Restoration drama

Definition

Theater

  • The revival of drama in England after the restoration of themonarchy (1660).

    Its main features were the reopening of the theaters afterthe Puritan Interregnum, the formation of new acting companies,and the first appearance of women on the English stage. The dominantgenres of the era were the comedy of manners and the heroicdrama of Dryden and others, both of which show a strong Frenchinfluence. This was encouraged by the king himself, who had becomefamiliar with the works of Corneille and others while in exile inFrance.

    In the two decades without drama many actors, playwrights,and regular theatregoers had died. The early Restoration audiencewas made up largely of courtiers and of aristocrats, although theinfluence of the middle classes became greater as the era wore on.Charles himself kept a tight control on the new theaters, issuingpatents to only Thomas Killigrew of the King's Men, who played atDrury Lane, and William Davenant of the Duke's Men at Lincoln'sInn Fields Theatre. The new audience was so small, however, thatit barely supported two theaters; the two companies merged in 1682and separated again in 1695.

    Because of their novelty value, the most famous performerstended to be women. By 1670 actresses were well established, the favouritesbeing Nell Gwynn, Anne Oldfield, Elizabeth Barry,Anne Bracegirdle, and Mary Saunderson, the wife of the era'smost renowned actor Thomas Betterton.

    The greatest achievement of the Restoration theater was incomedy. The English comedy of manners was pioneered by Sir GeorgeEtherege, who took his cue from the works of Molièreand other French and Spanish masters. The form was subsequently perfectedby Congreve in such sophisticated works as Love for Love(1695) and The Way of the World (1700). Other writers to producewitty comedies of intrigue and sentiment included Aphra Behnand John Vanbrugh: the works of William Wycherleyare darker and more satirical. George Farquhar, who enjoyedsuccess with The Beaux' Stratagem in 1707, is usually consideredthe last true exponent of Restoration comedy.

    In tragedy, the attempt to imitate French neoclassicalmodels spawned a number of high-flown works in rhyming verse, notablyDryden's Tyrannick Love (1669) and Almanzor and Almahide(1671). The only Restoration tragedies to enjoy regular revivals todayare Dryden's All For Love (1678) and Thomas Otway's VenicePreserv'd (1682), both of which are in blank verse.

    The Restoration style of comedy fell out of favour in theearly 18th century, when middle-class audiences began to reject itscynicism and licentiousness (see Jeremy Collier).Samuel Johnson summed up the attitude of his age to the Restorationwits when he wrote:

    Themselves they studied, as they felt they writ;
    Intrigue was plot, obscenity was wit.
    Vice always found a sympathetic friend;
    They pleas'd their age, and did not aim to mend.

    The comedies were generally staged in bowdlerized form untilthe mid 20th century.

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