Sept. 19, 2005
Courses and Syllabi
Dr. Laura L. Runge
Office: CPR 301J
T/R 12:15-1:00 pm
And by appt.
ENL 6236: Restoration and
Civility and the Public Sphere
Sep. 27: Theatre and the Reformation of Manners
The plays for today cover the years during which there was a pronounced "reformation of the
stage" and so we can chart in them the manifestation of this change in taste and manners.
As such, I'd like to read the plays with an eye toward understanding the formation of the
public sphere and the role that theatre played in that cultural change. Why was the
theatre so central to the improvement of public manners? What role does theatre going
play in the public sphere? How was the construction of plays affected by this change?
Notes and Discussion Questions:
1. Restoration Comedy -- Behn and Congreve
References not fully cited can be found on the bibliography for Restoration, linked from
Aphra Behn opens her "Epistle to the Reader" affixed to the printed version of
the Dutch Lover (1673): "Good, Sweet, Honey, Sugar-Candied Reader," and proceeds
to chastise the captious critic for demanding learning from a comedy:
. . . [A]s I would not underalue poetry, so neither am I altogether of their
judgement who believe no wisdom in the world beyond it. I have often
heard indeed (and read) how much the world was anciently obliged to it for
most of that which they called science, which my want of letters makes me
less assured of than others happily may be: but I have heard some wise men
say that no considerable part of useful knowledge was this way communicated,
and on the other way, that it hath served to propogate so many idle
superstitions, as all the benefits it hath or can be guilty of, can never
make sufficient amends for; which unaided by the unlucky charms of poetry,
could never have possessed a thinking creature such as man. However true
this is, I am myself well able to affirm that none of all our English poets,
and least the dramatic (so I think you call them) can be justly charged with
too great reformation of men's minds or manners. . . .
What stand does Behn take on the value of comedy? To what extent do her plays
support this view? Compare her view of comedy with Hobbe's writing on
wit, humor and laughter.
. . . I will have leave to say that in my judgement the increasing number of our
latter plays have not done much more towards the amending of men's morals, or
their wit, than hath the frequent preaching, which this last age hath been
pestered with, (indeed without all controversy they have done less harm), nor
can I once imagine what temptation anyone can have to expect it from them; for
sure I am no play was ever writ with that design. If you consider tragedy,
you'll find their best characters unlikely patterns for a wise man to pursue:
for he that is the Knight of the play, no sublunary feats must serve his
. . . . and truly if he come not something near this pitch I think
the tragedy's not worth a farthing; for plays were certainly intended for
the exercising of men's passions, not their understandings, and he is infinitely
far from wise that will bestow one moment's meditation on such things: and as
for comedy, the finest folks you meet with there are still unfitter for your
imitation, for though within a leaf or two of the prologue, you are told that
they are people of wit, good humour, good manners, and all that: yet if the
authors did not kindly add their proper names, you'd never know them by their
characters. . .. nor is this error very lamentable, since as I take it comedy
was never meant, either for a converting or a conforming ordinance. In short,
I think a play the best divertisement that wise men have: but I do also think
them nothing so who do discourse as formally about the rules of it, as if
'twere the grand affair of human life.
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
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
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 Behn and Congreve? How else might we understand these things?
Recall that Congreve's play is supposedly "reformed." Do you see any diffrences in
the representation of sexual ethics in his comedy?
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 by Behn and Congreve? What exceptions need
to be made? What is missing from the catalogue of conventions?
2. Sentimental Comedy -- Steele's Conscious Lovers
From Raymond Williams' The Long Revolution:
When an art-form changes, as the direct result of changes in society, we meet
a very difficult problem in criticism, for it quite often happens that a
local judgment will show a form that has been brought to a high level of
skill and maturity being replaced by forms that are relatively crude and
unsuccessful. With the ending of a Restoration drama based on an aristocratic
and fashionable audience, and its replacement by a very mixed middle-class
drama based on a wider social group, we see one of the clearest and most
famous of these cases. Most critics have been natural Cavaliers, and have
represented the change as a disaster for the drama. Yet it is surely necessary
to take a longer view. The limited character of Restoration drama, and the
disintegration of a general audience which had preceded it, were also damaging.
Again, while the early products of eighteenth-century middle-class culture were
regarded (often with justice) as vulgar, we must, to tell the whole story, follow
the development down, to the points where the 'vulgar' novel became a major
literary form, and where the despised forms of 'bourgeois tragedy' and 'sentimental
comedy' served, in their maturity, a wide area of our modern drama.
The development of middle-class drama is in fact one of the most interesting cases
we have of a changing society leading directly to radical innovations in form.
Steele' play clearly belongs to the "sentimental comedy" described here.
It demonstrates a more pronounced interest in the middle classes and the
preface, prologue and epilogue all announce the change in taste that is supported by
the audience. What evidence for this shift in taste do you find in the play?
How does it differ from earlier comedies?
How does Steele represent duelling in this play? What reformation in male character does
the play recommend? How does this compare with his essays in The Tatler
If you have not read his important preface, please consult the 1723 version of Conscious
Lovers from the Eighteenth Century Collection Online. What plan does Steele outline
in his preface? Why is it significant that the audience approved his play? What role
does printing this preface play in the continued reformation of manners?
In what sense does Steele's play answer the criticisms raised by the Collier controversy?
3. Collier and the 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.
. . . . 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.
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? To what extent do the plays for today reflect
these changes in taste?
With regard to women, what does Collier suggest about women authors, such as Behn?
Women actors who speak 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
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? How does Johnson's
criticism compare with Aphra Behn's in the epistle to the Dutch Lover?
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