British Dramatists from Dryden to Sheridan

By George Henry Nettleton; Arthur Eillicot Case | Go to book overview

COMEDY OF MANNERS

THE term 'Restoration comedy' is somewhat loosely applied to English comedy written during the period which began with the return of Charles II in 1660 and which closed at an indeterminate date half a century or so later. Another more significant term for the same school of writing is 'the seventeenth-century comedy of manners.' This phrase serves to distinguish the genre from the comedy of humors, or character, which had flourished before the Commonwealth, and which had for its chief exponent Ben Jonson. The two schools had several things in common. Both of them relied upon ridicule of human failings; both of them assumed, but avoided stating, an ideal mode of life, with which they expected their audiences to agree; both (at their best) eschewed romance and sentiment. But the comedy of humors had greater depth, the comedy of manners greater polish. This was inevitably true, since Jonson and his contemporaries were more critical of lapses from wise living, and the Restoration writers were more concerned with breaches of the sophisticated code of manners which their times had erected. This code was principally the creation of the courtiers of Charles II who, during their exile in France, had observed the elegance and charm of life in the court of Louis XIV, and who endeavored to transplant that life in England, with some modifications. The ideal gentleman, according to the comic dramatists from Etherege to Farquhar, must fulfill certain, definite requirements. He must be well born; he must dress well, but not ostentatiously; he must be poised and witty, so that he is never out of countenance; he must be skilled in making love, whether to women of the town, to married women, or to young ladies of his own rank, and he may conduct several love-affairs simultaneously, provided his head is always master of his heart. He must not boast of his amours, however, and he must be discreet: it is unpardonable to betray the confidence of any woman of his own class. If he is so weak as to entertain a serious passion he must conceal the fact by an affectation of indifference or by over-acted and conventional protestations of devotion. If he is married he must not show any jealousy of his wife, nor may he let it be seen that he is in love with her. The fashionable lady is his counterpart, except that she has somewhat less freedom in love. Ideally she should be perfectly familiar with the world of intrigue without allowing herself to become involved in it; if she is a widow, or is married to an uncongenial husband, she may indulge in illicit love, provided she is not found out. In any case she will not expect complete constancy in her husband.

Deviations from this code provide much of the laughter of the comedy of manners. Persons who do not attempt to conform to the code are laughable as a matter of course, whether they be merchants, country squires, members of the clergy, or men of learning. But those who profess the code and fall short of its requirements in some way are still dearer to the dramatist. The fop who is too careful of his dress and manner, the wit who strains too hard to gain a reputation, the coquette who publishes her triumphs too openly, are all fair game. It is a cardinal rule of Restoration society that the highest art lies in concealing art. A favorite situation is that in which the hero and the heroine, who have permitted themselves to fall unfashionably in love with each other, engage in a battle of wits in which each tries to force the other to make the first admission of affection.

All of this might have made for excellent high comedy, but for two things. The Restoration comic dramatists could not hope to persuade the world for very long that their fine ladies and gentlemen were really admirable. The laughter which they directed at those whom they regarded as ridiculous was sophisticated, rather than wise, and the public was bound, sooner or later, to enquire whether the laughers were in fact so superior to those by whom they were amused. The emptiness of the 'ideal life' of fashion is admirably, though perhaps not intentionally displayed in

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