The Restoration drama is today remembered not because to its tragedies, but because of comedies, these comedies offered something new to the age. Something of a departure from the highly imaginative and Romantic comedy of the Elizabethans though drawing their inspiration from the Johnsonian Comedy of Humours. Today these comedies make us aware of the country temper of the age of the superficial life of the Londoners and of the artificial manners of the cavaliers. They have no real roots in the common people of the time. They represent only that fraction of English life which was highly artificial and sophisticated. They are rich in prose of a new type as the age had abandoned the ways of poetry. The reigning gods were com- mon sense, intellect and reason. Naturally the rich music of the English Renaissance could not be heard and it was replaced by a witty prose rich in repartee retort.
Restoration comedy is inspired by the hedonistic ideals of the court of Charles II. The Cavalier wits of the court, inspired by French culture and manners were passing their days in extreme sensuality. The reflection of this life a found abundantly in Restoration Comedy. The theme are mostly of love. Where love means only physical appetite and of adventures in the realm of sex. This is again because of the court influence. The court was essentially corrupt and it patronised unblushing an immoral comedies. The dramatists were all men of the court Dryden, Shadwell, Etherege. Wycherley, Congreve and Vanbrugh who tired to reproduce the gay atmosphere of the court in their dramas.
The age accepted Johnson and not Shakespeare as the dramatists where from to take inspiration. The reason is obvious. Johnson appealed to the age as the man of intellect. The man to save drama from the illusions of imagination. Johnson’s tone and manner formed the basis of Restoration Comedy.
Restoration comedy has often been called the witty exchange of words. We have already stated that the age was not suited for imaginative poetry and hence it took the verse form of heroic couplet.
Before taking up the five brilliant master of Restoration Comedy who should look into the achievements of Dryden and Shadwell who are the links between Johnson and the new dramatists of the age. Dryden sought to harmonise the tone of Ben Johnson and the new intellectual strength of the age. He admired the Elizabethans and consequently wanted the new drama to take some inspiration from them. He pleased for the mixed way of comedy, that which is neither all wit nor all humour but the result of both. He could not become an illustrious writer of the comedy of manners because he had not that five wit of Congreve. His first comedy the Wild Gallant 1663) is modelled after Jonson but it does not have the deep satire of the Jacobean dramatists.
The man who continued the true traditions of Jonson was Thomas Shadwell (1642-1692). Today Shadwell is primarily known because of his feud with Dryden which stared in 1682. But he was quite a prominent poet and dramatist during his time and after the Glorious Revolution he became the poet laureate and the historiographer royal.
Sometimes he however, falls in the pit of vulgarity, but we must remember that vulgarity was in the air of the age. His first drama the Sullen lovers (1668) was quite success. His four other dramas are worth mentioning Epsom Wells (1672), the Virtuoso (1676). The Square of Asatia (1688) and Bury Fair (1689). These dramas present certain human absurdities and follies which evoke laughter and which give a real picture of the age. Shadwell in his play unites the spirit of Jonson and the new air of intellectual wit. Professor Saintsbury regards him as the father of the Comedy of manners.
The Restoration Comedy in its true form was written by five wits of the age Sir George Etherege, William Wycherley, William Congreve, Sir John Vanbrugh and George Farquhar. The pure Restoration Comedy known as the Comedy of manners is and aristocratic.
The first writer of true merit of the comedy of manners was Etherege. Etherege as a Student of law was a diplomat and was secretary to the Ambassador in Constantinople. After his return from abroad; he was knighted. He was James Ill’s envoy to the Diet of Ratisbon’. He died in Pairs in 1691. He wrote three Comedies. The Comical Revenge, or Love in a Tub (1664). She would if she could (1668) and the Man of Mode of Sir Fopling Flutter (1676). The Comical Revenge is not a very happy Creation. It seeks to combine two plots a comic plot of gallants and fools and ladies of different types and a serious plot of conflicting passion and loyalties. She would if she could was hailed by Shadwell as the best comedy that has been written since the Restoration of the stage.”
Wycherley wrote four comedies Love in a Wood or St. James’s Park (1671), The Gentleman Dancing Master (1672), The country Wife (1675) and The plain Dealer (1676). The first two are after the model set up by Etherege. They are essentially vulgar. They do not deserve any notice. But the last two plays are of great significance.
William Congreve wrote four comedies and one tragedy. The tragedy is The Mourning Bridge (1697) a curious sort of horror play. His comedies are The Old Bachelor (1693), The Double Dealer (1693), Love for Love (1695) and the Way of the World (1700). In ‘Old Bachelor’ Congreve first gives out his qualities as a dramatic artist in the racy prose that he invents for the conversation of his characters. The plot contains a series of intrigues which reminds the reader of the Comical Revenge of Etherege. The next play- The Double Dealer is not a pure comedy but a melodramatic mixture romance and light comedy. ‘Love for Love’ the most popular of his play during his time has a rich plot and has the elements both of comedy and of humour in it.
The Restoration Comedy has been both widely praised and condemned. In 1691, Jeremy Collier published his famous attack on the English state. A short view of the Immorality and Prophaness of the English Stage. Collier attracted Dryden, Wycherley Congreve, Vanbrugh and others and accuse them of corrupting the stage by writing vulgar and highly immoral things. He wanted comedy to correct human follies and vices. Collier’s attack gave birth to a number of pamphlets. Dryden confessed his errors and expressed his sorrow.
Another distinction of the Restoration Comedy is its beautiful prose, full of it, repartee and retort. Life being superficial in the age, true poetry was heard to flourish. Naturally prose developed. Again life being highly pretentious, real emotions were practically absent. People believed in artificial behaviour, in outward show and his window dressing. Naturally they specialised in witty conversation and Dryden declared that repartee was the very soul of conversation. The Restoration Dramatists, being faithful to their age, introduced characters who prized wit and repartee above everything. Congreve is the best master of such dialogues. He is racy and strong; it is marked by a certain intellectual ability. Dryden, however, could realise that more exhibition of wit could not lead to a successful dramatic activity. He pleaded for the harmonious blending of wit and humour where such blending were achieved, as in The Way of the world’. The Country Wife and The Plain Dealer happy dramas were the results the dramas of perennial interest.