English 6236: Restoration Literature
Drama -- -- Comedy 1670's
Assignment: Wycherley: The Country Wife (Harris 59-154)
Etherege: The Man of Mode (Harris 155-244)
Behn: The Rover Part I (Todd 155-248)
Due: Post 6
Presentations by CR Junkins and Cameron Hunt-Logan
Once again, keep in mind the following generic questions: What background is relevant for this particular genre? What is its relationship to earlier English dramatic writing? How did it develop during the Restoration? In what ways does the genre particularly reflect the tastes of the times? What are the general characteristics of the genre in form and content? What kind of ideological presuppositions does it embody?
When considering Restoration comedy as literature, one has to come to grips with the history of criticism on the genre, which tends to evaluate it strictly in moral or strictly in aesthetic terms. From Jeremy Collier's famous 1698 Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage, with its emphasis on the lewdness and irreligion of plays by Congreve, Dryden, Wycherley and others, to Thomas Babington Macaulay's diatribe against the uselessness of such drama, the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were quick to dismiss these plays on moral grounds:
And yet it is not easy to be too severe. For in truth this part of our literature is a disgrace to our language and our national character. It is clever, indeed, and very entertaining; but it is, in the most emphatic sense of the words, "earthly, sensual, devilish." Its indecency, though perpetually such as is condemned, not less by the rules of good taste than by those of morality, is not, in our opinion, so disgraceful a fault as its singularly inhuman spirit. (quoted in Loftis viii).
In our own century, the form has a history of apologists and detractors, including L.C. Knight's famous indictment, that the bulk of Restoration drama "is insufferably dull," "trivial" and "gross."
On the plus side, we can turn to Dryden for the recommendation of comedy's wit: "As for commedy, repartee is one of its chiefest graces; the greatest pleasure of the audience is a chasse of wit kept up on both sides, and swiftly managed."
Others, like the twentieth century critic Ben Schneider, avow the morality of these plays; these works approve of the values of generosity, liberality, courage, plain-dealing, and love, while condemning avarice, cowardice, double-dealing and self-love.
To what extent are these plays moral? To what extent scintillating with wit? In what other ways might we evaluate these plays?
According to Michael Werth Gerber, the first significant application of the word "wit" to literature and literary theory comes from Sir Philip Sidney in his Defense of Poetry (1595). "Sidney defines 'wit' specifically as an aptitude for poetry and, by implication, as skill in handling any of the major literary genres, meanings that Sidney did not invent but that seem to have been in the air for some time . . . . In the seventeenth century 'wit' acquired a new and narrower meaning. Given the esteem in which the new poetry of irony and paradox was held, the word increasingly came to stand not for broad intellectual gifts or skill in the major literary genres but a talent of a different order: a capacity for ingenuity, an ability to make unexpected unions or contrasts of generally diverse ideas" (269).
Gerber contends that concern over the shifting meaning of wit in the seventeenth century was widespread:
"[I]t preoccupied not only men of letters but also members of the Royal Society, churchmen and scientists alike. For all of them bad poems did not merely create a distorted sense of intellectual virtues. Love of false eloquence made men vulnerable to assaults of unreason from every quarter: the deceits of orators, the blandishments of Rome, the ravings of the sects. And the mischief might lead, as it had in the past, to social unrest and even to civil war."
The reaction to such widespread doubt was voiced by Thomas Sprat and the Royal Society: "True, he equated wit not with judgment but with fancy; but he argued and insisted that fancy, and hence wit, must be grounded in judgment alone. It must be grounded not in 'Fictions' or in 'the Sciences ['Logical, Metaphysical, Grammatical, nay even . . . Mathematical'] of mens brains,' but in 'the use of Experiments,' in the 'Works of Nature,' and in 'those Ornaments ['the Arts of mens hands'] which are Tru and Real in themselves'" ("Dryden's Theory of Comedy" ECS 26.2 [Winter 1992-3]: 271).
Given the cultural importance placed on the meaning of wit, how do we understand the verbal sparring in Restoration comedy? The role of fools and foppery, the mode of satire?
Consider the structure of power in these plays. Where does the balance lie? To what can power be attributed?
Susan Staves argues that the plays reflect a change in power relations within the culture at large. After the beheading of Charles I, "the same questions that had been raised about the absolute authority of the king were now raised about the absolute authority of fathers and husbands."
According to Earl Miner, "the fact that marriage was the basis of this society economically as well as personally and that it repeatedly involved estates, lawyers, priests, and parents suggests the extent to which sex is commonly a shorthand for social freedom and convention throughout a wide range of subjects. The realism of detail and the witty questioning of social standards should not blind us to the romantic and socially affirmative conclusions."
Does Miner's assessment of the meaning of sex and the positive conclusions apply to the plays by Wycherley, Etherege and Behn? How else might we understand these things?
Miner contends that most Restoration comedy should be understood as satire or irony, and he bases this claim in part on the "banter of prologues and epilogues" surrounding the pieces. What do these opening and closing statements tell us of the reception of Restoration comedy? What conventions dominate? How do these conventions relate to other literature of the period?
Consider the configuration of the sexes in these comedies. What constitutes desire for each sex? What repulses?
Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick observes that cuckoldry "is by definition a sexual act, performed on a man, by another man. Its central position [in The Country Wife] means that the play emphasizes heterosexual love chiefly as a strategy of homosocial desire" (228). The very name Horner "makes explicit that the act of cuckolding a man, rather than of enjoying a woman, is his first concern" ("Sexualism and the Citizen of the World: Wycherley, Sterne, and Male Homosocial Desire" Critical Inquiry 11 : 232).
How are the relations between men constructed in these plays? How do these differ from the relations between women? What social, historical or aesthetic criteria are at play?
These plays are often referred to as the Comedy of Manners, a genre described by Allardyce Nicoll in 1959:
In the main we may say, the invariable elements of the comedy of manners are the presence of at least one pair of witty lovers, the woman as emancipated as the man, their dialogue free and graceful, an air of refined cynicism over the whole production, the plot of less consequence than the wit, an absence of crude realism, a total lack of any emotion whatsoever.
To what extent do these apply to the plays for today? What exceptions need to be made? What is missing from the catalogue of conventions?