Criticism: The Foundations of Modern Literary Judgment

By Mark Schorer; Gordon McKenzie et al. | Go to book overview

L. C. KNIGHTS: Restoration Comedy: The Reality and the Myth*

HENRY JAMES--whose "social comedy" may be allowed to provide a standard of maturity--once remarked that he found Congreve "insufferable,"1 and perhaps the first thing to say of Restoration drama--tragedy as well as comedy--is that the bulk of it is insufferably dull. There are long stretches of boredom to be found in the lower ranges of Elizabethan drama, but there is nothing comparable to the unmitigated fatigue that awaits the reader of Love in a Tub, Sir Martin Mar-all, Mr. Limberham, The Relapse, or The Mourning Bride. And who returns to Dryden's heroic plays with renewed zest? The superiority of the common run of plays in the first period to that of the second is, at all events, a commonplace. It should be equally commonplace that the strength of the Elizabethan drama lies partly in the kind and scope--the quality and variety--of the interests that the playwrights were able to enlist, partly in the idiom that they had at their command: the drama drew on a vigorous non-dramatic literature, and literature in general was in close relation with non-literary interests and a rich common language. That is not the whole story, but it is an important part of it, and it seems profitable, in a discussion of Restoration comedy, to keep these facts in mind for comparison. Ever since Collier published A Short View of the Profaneness and Immorality of the English Stage opponents of Restoration comedy have conducted their case almost entirely in moral terms, and it has been easy for recent critics, rightly discarding Lamb's obvious subterfuge, to turn the moral argument upside down, to find freedom of manners where Macaulay found licentiousness. "Morals" are, in the long run, decidedly relevant--but only in the long run: literary criticism has prior claims. If, to start with, we try to see the comedy of manners in relation to its contemporary non-dramatic literature--to take its bearings in the general culture of the time we may at least make possible a free and critical approach.

During the forty years that followed the Restoration, English literature, English culture, was "upper-class" to an extent that it had never been before, and was not, after Addison, to be again. "Now if they ask me," said Dryden, "whence it is that our conversation is so much refined? I must freely and without flattery, ascribe it to the court," and his insistence, as a writer, on "the benefit of converse" with his courtly patrons was not merely dedicatory fulsomeness; the influence of the current conception of "the gentleman" is shown plainly enough by the urbane ease of his critical prefaces; and Dryden's nondramatic prose is fairly representative of the new age.2

It is this that explains why, if one comes to Restoration literature after some familiarity with the Elizabethans, the first impression made by the language is likely to be a sense of what has been lost; the disintegration of the old cultural unity has plainly resulted in impoverishment. The speech of the educated is now remote from the speech of the people ( Bunyan's huge sales were, until the eighteenth century, outside "the circumference of wit"), and idiomatic vig-

____________________
*
"Restoration Comedy: The Reality and the Myth" first appeared in Scrutiny, and was later included in Explorations: Essays in Criticism Mainly on the Literature of the Seventeenth Century ( 1946), from which it is here reprinted by permission of George W. Stewart, Publisher, Inc. Mr. Knights (b. 1906) is also the author of Drama and Society in the Age of Johnson ( 1937).
1
Letters, Vol. I, p. 140.
2
On "the last and greatest advantage of our writing, which proceeds from conversation," see in particular the Defence of the Epilogue. And the dialogue form in which Dryden cast the Essay of Dramatic Poesy was not unrecognizably far from actuality.

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