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ENL 6236: Restoration and
Eighteenth-Century Literature

Civility and the Public Sphere

Class 5

Reading Assignment:

Sep. 27: Theatre and the Reformation of Manners
    Behn's The Rover; Congreve's Way of the World; Steele's Conscious Lovers; Hobbes (on Wit, Humour and Laughter) in McMillin (457-465); Collier Controversy in McMillin (493-516)

    Report Topic: Reformation of the Stage -- Carrie

    Due: Post #4


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 the syllabus.

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. . . .

    . . . 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 Dulcinea

    . . . . 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.

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.

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 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 [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 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.
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? 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 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? How does Johnson's criticism compare with Aphra Behn's in the epistle to the Dutch Lover?

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