Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1067
Restoration comedy has been condemned as immoral and superficial, but neither the moral indignation of its critics in centuries past nor the cool contempt of later commentators has diminished its appeal to audiences. Despite its carefree attitude toward moral conventions and its willingness to indulge in trivial humor, comedy written at the end of the seventeenth and in the very early eighteenth centuries continues to enjoy a theatrical and literary life.
George Farquhar’s plays were written at a time when the early exuberance and rakish irreverence of Restoration comedy were beginning to give way to a more sentimental and moralized comedy. Farquhar’s heart was with his Restoration masters, particularly Sir George Etherege, whose comedies from thirty years earlier reveled in cynicism, wit, and the ridicule of pretentious, dandified behavior. Farquhar knew, however, that his audiences wanted to “feel” rather than to “think,” so he curbed his natural bent toward wit and tried to develop a sentimental side. His Dorinda is compassionate enough, but one has the impression Farquhar would have preferred to make her more like Etherege’s Harriet in The Man of Mode (1676)—a woman possessing no less charm and far more wit and worldly wisdom.
If Farquhar had to soften his satire, he managed to direct some of the energy that his precursors would have used for purposes of ridicule toward social criticism. It is one of the ironies of literary and dramatic history that a dramatist less comfortable with sentiment and feeling than with contempt and ridicule should have launched what has come to be known as the theater of social protest—ironic because ordinarily contempt is not associated with caring.
The cause that Farquhar championed was divorce. Here, too, there is delicious irony. The prevailing theme of Restoration comedy is seduction; its favorite butt is the cuckold. Infidelity was the fuel on which the cavalier engines ran. Happiness in marriage was as rare in fact as it was naïve in principle. For the famous Restoration rakes of Etherege and William Wycherley, marriage was a trap to be avoided at all cost; its greatest danger was that it exposed the husband to the risk of cuckoldry. (Sullen, at one point, even tells his wife “if you can contrive any way of being a whore without making me a cuckold, do it and welcome.”) That is one danger a bachelor escaped. When Farquhar makes an eloquent case for Mrs. Sullen’s liberation from marriage, this is in one sense only to free her and her husband from the dangers of social embarrassment. Divorced, Mrs. Sullen is free to love Archer without cuckolding her husband.
Nevertheless, Farquhar’s bid for divorce involves more than the oddity of Restoration manners. It is obvious that he has drifted far enough from Restoration cynicism to believe in the unnaturalness of a forced, unhappy marriage. Although he admired Restoration sophistication and the stylish cultivation of a studied and brilliant artificiality, Farquhar was enough of a child of the dawning age of sentiment to sympathize with the cry for nature and the plea for true sentiment. At the end of act 3, Mrs. Sullen is eloquent in her desperate assertions to Dorinda regarding the emotional suffering attendant on an unhappy marriage: Who can prove “the unaccountable disaffections of wedlock? Can a jury sum up the endless aversions that are rooted in our souls, or can a bench give judgment upon antipathies?” Such speeches open the floodgates to truly serious feeling, and they open the play’s action to problems wit alone cannot solve. There is no clever answer—nor did Farquhar intend that there should be—to Mrs. Sullen’s question, “Can radical hatreds ever be reconciled?” When she closes the act with the famous exclamation, “No, no...
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