Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 790
The term “restoration” in Restoration drama refers to the return of the monarchy to England after something more than a decade of Puritan rule. Yet the term might with equal justice be applied to the stage itself, for during the Commonwealth interregnum, Puritan authorities repeatedly endeavored, though with limited success, to banish public performances of plays. From September 2, 1642, when Parliament proclaimed that “while these sad causes and set times of humiliation do continue, public stage-plays shall cease, and be forborne,” until August 21, 1660, when King Charles II granted patents to Thomas Killigrew and Sir William Davenant to establish theaters, drama in England led a precarious existence.
Late seventeenth century British drama enjoyed a restoration in more than a political sense. As the political structure of the country returned to an older form, so, too, the drama, at least initially, looked back to pre-Commonwealth days to find its conventions, plots, characters, and themes. Indeed, in 1660 no new plays were available when the theaters reopened. Furthermore, both Davenant and Killigrew were products of the earlier period, having acted and written during the reign of Charles I, and most of the surviving actors—many had been killed fighting for the king in the Civil War—knew only the older dramatic conventions. During the Restoration period, about 175 pre-Commonwealth plays were revived, and among plays acted frequently over the years, about half date from before 1660.
Over the next forty years, however, English drama took on a voice peculiar to the age. The period’s major contributions were the comedy of manners or wit and the heroic tragedy, both of which emerged rather quickly and endured throughout the era. Alongside these predominant forms, other types of comic and serious plays coexisted on the stage. Among the former were burlesques and farces, political satires, and comedies of intrigue; among the latter, operas and pastorals. Toward the end of the century, domestic or pathetic tragedy offered some variety to the theatergoing public.
As these plays drew from the stagecraft and literature of the Jacobean and Carolinian drama, so the plays of the eighteenth century drew from the Restoration. John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (pr. 1728) and Henry Fielding’s Tom Thumb: A Tragedy (pr. 1730) differ little from George Villiers ’s The Rehearsal (pr. 1671) or Joseph Arrowsmith’s The Reformation (pr. 1673), which satirize the vogue for heroic tragedy. Charles Goring’s Irene and Lewis Theobald’s The Persian Princess, first performed in February and May, 1708, respectively, rely on the same kind of exotic settings that John Dryden was using four decades earlier for his heroic tragedies; as late as 1749, Samuel Johnson’s Irene: A Tragedy (pr. 1749) provided viewers with the same conflict between love and honor, as well as exotic settings and elevated diction, that Restoration audiences had found in the tragedies of Nathaniel Lee. Furthermore, late seventeenth century plays retained their popularity well into the next century. William Congreve ’s The Old Bachelor (pr. 1693) was acted six times in 1724-1725, whereas Charles Shadwell ’s The Fair Quaker of Deal (pr. 1710) was performed only...
(The entire section contains 790 words.)
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