AS THE seventeenth century neared its close, the growing, but hitherto somewhat desultory, forces of protest against the license of the Restoration stage were marshalled for direct attack by a Nonconformist parson, Jeremy Collier. In March, 1698, the publication of his Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage was the declaration of open and vindictive warfare. Even during the early years when the reopened theatres catered to Cavalier audiences contemptuous of Puritan restraint, playwrights and playgoers had at times acknowledged the excesses committed in the name of liberty. The death of the 'Merry Monarch' brought no sudden changes in the fashions which the Comedy of Manners mirrored. But when the Revolution of 1688 deposed James II and brought William and Mary to, the throne, the way of the Court world was pointed at least towards greater outward decorum, if not to purer morals. The gradual return of the middle classes to larger influence in the social life which the London theatre could not keep exclusively aristocratic helped to strengthen tendencies to reform. The pendulum which, during the dramatic interregnum, had swung to the extreme of constraint, and during the Restoration, to the extreme of license, was now naturally swinging back once more.
The turning tendencies of the times are already evident in the years that preceded Jeremy Collier's attack. A contemporary reference, dated January 8, 1692, is suggestive: 'His Majesty yesterday checked a young lord for swearing within his hearing; telling him the Court should give good examples, and reformation should begin there first, and then others would follow.' The founding that very year of a Society for the Reformation of Manners, soon followed by other similar societies, showed that the contagious influence of the Court was no longer that of the days of Charles II, when 'All, by the King's example, lived and loved.' In 1695 Sir Richard Blackmore prefaced his moral epic, Prince Arthur, with a diatribe against the license of Dryden and other stage poets. In January, 1696, Colley Cibber's Love's Last Shift, though its epilogue confessed to the audience that 'Four acts for your coarse palates was designed,' reclaimed the libertine husband in the final act with a foreshadowing of the moralized sentimental comedy of the coming century.
Nevertheless, when Jeremy Collier in 1698 delivered his first philippic against the theatre, Restoration comedy, free and flagrant, held the center of the stage. Congreve and Vanbrugh, new leaders of the comic stage, were already firmly established in popular favor. So far from accepting the fifth-act conversion of Colley Cibber's libertine, Vanbrugh had promptly raised the curtain again in his sequel, The Relapse, or Virtue in Danger ( December, 1696), not merely to demonstrate the inevitable relapse of Cibber's Loveless, but to impel even the constant wife, Amanda, towards a fifth act of desperate and all but fatal temptation. It is significant that Jeremy Collier presently selected The Relapse for special attack in closing one of his most vigorous chapters.
A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage is divided into six long chapters. The first five carry the brunt of direct attack upon the contemporary stage. The sixth chapter, on 'The Opinion of Paganism, of the Church, and State concerning the Stage,' is a pretentious and prolix appendix which ranges far afield and loses its vital objectives in the mass of objections turned against the theatre itself rather than against immediate abuses on the English stage. Even the earlier chapters which center attack on Restoration comedy often fail to differentiate between moral and artistic issues, and waste time on trivialities. Collier's bludgeon fell indiscriminately on violations of virtue or of the dramatic unities. At times, in belaboring comic dialogue, he mistook persiflage for profanity. But if he lacked subtlety, he had the strength of his convictions and the