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)

                              Congreve: The Way of the World (Harris 515-596)


Due:                      Post 8


Scholarly Presentation: Cecilia Bolich

Oroonoko Presentation:  Maggie Wilson


In this class we will discuss the famed "sex comedies" of the Restoration. As Rosenthal points out, these comedies were once considered representative of Restoration drama, in part because their sexual notoriety overshadowed other theatrical developments.  These were among the plays targeted by Jeremy Collier in his call to reform the stage in the 1690s.  Having been put into more legitimate perspective by Robert Hume and others following, what do they mean for us today?


We might focus on Rosenthal's claim that scholars of Restoration drama “are more likely to consider whether libertinism means the same thing for women as it does for men; when, if, and why the stage reformed; and how seventeenth-century audiences understood English identity in the context of the French, Italian, Spanish, Turkish, Native American, and African figures on stage.”  The new directions for theatre research include the identification of plays as newly deemed of interest (by women, by Whigs, etc.), the performance and the culture of performance, and the sociology of the theatre.  How might these concerns open up the plays for today to new discussion?



Once again, keep in mind our questions about genre:  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 comedy, repartee is one of its chiefest graces; the greatest pleasure of the audience is a chase 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, Behn and Congreve?  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 [1984]: 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?




Of the plays considered here, Congreve’s is the latest by far. Performed in 1699, it comes at the height of the so-called Collier controversy.


 Jeremy Collier from A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage (1698):


The business of plays is to recommend virtue and dicountenance vice; to show the uncertainty of human greatness, the sudden turns of fate, and the unhappy conclusions of violence and injustice; 'tis to expose the singularities of pride and fancy, to make folly and falsehood contemptible, and to bring everything that is ill under infamy and neglect.  This design has been oddly pursued by the English stage.  Our poets write with a different view and are gone into another interest. . . .  That this complaint is not unreasonable I shall endeavor to prove by showing the misbehavior of the stage with respect to morality and religion.  Their liberties in the following particulars are intolerable, viz., their smuttiness of expression; their swearing, profaneness, and lewd application of Scripture; their abuse of the clergy, their making their top characters libertines and giving them success in their debauchery.  This charge, with some other irregularities, I shall make good against the stage and show both the novelty and scandal of the practice.  And, first, I shall begin with the rankness and indecency of the language.


On Language:


. . . . Sometimes you have it in image and description; sometimes by way of allusion; sometimes in disguise; and somtimes without it.  And what can be the meaning of such a representation unless it be to tincture the audience, to extinguish shame, and make lewdness a diversion?  This is the natural consequence, and therefore one would think 'twas the intention too.  Such licentious discourse tends to no point but to stain the imagination, to awaken folly, and to weaken the defenses of virtue.


. . . .  I grant the abuse of the thing is no argument against the use of it.  However, young people particularly should not entertain themselves with a lewd picture, especially when 'tis drawn by a masterly hand.  For such a liberty may probably raise those passions which can neither be discharged without trouble, nor satisfied without a crime.  'Tis not safe for a man to trust his virtue too far, for fear it should give him the slip!  But the danger of such an entertainment is but part of the objection; 'tis all scandal and meanness into the bargain.  It does in effect degrade human nature; sinks reason into appetite, and breaks down the distinctions between man and beast.  Goats and monkeys, if they could speak, would express their brutality in such language as this.


On Women


Obscenity in any company is a rustic uncreditable talent, but among women 'tis particularly rude.  Such talk would be very affrontive in conversation and not endured by any lady of reputation.  Whence then comes it to pass that those liberties which disoblige so much in conversation should entertain upon the stage?  Do women leave all the regards to decency and conscience behind them when they come to the playhouse?  Or does the place transform their inclinations and turn their former aversions into pleasure?  Or were their pretenses to sobriety elsewhere nothing but hypocrisy and grimace?  Such suppostions as these are all satire and invective.  They are rude imputations upon the whole sex.  To treat the ladies with such stuff is no better than taking their money to abuse them.  It supposes their imagination vicious and their memories ill-furnished, that they are practiced in the language of the stews and pleased with scenes of brutishness.  When at the same time the customs of education and the laws of decency are so very cautious and reserved in regard to women -- I say so very reserved -- that 'tis almost a fault for them to understand that they are ill-used.


To what extent are Collier's charges valid?  What aesthetic values do these criticisms embrace?  What moral values?  In what ways is this a class-based criticism? 


With regard to women, how does Collier’s view compare with what we have read by Behn or others?  What role do the "ladies" play in these plays?  In the prologues and epilogues?


Writing in the late eighteenth century, Samuel Johnson offers the following assessment of the "Collier Controversy":


In the reign of Charles the First the Puritans had raised a violent clamour against the drama, which they considered as an entertainment not lawful to Christians, an opinion held by them in common with the church of Rome; and Prynne published Histrio-mastrix, a huge volume in which stage-plays were censured.  The outrages and crimes of the Puritans brought afterwards their whole system of doctrine into disrepute, and from the Restoration the poets and the players were left at quiet; for to have molested them would have had the appearance of tendency to puritanical malignity.


This danger, however was worn away by time; and Collier, a fierce and implacable nonjuror, knew that an attack upon the theatre would never make him suspected for a Puritan; he therefore (1698) published "A short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage," I believe with no other motive than religious zeal and honest indignation.  He was formed for a controvertist; with sufficient learning; with diction vehement and pointed, though often vulgar and incorrect: with unconquerable pertinacity; with wit in the highest degree keen and sarcastic; and with all those powers exalted and invigorated by just confidence in his cause.


Thus qualified, and thus incited, he walked out to battle, and assailed at once most of the living writers, from Dryden to D'Urfey.  His onset was violent: those passages, which while they stood single had passed with little notice, when they were accumulated and exposed together, excited horror; the wise and the pious caught the alarm; and the nation wondered why it had so long suffered irreligion and licentiousness to be openly taught at the publick charge. 


Nothing now remained for the poets but to resist or fly.  Dryden's conscience, or his prudence, angry as he was, withheld him from the conflict; Congreve and Vanburgh attempted answers.  Congreve, a very young man, elated with success, and impatient of censure, assumed an air of confidence and security.  His chief artifice of controversy is to retort upon his adversary his own words: he is very angry, and, hoping to conquer Collier with his own weapons, allows himself in the use of every term of contumely and contempt; but he has the sword without the arm of Scanderbeg; he has his antagonist's coarseness, but not his strength.  Collier replied; for contest was his delight: he was not to be frighted from his purpose or his prey.


The cause of Congreve was not tenable: whatever glosses he might use for the defence or palliation of single passages, the general tenour and tendency of his plays must always be condemned.  It is acknowledged, with universal conviction, that the perusal of his works will make no man better; and that their ultimate effect is to represent pleasure in alliance with vice, and to relax those obligations by which life ought to be regulated.


What does Johnson's assessment of Congreve's plays suggest about the reason we read or watch plays?  To what extent are the evaluations of drama contingent upon historical context and social values?




Theatre Clips on Youtube:


Scenes from The Country Wife – various.  Good for contemporary use of the prologue/epilogue.  Bawdy.



Scene from Way of the World, Waitwell as Sir Roland and Mirabell and Foible.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sy241_g6Xm8 part two of above.


http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZyffYVDAhtY Way of the World, contract scene.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8VDnEWMYAZI Simon Callow (actor) on acting in Restoration comedies.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vrgfMrZD3cI  The Rover, scene of Willmore’s attempted rape of Florinda.