The Man of Mode is, along with William Wycherley’s The Country Wife (1675) and William Congreve’s The Way of the World (1700), one of the finest comedies of Restoration theater. It owes its critical acclaim to its etched-in-acid portrait of love rituals in contemporary London high society, the brilliance of its dialogue, and—surprisingly enough—the humanity of its characters.
All of the character types in Sir George’s Etherege’s last play are the stock-in-trade of Restoration comedy. Dorimant is the fashionably witty rake who enjoys juggling two or three affairs at the same time. In one of the running metaphors of the play, he holds passion in love to be merely a disease, fortunately only a temporary one. “Constancy at my years?” he asks Mrs. Loveit, “you might as well expect the fruit of autumn ripens I’ the spring.” The heroine is, of course, beautiful, but more important, fully a match in wit for Dorimant. Her ability to discomfit him in their verbal battles is the main reason for his conceding to her the victory over his bachelorhood. Harriet has no intention of becoming one more in the long line of Dorimant’s mistresses. Other conventional types include the Frenchified Sir Fopling Flutter, the standard by which all later stage fops were to be judged; the cast-off mistress, the hero’s confidant, a couple of foolish older people, and a pair of lovers in the “high” plot, who set off, through their idealized love, the more earthbound love of Dorimant and Harriet. Basing their relationship on a compromise between passion and social forms, Harriet tells Dorimant, “Though I wish you devout, I would not have you turn fanatic.”
Earlier critics of Restoration comedy lamented the pernicious morality of such plays as The Man of Mode, which appeared to sanction, or at least accept,...
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