To fully understand what a comedy of manners is, one must consider the state of theater right before its heyday during the Restoration, 1660 through roughly 1710. During the previous eighteen years, Puritan rule had ended public performances of plays. Restoration comedies swung the pendulum in a decidedly opposite direction to the Puritans' entertainment ban.
The comedy of manners is a type of theatrical performance that appealed to many types of audiences including the servant class, the middle class, and the aristocracy. England's monarch in 1660, Charles II, embraced the candid sexuality these plays offered. The plays are meant to portray the manners and ideals of the aristocracy through the vehicle of contemporary topics. A famous example is William Wycherley's The Country Wife, a play that uses two characters, a promiscuous man who pretends to be impotent as a cover for his many affairs with married women, and a simple, naive, country woman who comes to London, marries, and enthusiastically cuckolds her husband, to explore comedic themes about true sexual mores hidden under a thin veneer of respectability.
The characteristics of a comedy of manners include:
- the use of double entendre and other forms of risque language
- elaborate plots
- cross-dressing (usually women in men's clothing)
- physical seduction
- extramarital affairs
- the meeting of the aristocracy and common folk
- intrigues such as forgeries and spying
A comedy of manners is a comedy which makes fun of (satires) the beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors of a specific social class. Popularized during the Restoration period, plays normally made fun of the upper class. While the comedy of manners poked fun at the lifestyles of those depicted, the playwright typically focused on things which actually happened (and were believed) within the social circles and classes.
Characteristics of the comedy of manners many times are sexually charged. Some of the setting may take place in bedrooms. Much of the language is either sexually explicit (bordering on grotesque) or sexually implicit (which relies on the audiences knowledge to imply).
As for love, many characters found monotony boring. Relationships were more likely to be those which involved adultery or multiple partnerships. Many times, temptation played a large role (given the importance of sexual tension between and within social classes).
The humor in the genre comes from the absurdity with which the characters thought themselves to be something they were not (the old thought themselves to be young, the ugly thought themselves to be beautiful).
The costuming in the plays were overly dramatic (even when adhering to the period). Bosoms were larger and protruded, the same with other body features. It seems that everything was accentuated to add to the sexual and humorous nature of the comedies.