The Social Mode of Restoration Comedy

By Kathleen M. Lynch | Go to book overview

CHAPTER VII
CONGREVE

BY 1676 the dramatic mode of Restoration comedy of manners had become so authoritative that all comic dramatists felt the pressure of its unwritten laws. Our specific purpose in tracing the development of this mode has been accomplished. The history of later seventeenth century comedy affords fresh examples, merely, of well-established dramatic fashions. Yet if we may be permitted to illustrate in the case of one of the later dramatists the persistence of the précieuse tradition, a discussion of the work of William Congreve will not appear unseasonable. The greatest master of Restoration comedy, Congreve was also, as one of his best critics reminds us, the "natural and perfect heir" of the Restoration dramatists who preceded him and to whom his relationship may be stated in the phrase finis coronat.1

Seventeen years had elapsed between the completion of Etherege's work and the beginning of Congreve's. During this period Shadwell had been the only dramatist of any distinction at all who attempted to save for true comedy an age which, as Shadwell lamented, was running mad after farces.2 From Shadwell alone of the comic dramatists whose plays mark these seventeen years, Congreve, from time to time, made noteworthy borrowings. But Congreve's comedy is again clear and brilliant like Etherege's, not confused and inartistic like Shadwell's; and the freshness of Congreve's renewal of the Restoration mode seems to belie the passage of years between Etherege's plays and his own.

____________________
1
Palmer, The Comedy of Manners, p. 141.
2
The Squire of Alsatia ( Works, IV), Dedication, pp. 5-6.

-182-

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