Despite his numerous translations and adaptations of others’ plays, Sir John Vanbrugh’s fame rests on his two complete original plays, The Relapse and The Provok’d Wife. These comedies reflect the transition from the Restoration comedy of manners to the sentimental comedy that dominated the theater of the eighteenth century. Vanbrugh’s plays are transitional only in a very limited sense, however, because the species of comedy Vanbrugh developed, a comedy that presents problems realistically but rejects both cynicism and simplistic solutions to complex problems, did not prosper.
Vanbrugh’s primary interest was in the treatment of serious moral issues through careful and consistent characterization. His plays focus primarily on problems that can arise after marriage rather than on those of courtship, and they explore the relationship between marital incompatibility and infidelity. Although Vanbrugh’s comedies neither approve nor excuse adultery, they indicate the ways in which husbands can unintentionally encourage their wives to be unfaithful. Although Vanbrugh employs many of the stock character types of the comedy of manners, he endows them with a new freshness and significance by combining types and by presenting these types in new contexts. Moreover, in Vanbrugh’s plays, in contrast to Restoration comedy, characters may be evaluated according to their exercise of charity and common sense rather than simply according to the quality of their wit. Although wit provides much of the humor in Vanbrugh’s plays, the dialogue is remarkable more for realism and vigor than for aphoristic polish. Characters also express emotion, especially sexual passion, physically as well as verbally onstage, and this physical element provides some additional humor in the form of farce.
Although some characters in The Relapse and The Provok’d Wife experience genuine moral struggles and speak of virtue with veneration and without cynicism, Vanbrugh’s plays cannot be classified as sentimental comedies. Unlike sentimental comedies, Vanbrugh’s plays do not present a facile reformation of immoral characters; rather, they maintain consistency of characterization and thus fail to offer entirely happy conclusions. The Provok’d Wife and The Relapse are criticized most often for their failure to resolve all the problems each raises.