EXAMINING THE RESTORATION COMEDY OF ENGLISH DRAMA

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For the English people, 17th century was a period of great political turmoil and social upheaval. In 1642, the parliament outlawed theatrical performances in public places and playhouses. In 1649, political wrangling led to the decapitation of king Charles 1 and this forced his son- the heir apparent, to exile in France. Cromwell was appointed to head the English government in a period often referred to as the commonwealth era. However, when he died, his son appointed to replace him was unable to maintain control. By 1660, Charles II was restored to the English throne.

The restoration of Charles II brought the French taste and influence to bear on the English stage leading to a brand new form of drama now referred to as the Restoration drama. The Restoration drama was short-lived lived due to puritans’ attack. The eighteenth century ushered in drama of sensibility and sentimentality. The playwrights of this period tried to make up for the looseness and obscenity of the Restoration drama.

From the late 18th century up to the first-half of the 19th century, melodrama became the staple of the English drama. This type was evolved to beat the law. Downer (1950) states that:

As the almost exclusively offering of minor or illegitimate theatre, melodrama has also a special meaning for the English stage. In the first decades of 1800 a series of small playhouse had been erected in various parts of London with the intention of profiting from a legal quibble over what constituted the theatrical ‘entertainments’ described by the patents. The proprietors of the minor affected to believe, with Palmer of the ill – fated Royalty, that the patent referred only to “legitimate” drama, the standard repertory of five – act plays told in dialogue and action. The minors pretended to confine themselves to a kind of opera: plays which made great use of lyrical interludes, choruses, ballets, and other illegitimate delights. Since the patents were indisposed to challenge them, the minor managers were emboldened to insert songs into the standard works, even of Shakespeare, and produce them as plays with music, or melodrama. In a few years what began as a scheme to evade the law became a basic convention, the elaborate systems of musical cues which reinforce the passions, accompany actions, and serve as a leitmotifs for the characters of this lively and popular art.

Between 1642 and 1660 when the exiled heir to the English throne, Charles II was restored to the throne, theatrical performances “were presented surreptiously” (Downer 1950) due to the civil war and puritans attack. The theatre was made a hazardous business as playhouses were raided, costumes seized, and actors arrested and thrown into the prison. In fact, constant raid of the playhouses made it extremely difficult for full-blown plays to be staged. In the alternative, series of cuttings from mostly popular Elizabethan plays known as drolls, became fashionable as “ingenious expedients for outwitting the authorities” (19). Downer (1950) argues that:

The advantage of the drolls, of course was that although brief, it was the most popular essence of the play from whence it was taken, and because brief it could be presented with little preparation, could be transported easily from one fair, festival, or theatre to another and was over before a raid could be organised.

However, the restoration of Charles II to the throne led to an official reopening of the theatre, but the restored theatre abandoned the known theatrical pathway and followed a new pathway charted by the returned king and his court. The theatre lost its national status and became a “narrowly aristocratic one… instead of an audience representative of the whole community, the playhouses now attracted only the aristocratic element, the courtiers and gallants” (Vargas, 1960: 128). According to Downer (1950):

The life of exile in France had developed to a greater degree in Charles II those qualities which the puritans found most offensive in his father. He was by nature witty and pleasure-loving and the rootless, homeless life of even a royal wanderer had destroyed his sense of moral values. Members of his court-in-exile reflected their king. His poets for want of matter had taken to writing illustrations of the code of court of love, and of all the artifices connected with the science of friendship.

In spite of the Puritans’ perception of the theatre as a cesspool of immorality, King Charles II did not hide his love for theatrical performances. In fact, one of Charles II’s acts was to grant patents to Thomas Killigrew and William Davenant. The licenses enabled them to form two theatre companies namely the King’s Men and the Duke of York’s Men, respectively. These two companies were the recognised national theatres and they enjoyed the monopoly of theatrical productions in the country from 1660 to the middle of the 19th century when minor groups began to emerge as a result of the theatrical legal quibble. This unit examines this new vogue in English drama and emphasis is on the Restoration comedy.

