The nineteenth-century novelist and critic Sir Edmund Gosse observed that “a contemporary comment on Etherege’s plays” described them as “esteemed by men of sense for the trueness of some of their characters, and the purity, freshness, and easy grace of their dialogue.” According to John Palmer, writing in The Comedy of Manners, Gosse saw Etherege as revolutionizing English comic drama by breaking entirely with Elizabethan and Jacobean comedy and introducing the kind of character analysis and criticism that became the mark of Restoration comedy with its emphasis on an individual’s appearance, manners, and behavior. Palmer calls The Man of Mode a comedy of manners. “Etherege uses,” he argues, “nearly every scene of the play to exhibit the manners and attitudes of the society he frequented.” As an example, he cites “the juxtaposition of Dorimant, the man of true wit and perfect fashion, with the fool or half-wit [Sir Fopling Flutter] who merely apes the smartness of the time.” Etherege’s genius, Palmer concludes, was to find “a form for the spirit of his age.”
According to John Barnard, not only did Etherege reveal the spirit of his age; he also “play[ed] upon strains and tensions within” his audience. Although Etherege used the sensibility of the courtiers of Charles II’s era to inform its characters, The Man of Mode was performed in a public theater for an inclusive rather than an exclusive population, and Etherege presented an “interplay of language levels among” his characters. Some are not libertine courtiers and wits or fashionable ladies but sharp-tongued servants and vendors.
Paul G. Davies, in “The State of Nature and the State of War: A Reconsideration of The Man of Mode,” argues that The Man of Mode is a complex study of the ambiguities of human character and the deceptiveness of language. Davies argues that Etherege shows men and women in love not only engaged in a sexual war with each other but also caught between the demands of virtue and the proddings of nature.