Restoration Comedy

Restoration drama is best known, then, not for its tragedies but for its comedies: bawdy and immoral or amoral depending on your point of view they satirise 17th century society with verve and hilarious panache. While mere shadows of the comedies of Jonson or Shakespeare, the plays of William Wycherley, George Farquhar, Sir George Etherege and William Congreve are far superior to the works of the next century. Their characters reel about the stage with exaggerated extravagance and ridiculous affectation: the best example of this being Sir Fopling Flutter in Etherege’s The Man of Mode (1676). Congreve’s Love for Love (1695) and The Way of the World (1700) are similar and extremely amusing in their portraits of love and the social strain of marriage. The relatively realistic but somewhat ham-fisted Farquhar is best known for The Beaux’ Stratagem (1707), while the rather different and morally fierce (in the Jonsonean sense) Wycherley achieved renown for The Country Wife (c.1675). These comedies, especially The Country Wife caused great controversy for their apparently licentious subject matter, and gave comedy something of a bad name (or perhaps a rightful notoriety that it now lacks to its cost). Predominantly prose-based, they were so cynical and bawdy as to offend the new audience of the theatre with frivolity and sexual innuendoes, sexually charged widows and absurd fops. Jeremy Collier’s attack upon these plays, A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage (1698), led to the prosecution of Congreve and generally shook up the theatrical world. Though now the best known, it was not the only savaging of contemporary theatre by any stretch of the imagination. These attacks did nothing for drama, however. The plays of Farquhar and the rest turned out to be the dying gasp of the great period of theatre that had begun one and a half centuries before. Not until the 20th century would new dramatic works be written with such success conceptually and artistically.

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