The Evolution of the Restoration Comedy

Scene from Les Precieuses ridicules

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Among the many sub-genres of comedy is the comedy of manners, or restoration comedy, which originated in France with Molière's "Les Precieuses Ridicules" (1658). Molière used this comic form to correct social absurdities. 

In England, the comedy of manners is represented by the plays of William Wycherley, George Etherege, William Congreve, and George Farquhar. This form was later classed "old comedy" but is now known as restoration comedy because it coincided with Charles II's return to England. The main goal of these comedies of manners was to mock or scrutinize society. This allowed the audience to laugh at themselves and society.

Marriage and the Game of Love

One of the major themes of restoration comedy is marriage and the game of love. But if marriage is a mirror of society, the couples in the plays show something very dark and sinister about order. Many critiques of marriage in the comedies are devastating. Although the endings are happy and the man gets the woman, we see marriages without love and love affairs that are rebellious breaks with tradition.

William Wycherley's "Country Wife"

In Wycherley's "Country Wife," the marriage between Margery and Bud Pinchwife represents a hostile union between an older man and a young woman. The Pinchwifes are the focal point of the play, and Margery's affair with Horner only adds to the humor. Horner cuckolds all of the husbands while pretending to be a eunuch. This causes the women to flock to him. Horner is a master at the game of love, though he is emotionally impotent. The relationships in the play are dominated by jealousy or cuckoldry.

In Act IV, scene ii., Mr. Pinchwife says, "So, 'tis plain she loves him, yet she has not love enough to make her conceal it from me; but the sight of him will increase her aversion for me and love for him, and that love instruct her how to deceive me and satisfy him, all idiot as she is."

He wants her to be unable to deceive him. But even in her obvious innocence, he doesn't believe she is. To him, every woman came out of nature's hands "plain, open, silly, and fit for slaves, as she and Heaven intended 'em." He also believes women are more lustful and devilish than men.

Mr. Pinchwife isn't especially bright, but in his jealousy, he becomes a dangerous character, thinking Margery conspired to cuckold him. He is correct, but if he'd known the truth, he would have killed her in his madness. As it is, when she disobeys him, he says, "Once more write as I'd have you, and question it not, or I will spoil thy writing with this. [Holding up the penknife.] I will stab out those eyes that cause my mischief."

He doesn't ever hit her or stab her in the play (such actions wouldn't make a very good comedy), but Mr. Pinchwife continually locks Margery in the closet, calls her names, and in all other ways, acts like a brute. Because of his abusive nature, Margery's affair is no surprise. In fact, it is accepted as a social norm, along with Horner's promiscuity. In the end, Margery learning to lie is expected because the idea has already been set up when Mr. Pinchwife voices his fears that if she loved Horner more, she would conceal it from him. With this, social order is restored.

"Man of Mode"

The theme of the restoration of order in love and marriage continues in Etherege's "Man of Mode" (1676). Dorimant and Harriet are immersed in the game of love. Although it seems obvious that the couple is destined to be together, an obstacle is placed in Dorimant's way by Harriet's mother, Mrs. Woodville. She has arranged for her to marry Young Bellair, who already has his eye on Emilia. Threatened with the possibility of being disinherited, Young Bellair and Harriet pretend to accept the idea, while Harriet and Dorimant go at it in their battle of wits.

An element of tragedy is added to the equation as Mrs. Loveit comes into the picture, breaking her fans and acting hysterically. The fans, which were supposed to hide a flush of passion or embarrassment, no longer offer her any protection. She is defenseless against Dorimant's cruel words and the all too realistic facts of life; there can be no doubt that she is a tragic side effect of the game of love. Having long since lost interest in her, Dorimant continues to lead her on, giving her hope but leaving her in despair. In the end, her unrequited love brings her ridicule, teaching society that if you are going to play at the game of love, you'd better be prepared to get hurt. Indeed, Loveit comes to the realization that "There's nothing but falsehood and impertinence in this world. All men are villains or fools," before she parades out.

By the end of the play, we see one marriage, as expected, but it is between Young Bellair and Emilia, who broke with tradition by marrying secretly, without Old Bellair's consent. But in a comedy, all must be forgiven, which Old Bellair does. While Harriet sinks into a depressing mood, thinking of her lonely house in the country and the poignant noise of the rooks, Dorimant admits his love to her, saying "The first time I saw you, you left me with the pangs of love upon me; and this day my soul has quite given up her liberty."

Congreve's "The Way of the World" (1700)

In Congreve's "The Way of the World" (1700), the trend of restoration continues, but marriage becomes more about contractual agreements and greed than love. Millamant and Mirabell iron out a prenuptial agreement before they marry. Then Millamant, for an instant, seems willing to marry her cousin Sir Willful, so that she can keep her money. "Sex in Congreve, " Mr. Palmer says, "is a battle of the wits. It is not a battlefield of emotions." 

It's comical to see the two wits going at it, but when we look deeper, there is seriousness behind their words. After they list conditions, Mirabell says, "These provisos admitted, in other things I may prove a tractable and complying husband." Love may be the basis of their relationship, as Mirabell appears honest; however, their alliance is a sterile romance, devoid of the "touchy, feely stuff," which we hope for in a courtship. Mirabell and Millamant are two wits perfect for each other in the battle of the sexes; nevertheless, the pervading sterility and greed reverberates as the relationship between the two wits becomes much more confusing. 

Confusion and deception are the "way of the world," but compared to "The Country Wife" and earlier drama, Congreve's play shows a different kind of chaos--one marked with contracts and greed instead of the hilarity and mix-up of Horner and other rakes. The evolution of society, as mirrored by the plays themselves, is apparent.

