An introduction to Restoration comedy

Diane Maybank introduces the characters, conventions and historical context of Restoration comedy, and explores what the genre has to say about gender, courtship and class.

A comic vision that ridiculed what it most admired

Restoration comedy was written and performed from about 1660 to 1700, flourishing in the period after the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy. Some 500 plays survive, though only a handful of them are performed today, and few playwrights have achieved lasting fame. Leading names include William Wycherley (The Country Wife, 1675), George Etherege (The Man of Mode, 1676), Aphra Behn (The Rover, 1677), John Vanbrugh (The Relapse, 1696) and William Congreve (The Way of the World, 1700). Although scholars have identified these particular plays as worthy of study, they were not necessarily the most popular choices among audiences at the turn of the 18th century.

Within this select group there is much variety. The obscure and impoverished Aphra Behn was the only woman and the first to ‘write for bread’. Wycherley, Etherege and Vanbrugh were aristocrats with close links to the Stuart court, and where men who saw writing plays as a gentleman’s pastime. Congreve was an intellectual and a Whig supporter, whose writing celebrates the values of the powerful new elite that had forced the Stuarts into exile in 1688.

Portrait of Aphra Behn by Sir Peter Lely

Painted portrait of Aphra Behn, who is looking forwards and wears a dress typical of the early 1670s

The Restoration ushered in greater freedoms for women in the arts. This is a portrait of Aphra Behn, the first British woman to earn a living from writing.

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Restoration comedy tends to be overshadowed by the achievements of the Elizabethan era, but it merits our attention just the same. Although it may follow a prescribed set of conventions, within these rules it explores a range of challenging ideas that were highly topical in late 17th-century society. In terms of their gender politics, in particular, the plays remain fresh and relevant today.

The historical context

Despite its name this comedy was not a restorative to a nation wounded and divided by civil war, religious upheaval and anxiety about the future of the monarchy. The plays may celebrate court life in all its gorgeous material pomp, but they were written against a backdrop of far-reaching change in governance, the law, the Church and the family. A deep unease lies beneath the wit and sexual escapades.

In 1660 Charles Stuart was invited to take up the English Crown by a nation that had beheaded his father and fought a deeply painful civil war (1642–51). He returned from exile in France and began to rebuild a royal court in which theatre was to play a big part.

Print of scenes from the first English Civil War

Series of scenes of the first English Civil War, progressing from a meeting of conspirators to the execution of the king

This image depicts a failed Royalist plot to seize London from the Parliamentarians and its aftermath in May 1643.

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Portrait of King Charles II

Painted portrait of King Charles II seated on a throne, dress in full coronation regalia including red and ermine-trimmed robes, crown, with a sceptre and orb in his hands

John Michael Wright’s painting shows King Charles II resplendent in his coronation regalia. The portrait was made to celebrate the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy in 1660.

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Faced with the rampant hypocrisy and cynicism on display in the comedies, critics have looked into England’s history to find explanations. Some have pointed to the loss of a sense of social and natural order caused by years of fighting neighbours, friends and kin. Such prolonged trauma can rob people of their faith in personal relationships. Some see the influence of the philosopher Thomas Hobbes. His major work Leviathan (1651) was widely debated at the time. Hobbes believed that appetite is the strongest driving force in human behaviour, and that left to ourselves we will destroy what we most value because of our overwhelming competitive greed.

New theatres, new plays and women playing women’s parts

Considered ungodly by Oliver Cromwell’s Puritans, London’s theatres had been closed since 1642. Within three months of his return, Charles had granted ‘letters patent’ (legal documents) to his veteran Cavaliers, Thomas Killigrew and William Davenant, giving them exclusive rights to each establish a theatre. The patents stipulated that women (rather than adolescent boys) should play women’s parts.

The Theatre Royal in Drury Lane (1663) and the Dorset Garden Theatre in Whitefriars (1671) became the focus for a resurgent interest in writing and staging a new kind of comedy. Playwrights were inspired by exciting advances in theatre design and technology, such as moveable scenery, candlelit chandeliers and footlights.

Illustration of Drury Lane Theatre

Early 19th century colour illustration of Drury Lane Theatre, depicting a peformance on stage and stalls full of people

This illustration captures the Drury Lane Theatre as it looked towards the end of actor-manager David Garrick’s career.

