Restoration Comedy of MannersThe Restoration comedy is also known as Comedy of Manners. These comedies expressed a reaction against Puritanism and the sexual repression it had attempted to enforce. Fashionable intrigues, sex, marriage and adultery were treated with cynicism, with worldly wit and a sense of the comedy of life. The characters in the plays no doubt owed much to the courtiers, the wits, and the men about town as well as to ladies of fashion, citizens, wives and country
girls. ―Restoration Comedy, according to Moody and Lovett, ―is a genuine reflection of the temper, if not of the actual life, of the upper classes of the nation, and as such it has a sociological as well as a literary interest.
The Restoration comedy was shaped both by native and French influences. It drew its inspiration from the native tradition which had flourished before the closing of theatres in 1642. It was also influenced by continental writers, especially by Moliere and Spaniard. It reflected closely the dissolute court life of the period. There was a community of spirit which led to an interest in French comedy. Moliere gave English dramatists the brilliant ideas of plots and some fine examples of comic characterization. The foreign influences, remarks Edward Albert, ―blended with a tradition already strongly established, and assisted the natural process of change demanded by the changing temper of the age, but they were transformed into something essentially English and contemporary. Thus, the comedy of Moliere was changed into a harder, more closely knit form which lacked the warmth and depth of insight of the original.
The comedy of manners is conspicuous for intellectual and refined tone. It is devoid of romantic passions and sentiments. It replaces emotion by wit and poetry by a clear, concise prose. The plays show a close and satirical observation of life and manners. The Comedy of Manners recalls the works of Ben Jonson. It is realistic. The simple aim of this comedy is to show the manners of the upper ranks of society. They are shown with unemotional frankness. The aristocratic refined society, which it presents, is fashionable. It does expose ―follies, but these are the follies of refined gentlemen, and not of ―low characters. Everything coarse and vulgar is eschewed. A ―whore is called ‗a mistress‘, a ―pimp a ―friend and a ―cuckold maker a ―gallant. The cult of refinement is carried to an extreme. It depicts a small world which has a distinct territory of its own – the fashionable parks and coffee houses of the London of Charles II‘s time. Its setting is provided by the public parks, fashionable clubs, taverns and drawing rooms of the aristocratic and the leisured classes of the time.Sex is treated with utmost frankness. Its main subject is the intimate relationship between men and women. The people of this period looked upon love as a purely personal matter, marriage as a social performance. The writers of the comedy of manners dissected the complications of these relationships. It deals somewhat coldly with human love and lust. The subject of the relationship between the sexes was of utmost importance during this period. The Restoration Comedy is the expression of people endeavoring to readjust their values after a great upheaval. They tried to see themselves not as they might wish to be but as they really were. Outwardly the normal life of social acceptance went on, but what happened below it was complete laxity in established social standards. Extramarital relationships were the fashion of the day. Licentiousness was there but it was rationalized, argued, made subjects to scientific tests. The woman is treated neither as a goddess, nor as a plaything of men, not as an object of pleasures but as the companion of man with her own enchanting personality. She is to be won not by devotion or lust, but by intelligence, brilliance or wit, and charm of manners. The lovers love the game of love. They want to continue the game of love up to the end. This rationalized conception of love and courtship leads to an ideal marriage in which the lovers prefer to retain the more agreeable names of Mistress and Gallant. It is a polished courtship in which passion gives place to manners. Nothing should be in excess, neither passion nor indifference, neither boldness in men, and nor coyness in women. The attitude must be easy and graceful. The Restoration Comedies are considered as anti-social because they represent social institutions, particularly marriage in a ridiculous light. They are neither romantic nor revolutionary. Conventions are accepted to be played with and attacked, merely by way of giving opportunity for witty raillery, or point to an intrigue. The most brilliant and amusing statement of the experiment is given in Congreve‘s The Way of the World and Wycherley‘s The Country Wife. (The Country Wife is prescribed in your study. Study that text into the light of Restoration Comedy.) Jeremy Collier condemned the Restoration comedy for immorality. Charles Lamb contradicts Collier.
The Fainalls and Mirabells, the Dorimants and the Touchwoods, in their own sphere, do not offend any moral sense; in fact, they do not appeal to it at all. They seem engaged in their proper element. They break no laws. They know of none.
Indeed, the Restoration comedy is neither moral, nor immoral, it is amoral.
The characters in Restoration comedies are largely types, whose dispositions are sufficiently indicated by a study of their names. We have Sir Foppling Flutter, Horner, Scrub, Sir John Brute, Squire Sullen, Lady Bountiful, Lady Fancyful, Mrs. Marwood, Mrs. Fainall etc.
The Restoration dramatists drew their characters and copied their situations from the life they saw around them. The Restoration dramatists were interested in wit and portrayal of manners rather than in the movement and progression of events. So they employed a spatial rather than a temporal plot.
The loose-knit pattern of such a plot was a definite advantage to them. It provided a better scope for the contrast and balance of characters.
Conflict and intrigues occupy an important place in the Restoration Comedy. These comedies abound in wit and repartee.