Restoration Drama Analysis

Foreign Influences

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Many of the playwrights of the Restoration would fit easily into that category that Alexander Pope described as “the mob of gentlemen who wrote with ease.” Among the dramatists were two dukes, four earls, a viscount, a baron, fifteen knights and baronets, and dozens of gentlemen. During Oliver Cromwell’s regime, a number of these men lived in exile; as a result, they became familiar with the Continental drama of the period. Killigrew wrote The Princess (pr. c. 1636) in Naples, Bellamira Her Dream (pb. 1664) in Venice, Claracilla (pr. c. 1636) in Rome, The Parson’s Wedding (pr. c. 1640) in Basle, Cecilia and Clorinda (pb. 1664) in Turin, and The Pilgrim (pb. 1664) in Paris. The Parson’s Wedding was revived in 1664, the same year in which the other plays were published. The patentee of one of London’s two theaters was obviously well versed in foreign drama. Etherege, to cite another example, lived in Paris when Molière was producing his works and drew from them for his own plays.

Molière was in fact the most influential foreign dramatist in the period; his plays served as sources for numerous Restoration comedies. L’École des maris (pr. 1661; The School for Husbands, 1732) was the basis of at least part of Sir Charles Sedley’s The Mulberry-Garden (pr. 1668) and Thomas Shadwell’s The Squire of Alsatia (pr. 1688). John Caryll’s Sir Salomon (pr. 1669) derives from L’École des femmes (pr. 1662; The School for Wives, 1732). Le Misanthrope (pr. 1666; The Misanthrope, 1709) gives much to William Wycherley’s The Plain-Dealer (pr. 1676) and Shadwell’s The Sullen Lovers: Or, The Impertinents (pr. 1668). L’Avare (pr. 1668; The...

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Elizabethan and Jacobean Influence

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Yet while foreign influences were important, they were less significant than the earlier English drama in determining the form and the content of Restoration plays. In An Essay of Dramatic Poesy (1668), Dryden wrote,We have borrowed nothing from [the French]; our plots are weaved in English looms; we endeavour therein to follow the variety and greatness of characters, which are derived to us from Shakespeare and Fletcher, the copiousness and well-knitting of the intrigues we have from Jonson, and for the verse itself we have English precedents of elder date than any of Corneille’s plays.

Dryden claimed too much in denying any foreign debt at all, but he was correct in noting how much the Restoration drew from Elizabethan and Jacobean literature.

Ben Jonson was not especially popular during the Restoration: Of all of his plays, only The Alchemist (pr. 1610), Epicne: Or, The Silent Woman (pr. 1609), and Volpone: Or, The Fox (pr. 1605) were performed with any regularity during the period. Yet his influence, particularly on comedy, was far from negligible. His insistence on realistic rather than romantic comedy helped steer Restoration dramatists in that direction; their comedies share Jonson’s claim, in the prologue to Every Man in His Humour (pr. 1598), to portray “deeds and language such as men do use.” Shadwell, at least in his earlier works, sought to write Jonsonian comedies of humors rather than the newer comedies of wit, claiming that the latter were immoral. His characters, like Jonson’s, are obsessed with some peculiarity that causes them to act in an unusual and therefore comical way. The dramatis personae of The Sullen Lovers: Or, The Impertinents (pr. 1668) describes Stanford as “a morose, melancholy man, tormented beyond measure with the impertinence of people, and resolved to leave the world to be quit of them.” Emilia is “of the same humour with Stanford.” Minor characters in the play include the cowardly bully Huffe; Lady Vaine, a whore who pretends to be a lady; and Sir Positive At-all, a pretender to universal knowledge. As the title to Shadwell’s third play, The Humorists (pr. 1670), indicates, this work, too, is in the Jonsonian tradition. His characters such as Sneak, Crazy, and Briske, their names describing their particular “humors,” are closely related to Zeal-of-the-Land Busy and Adam Overdo from Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair (pr. 1614).

Wycherley, too, drew on the humors tradition. In The Plain-Dealer, a number of minor figures are humors characters: Novel, “an admirer of novelties”; Lord Plausible, “a ceremonious, supple, commending coxcomb”; Major Oldfox, “an old, impertinent fop.” Even Manly, the main character, is described in Jonsonian terms as “of an honest, surly, nice humor.” Lesser dramatists also relied on Jonson, as indicated by such titles as The Humourous Lovers (pr. 1667) and The Triumphant Widow: Or, The Medley of Humours (pr. 1674), by William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle, and Nevil Payne’s The Morning Ramble: Or, The Town Humours (pr. 1672).

Even after Shadwell abandoned the comedy of humors, the tradition continued in the minor characters of many comedies of wit . Sir Joseph Wittol and Captain Bluffe in Congreve’s The Old Bachelor are like Matthew and Bobadil in Jonson’s Every Man in His Humour, Wittol foolishly admiring his supposedly brave companion, Bluffe claiming, like Bobadil, to be the greatest hero ever but tamely submitting to a beating. The one-dimensional nature of humors characters makes them particularly suitable to farce, where they provided the bulk of the dramatis personae, and even in the comedies of wit the names of the chief characters—Wildair, Sparkish, Horner (that is, cuckolder), Ranger, Valentine, Sir Fopling Flutter, Lord Foppington—rely on the humors tradition.

