Academic journal article Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies

In and out of the Bed-Chamber: Staging Libertine Desire in Restoration Comedy

Academic journal article Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies

In and out of the Bed-Chamber: Staging Libertine Desire in Restoration Comedy

Article excerpt

Considering the frequency with which libertines appear onstage in comedies written in the four decades following the Restoration of Charles II to the throne of England in 1660, it may be reasonable to assume that beds would appear as primary pieces of furniture associated with these plays' sexually voracious protagonists. In fact, beds and bed-chambers appear onstage relatively infrequently during this period; it is far more common to set a scene in a house, lodging, garden, park, tavern, coffeehouse, or dressing room than in a bed-chamber.1 This essay argues that one reason for this infrequency is that bed-chambers in Restoration comedies signify differently from the other scenic locations listed above. Peter Holland notes that "the peculiarities of staging comedy on the Restoration stage allowed the audience to 'read' the scenery, not just absorb it." He therefore proposes that scholars could read scenery, sets, and stage directions as part of a larger "series of signs, a system that helps the comprehension of the structure of the whole play text" (19). Rather than attempting an analysis of bed-chambers in all Restoration drama, my focus in this essay is very particular: the examination of the bed and its adjacent locales as sites in which Sir George Etherege and William Wycherley stage their rejection of the same baroque aestheticism that scholars now commonly associate with Restoration libertinism.

I explore what happens when these playwrights, known for their libertine activities in and around the court of Charles II, write a comedy and then stage a scene in the bed-chamber. Because these playwrights enjoyed cultural capital as libertines, their use of bed-chambers in these plays has a different resonance than those featured by their contemporaries, particularly Aphra Behn. A number of activities do indeed occur in the beds and bed-chambers of these playwrights' libertine characters, but these activities only infrequently involve sex. Whereas it must be conceded that the period's notions of decency and taste would prevent explicit depictions of sex onstage in any case, I maintain that libertine playwrights use the signification of the bed-chamber to explore these scenes as potentially problematic sites filled with dramatic tension, anxiety, and even pain for men and women. On the one hand, bed-chambers are locations in which libertine desires may compete with one another: the libertine often must choose between his sexual desire for women and his social bonding with men. On the other hand, libertine playwrights' bed-chamber scenes suggest that the bed-chamber can easily signify as male violence against women, male violence against other men, and even female violence against men.

In The Baroque in English Neoclassical Literature, J. Douglas Canfield analyzes the baroque-which he defines as art that "stresses disorder, excrescence, exuberance, the irrational, the grotesque, the cryptic" (15)-in Restoration literature. For most scholars, Canfield writes, "the early seventeenth century is traditionally considered the heyday of the baroque, its vertiginous apex" but this aesthetic mode eventually "yields to the neoclassic in both England and France as that century progresses" (15). He maintains, however, that baroque elements such as "extravagant display," "the monstrous," "the grotesque," "the macabre," "the morbid," and "the outrageous" persisted into late-seventeenthcentury English literature "not in some weak residue but in some of the later, neoclassical literature's most arresting moments" (15). In this vein, Canfield suggests that it is "fruitful to think of the baroque as the style suited to the centralizing and self-glorifying impulses of late feudal aristocracy, with its attendant, heterodox libertinism, burning brightest and most extravagantly as it is about to expire" (16).

Although Canfield sees the baroque as something "bold, exciting, [and] delicious" (17), the "self-glorifying impulses" of aristocratic libertine sexual desire have generally led scholars to associate the late baroque with libertinism's potential gender and class violence against women. …

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