"The Rover"

The apparent change in society becomes more explicit as we look at Aphra Behn's play, "The Rover" (1702). She borrowed almost all of the plot and many details from "Thomaso, or the Wanderer," written by Behn's old friend, Thomas Killigrew; however, this fact does not diminish the quality of the play. In "The Rover," Behn addresses the issues that are of primary concern to her--love and marriage. This play is a comedy of intrigue and isn't set in England as the others play on this list have been. Instead, the action is set in Naples, Italy, during Carnival, an exotic setting, which takes the audience away from the familiar as a sense of alienation pervades the play.

The games of love, here, involve Florinda, destined to marry an old, rich man or her brother's friend. There's also Belville, a young gallant who rescues her and wins her heart, along with Hellena, Florinda's sister, and Willmore, a young rake who falls in love with her. There are no adult s present throughout the play, though Florinda's brother is an authority figure, blocking her from a marriage of love. Ultimately, though, even the brother doesn't have much to say in the matter. The women -- Florinda and Hellena -- take the situation pretty much into their own hands, deciding what they want. This is, after all, a play written by a woman. And Aphra Behn was not just any woman. She was one of the first women to make a living as a writer, which was quite a feat in her day. Behn was also known for her escapades as a spy and other nefarious activities.

Drawing upon her own experience and rather revolutionary ideas, Behn creates female characters who are very different from any in previous period plays. She also addresses the threat of violence toward women, such as rape. This is a much darker view of society than the other playwrights created.

The plot was further complicated when Angelica Bianca enters the picture, providing us with a searing indictment against society and the state of moral decay. When Willmore breaks his oath of love to her by falling in love with Helena, she goes crazy, brandishing a pistol and threatening to kill him. Willmore admits his inconstancy, saying, "Broke my Vows? Why, where hast thou lived? Amongst the gods! For I never heard of mortal man that has not broke a thousand vows."

He is an interesting representation of the careless and callous gallant of the Restoration, concerned mainly with his own pleasures and not interested in whom he hurts along the way. In the end, all of the conflicts are resolved with prospective marriages and released from the threat of marriage to an old man or the church. Willmore closes the last scene by saying, "Egad, thou'rt a brave girl, and I admire thy love and courage. Lead on; no other dangers they can dread/ Who ventured in the storms o' th' marriage bed."

"The Beaux' Stratagem" 

Looking at "The Rover," it is not hard to make a leap to George Farquhar's play, "The Beaux' Stratagem" (1707). In this play, he presents a terrible indictment on love and marriage. He depicts Mrs. Sullen as a frustrated wife, trapped in a marriage with no escape in sight (at least not at first). Characterized as a hate-hate relationship, the Sullens do not even have mutual respect to base their union on. Then, it was difficult, if not impossible to get a divorce; and, even if Mrs. Sullen managed to divorce, she would have been destitute because all of her money belonged to her husband.

Her plight seems hopeless as she answers her sister-in-law's "You must have Patience," with, "Patience! the Cant of Custom--Providence sends no Evil without a Remedy--shou'd I lie groaning under a Yoke I can shake off, I were accessory to my Ruin, and my Patience were no better than self-Murder."

Mrs. Sullen is a tragic figure when we see her as wife to an ogre, but she is comical as she plays at love with Archer. In "The Beaux' Stratagem," though, Farquhar shows himself to be a transitional figure when he introduces the contractual elements of the play. The Sullen marriage ends in divorce, and the traditional comic resolution is still kept intact with the announcement of the marriage of Aimwell and Dorinda.

Of course, Aimwell's intent was to woe Dorinda into marrying him so that he could squander her money. In that respect, at least the play compares with Behn's "The Rover" and Congreve's "The Way of the World"; but in the end, Aimwell says, "Such Goodness who cou'd injure; I find myself unequal to the task of Villain; she has gain'd my Soul, and made it honest like her own; --I cannot, cannot hurt her." Aimwell's statement shows a marked change in his character. We can suspend disbelief as he tells Dorinda, "I'm a Lie, nor dare I give a Fiction to your Arms; I'm all Counterfeit except my Passion."

It's another happy ending!

Sheridan's "The School for Scandal"

Richard Brinsley Sheridan's play "The School for Scandal" (1777) marks a shift from the plays discussed above. Much of this change is due to a falling away of the Restoration values into a different kind of restoration -- where a new morality comes into play.

Here, the bad are punished and the good are rewarded, and appearance doesn't fool anyone for long, especially when the long lost guardian, Sir Oliver, comes home to discover all. In the Cain and Abel scenario, Cain, a part played by Joseph Surface, is exposed as being an ungrateful hypocrite and Abel, a part played by Charles Surface, is really not that bad after all (all blame is placed on his brother). And the virtuous young maiden--Maria--was right in her love, though she obeyed her father's orders to refuse any further contact with Charles until he was vindicated.

Also interesting is that Sheridan does not create affairs between the characters of his play. Lady Teazle was willing to cuckold Sir Peter with Joseph until she learns the genuineness of his love. She realizes the error of her ways, repents and, when discovered, tells all and is forgiven. There is nothing realistic about the play, but its intent is much more moral than any of the earlier comedies.

Wrapping Up

Though these Restoration plays broach similar themes, the methods and the outcomes are completely different. This shows how much more conservative England had become by the late 18th century. Also as time moved forward, the emphasis changed from cuckoldry and the aristocracy to marriage as a contractual agreement and eventually to the sentimental comedy. Throughout, we see a restoration of social order in various forms. 

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Lombardi, Esther. "The Evolution of the Restoration Comedy." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Lombardi, Esther. (2023, April 5). The Evolution of the Restoration Comedy. Retrieved from Lombardi, Esther. "The Evolution of the Restoration Comedy." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 7, 2023).