Like Jonson, Thomas Middleton in his city comedies provided a precedent for realism. Again like Jonson, Middleton drew his characters from the lower ranks of society—they are much better acquainted with Cheapside than Hyde Park—yet they are not always content with their social status. Hoard aspires to be a country gentleman in A Trick to Catch the Old One (pr. c. 1605-1606), Yellowhammer stresses his Oxfordshire connections and seeks to improve his status through aristocratic marriages for his children in A Chaste Maid in Cheapside (pr. 1611), and Quomodo envisions his progress toward a rich country estate that he hopes to get from Easy in Michaelmas Term (pr. c. 1606). These characters are pretenders, the forerunners of the Witwouds of Restoration comedy, who would claim a code of behavior and style of life not their own.

Richard Brome , writing shortly after Middleton, presented similar would-be aristocrats. Widgine reflects on Sir Paul Squelch in The Northern Lass (pr. 1629): “I have heard Sir Paul Squelch protest he was a Gentleman, and might quarter a coat by his wife’s side. Yet I know he was but a Grasier when he left the country; and my lord his father whistled to a team of horses. . . . But now he is Right Worshipful.” Mistress Fichow in the same play seeks to marry someone who will make her a lady. Brome also introduces a forerunner of the Restoration heroine, the sexually liberated woman. Rebecca in The Sparagus Garden (pr. 1635) observes, “I see what shift soever a woman makes with her husband at home, a friend does best abroad.” Alicia, from The City Wit: Or, The Woman Wears the Breeches (pr. c. 1629) also seeks to supplement her husband with a lover. The spirit of the age was not ready, though, for their intrigues to succeed.

Brome, like Middleton and Jonson, deals with the lower and the lower-middle classes. James Shirley applied their realism to the world of leisure, contrasting those who would belong to the fashionable world with those who truly do. The silly and affected Lady Bornwell in The Lady of Pleasure (pr. 1635) tries to pose as a socialite; against her pretensions, Shirley juxtaposes the polished Celestina. While the play’s moralizing marks it as pre-Restoration, the characterization foreshadows Etherege and Congreve.

The wife of Charles I, Queen Henrietta Maria, introduced to the court the doctrines of Platonic love. The love in Restoration comedy is anything but Platonic; the tragedies, on the other hand, borrow heavily from this tradition. The high-flown rhetoric of heroic tragedy, for example, follows the convention that refined diction is the only kind suitable for lovers. Such...

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(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

This mirror was selective, though, in what it reflected. In his preface to An Evening’s Love: Or, The Mock Astrologer (pr. 1668), Dryden wrote, “Comedy consists, though of low persons, yet of natural actions, and characters; I mean such humours, adventures, and designs, as are to be found and met with in the world,” but the world of Restoration comedy is a limited one indeed. Of eighty-five successful comedies in the period, seventy are set in England, sixty-four of them in London. The characters, like the setting, reflect a restricted social environment; all but fourteen of the plays set in England treat the upper-middle class.

This limited outlook is not surprising, for, as already noted, many of the...

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Heroic Tragedy

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

It is difficult to imagine that the same dramatists who penned witty Restoration comedies often also wrote the heroic tragedies of the age or that audiences who appreciated the realistic portrait of a Dorimant or a Horner would endure the bombast and whining of the period’s tragic heroes. Indeed, there is evidence that audiences did not appreciate the tragedies, for though more tragedies than comedies were written, a higher percentage of them failed, nor did they always elicit the expected response. When Morat in John Dryden’s Aureng-Zebe (pr. 1675) announced, “I’ll do’t to shew my arbitrary power,” Cibber claims that the audience laughed. Dryden’s Lisideus says, “I have observed that, in all our tragedies,...

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Other Forms

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

While heroic tragedy was the age’s chief contribution to serious drama, other forms did appear on the stage. Among the most popular was opera . Davenant’s The Siege of Rhodes, originally performed during the Commonwealth period but revived after the Restoration, provides an early example. In 1661, Charles II paid a French opera company under Jean Channoveau three hundred pounds for a production of The Descent of Orpheus into Hell (pr. 1661). The Tempest: Or, The Enchanted Island (pr. 1667), by Davenant and Dryden, and Macbeth (pr. 1663), by Davenant—operatic adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays—are full of stage machinery and sound effects. Like the heroic tragedies, these plays are far...

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(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Birdsall, Virginia Ogden. Wild Civility: The English Comic Spirit on the Restoration Stage. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1970. Provides close readings of eleven Restoration comedies by such dramatists as Etherege, Wycherley, and Congreve. Stresses the attempt of the rake-hero to create “an elegant lifestyle in which the passions are not denied but accommodated as vital forces for extending and enriching experience.”

Brown, John Russell, and Bernard Harris, eds. Restoration Theatre. Stratford-Upon-Avon Studies 6. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1965. A collection of ten essays exploring various aspects of the subject,...

(The entire section is 645 words.)