant’s role. Sir Fopling Flutter (yes, really!) provides the folly to contrast with Dorimant’s wit. Sir Fopling parodies many of Dorimant’s actions, showing their limitations and raising doubts as to their value.

Thomas Betterton played the irresistible Dorimant in 
George Etherege's Man of Mode. 

Witty conversation is the main test of social ‘fitness’. In Sir Martin Mar-All (Dryden) Millisent takes up with her husband’s servant because Sir Martin lacks wit. The finer characters inspire sympathetic laughter, but the comedies exhibit many foolish city wives, and doting and miserly city husbands who do not receive any sympathetic treatment. Supported as it was by the landed classes, Restoration drama was not at the forefront of social thinking and expressed only accepted ideas. The non-conformist mercantile community was not treated kindly.

So again, we find the dramatists meeting the demands of their patrons. The Royalist courtiers in the early years of the period remembered only too well the London Financiers’ support for the Commonwealth. Wycherley’s Alderman Gripe (Love in a Wood) was ‘seemingly precise, but a covetous, lecherous, old usurer of the City.’ Congreve, born ten years after the Restoration, continued this tradition with his Alderman Fondlewife (The Old Bachelor).

William Congreve

Naturally, Restoration comedy was not without its critics. Collier, an Anglican Stuart loyalist, believed the stage was conducive to sin. Wit came under attack; Blackmore considered it to be primarily ornamental. He saw the purpose of literature as the inculcation of religiosu and ethical principles. Both these men drew strong support from the merchant class. Most critics wanted to modify the treatment of the merchant in the theatre. [5]

These plays were not a literal copy of the life and manners of the age; the dramatists were presenting a picture of the smart set of the day not as it really was, but perhaps ridiculing how it liked to imagine itself. It is clear that this section of Society took no offence. The brilliance of the new court brought a new brilliance to the English stage. The expectations and demands of the audience were fulfilled. This audience was reacting against the Puritan days, and it saw plays which portrayed that reaction with a new carefree attitude. It saw its morality satirised, its way of life caricatured. Those who saw themselves treated unsympathetically were critical, the fashionable were enthusiastic.

Scene from Etherege's Love in a Tub

Restoration comedy was a product of its age. Playwrights were willing to satirise a Society of which they were a part. The audience was prepared to laugh at itself.

Restoration Society produced Restoration comedy, and this comedy was a reflection of that Society.

*Society with a capital S: the upper classes, essentially.
[1] Six Restoration Plays - Ed. John Harold Wilson
[2]English Literature of the Late Seventeenth Century
[3]The Social Mode of Restoration Comedy
[4] Dramatist d1734
[5] Sir Richard Blackmore - preface to Heroick (poem 1695) and Collier - ‘Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage’ 1698

Additional reading:
The Cambridge Companion to John Dryden
The Ornament of Action - Peter Holland
Comedy and Society from Congreve to Fielding - John Loftis

[All above images are in the public domain]


Annie Whitehead is a history graduate and prize-winning author. Her first novel, To Be A Queen, is the story of Aethelflaed, daughter of Alfred the Great, who came to be known as the Lady of the Mercians. It was long-listed for the Historical Novel Society’s Indie Book of the Year 2016, and it has been awarded a B.R.A.G. Gold Medallion.

Her second novel, Alvar the Kingmaker, is a tale of intrigue, deceit, politics, love, and murder in tenth-century Mercia. It charts the career of the earl who sacrificed personal happiness to secure the throne of England for King Edgar, and, later, Aethelred the Unready. It too has just been awarded a B.R.A.G. Gold Medallion.

Most recently, she has contributed to the anthology of short stories, 1066 Turned Upside Down, in which nine authors re-imagine the events of 1066, and which has just been awarded HNS Editors’ choice and long-listed for Book of the Year 2017.


  1. An excellent post! Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thanks - I love this period of history, although I've never desired to write any fiction set in this time. I love reading about it though :)

  2. Such a fascinating time in English history. I am glad to see that it's gaining more attention. English history beyond the Tudors.

  3. Really interesting article. Never really looked at this angle of 17th century comedy before.

  4. Wonderful post! (And huzzah for Restoration theatre in general!)


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