Restoration Comedy

Due to the considerable time the royal entourage spent in France and their acquisition of a comic taste influenced by the comedies of Moliere that were “beginning to make a stir in Paris at this time” (Vargas 1960), the court did not hesitate in declaring its taste for comedy, but the comic world of romance preferred by the Elizabethans was, according to Downer, “exchanged for the comic world of manners, a witty, cyrical, intellectual, deliberately immoral world, an exact reflection of the tastes, interests, and code of behaviour of its aristocratic audience”. Hence, immediately the theatre was reopened, the courtiers went for the plays of Jonson, Beaumont and Fletcher built on manners, wits and humours. Like Jonson’s comedies, wit was the touchstone of the Restoration comedies. It was the yardstick of assessing characters and “perhaps the accomplishment on which the courtier most prided itself” (Downer 98).

Heroes and heroines of the ‘Restoration comedy celebrate the code of life of the gallants and aristocratic ladies. In his essay, “A Short View of the Profaneness and Immorality of the English Stage”, Reverend Jeremy Collier sees the gallant from essentially an immoral angle. According to him:

A fine gentleman is a fine whoring, swearing, smutty, aetheistical man. These qualifications, it seems, complete the idea of honour. They are the top improvements of fortune, and the distinguished glories of birth and breeding. This is the stage – test for quality, and those that can’t stand it, ought to be disclaimed. The restraints of conscience and the pedantry of virtue are unbecoming a cavalier; future security and reasoning beyond life are vulgar provisions.

In fact, riotous and “aristocratic macho life styles of unremitting sexual intrigue and conquest” are the cornerstones of the Restoration comedy. The characters are pleasure -seeking and amorous, essentially profligates, with strong tendency to have sex with their friends and neighbours’ wives or husbands. They are eccentrics who banter wits and often drink to stupor. It is a reflection of the rakish ethos of the court of Charles II. The gallants passed from one mistress to the other because they believed that variety is the spice of life. For them, a single love intrigue is as unsatisfying as a single plot in a play.

The ladies shared the same code of behaviour. They enjoyed keeping as many lovers as possible in suspense. They needed to take precaution in marriage and never joked with their freedom. They fail to accept the superiority of men in wit. Bringing the gallant and the lady into discussing the business of love is like partaking in a verbal fencing. “They insult one another freely and profess the greatest reluctance to commit themselves to the permanence of the marriage contract” (Downer, 200).

In fact, in certain plays, like John Dryden’s Secret Love, the gallant and the lady while consenting to marriage, “swear an oath of inconstancy, as well as prohibiting jealousy, safe-guarding the liberty of speech and action; and abolishing all terms of endearment both of marital affection and platonic servitude” (201). The truth is that the double – standard of the men was equally established for the women by the Restoration comic playwrights.

The characters are not altogether depraved, though. There are characters who fail to yield to the acceptable immoral code and push for genuine relationship and marriage that is solid and trustworthy. This tradition of characterisation was inaugurated by William Congreve in The Way of the World as a way of mitigating the fanatical opposition of the religious to theatrical performances. George Farquhar (1978 – 1707) and Sir John Vanbrugh (1664 – 1726) joined Congreve in bringing “a welcome change of air” to the somewhat excessively low moral tone of the stage” (Vargas 135). With the plays of these playwrights “excessive looseness and wit were on their way out, boisterous good humour, greater realism and sentiment were on their way in” (135).

The plot of Restoration drama is bustling and multicoloured. Love intrigue is handled in a variety of way in order to reveal the English perception of love, sex, marriage, gender as well as power and capital relations at that given time. Every segment and facet of society was illuminated with the shining light of sex. Each individual seeks for his or her own welfare and what guarantees happiness and this is done in most cases, in a dissembling fashion. The plot highlights the collapse and instability of social structures which is the consequence of the civil war that proceeded the Restoration period. In fact one is free to say that Restoration comedy is a drama of social analysis of gambling, sex scandal, atheism, gossip, character – assassination, greed for money, and power tussle between the sexes.

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