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Audiences came to see themselves reflected in the plays, but such was the disreputable nature of the profession, especially for women, that actors were mainly recruited from the poorest social groups. Intensive training was required to mimic upper-class speech and adopt the correct etiquette with swords, hats, fans and greetings. Everyone knew that they were watching an illusion of high society, and this gave the plays’ themes of masking, gulling and deceit an additional edge. The Restoration also saw the rise of the celebrity actor, such as Elizabeth Barry.

Who were the audience?

The aristocratic upper classes may have laid claim to Restoration comedy, but by the end of the century the audience had diversified considerably. Graded seat prices and seating zones resulted in a sense of class ownership of parts of the playhouse auditorium. Actors enjoyed exploiting the divisions by ‘playing’ to different parts of the house. City merchants, their wives and servants, a growing middle class and a vocal group of fops and critics made up the regulars. In his diary, Samuel Pepys refers to frequent scenes of disorder, which he blamed on the large numbers of ‘cits’ (lower-class citizens), apprentices and ‘mean types’ seated in the gallery. Only Puritans, now on the losing side, stayed away. On stage they were ridiculed, portrayed as mercenary hypocrites bent upon spoiling innocent fleshly pleasures.

There was no concept of a ‘fourth wall’, which made the relationship between players and audience electrifying at times. Audiences adored the simple technique of the ‘aside’, where characters addressed them directly, taking them into their confidence. They preferred predictable plots and exaggerated stereotypes. When disgruntled with a particular play, audiences sometimes became so rowdy that they could close a production down.

Engraved plate from The Devils Cabinet-Councell with Oliver Cromwell

Engraved illustration depicting a Devil seated at a table with men including Oliver Cromwell

As well as being satirised on the Restoration stage, Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans were targeted in illustrations and other literature of the period, such as this example from 1660.

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The comedy of manners

The comedy of manners was Restoration comedy’s most popular subgenre. Although they ultimately uphold the status quo, these plays scrutinise and ridicule upper-class society’s manners and rules of behaviour, providing an up-to-the-minute commentary on class, desire and the marriage market.

The tone is cynical and satirical, while the language and actions are sexually explicit. Characters are driven by lust, greed and revenge, and their goals are limited: fraud, courtship, gulling, cuckoldry. The intricate plots add much to the atmosphere of deceit and moral confusion.

A particularly appealing feature is the contrast between two pairs of lovers. The ‘gay couple’ are witty and independent, with time to banter and tease their way to choosing a marriage partner. Through them, the complexities of commitment could be explored. Nell Gwyn, mistress to Charles II, was the first actor to play one half of a ‘gay couple’, helping to establish the type as an enduring favourite. The second couple are constant and unexciting. Their path to true love is thwarted by outside forces, usually in the shape of a blocking character – Don Pedro in The Rover or Lady Wishfort in The Way of the World.

Congreve's The Way of the World

Printed title page from Congreve's The Way of the World, a Comedy, 1700 edition

The Way of the World’s complex plot revolves around the relationship between two lovers, the protagonist Mirabell and the 'fine lady' Millamant, and Mirabell's attempts to secure Millamant's full dowry from her aunt, Lady Wishfort.

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Wit versus humour

Restoration comedy kept all sections of its audience happy by blending wit with ‘low’ humour such as farce and burlesque.

In the 17th century, wit meant more than the ability to make people laugh. Wit was governed by a serious playfulness with words and ideas, where language was used in an intellectually stimulating and surprising way. Such language was elegant, structured and subtle. The style in which an original thought was expressed was as worthy of attention as the idea itself. Playwrights would sacrifice pace to allow time for displays of wit between rivals aiming to cut each other down to size, or, more popular still, for the sparring, flirtatious wit between would-be lovers.

The language of wit incorporated a full armoury of linguistic devices: double entendre, pun, antithesis, paradox, aphorism, similitude, raillery, repartee, quibble, irony, epigram and conceit. ‘True wits’ were deeply respected for their skilful ability with these techniques.

Frontispiece to The Wits, showing chandelier above the stage of a 17th-century indoor playhouse

Illustration from The Wits, showing actors performing Hamlet on stage with a chandelier above them

This is an illustration of a droll or comic scene from Francis Kirkman's collection entitled The Wits, or Sport upon Sport (first published in 1662), which included the grave-diggers' scene from Hamlet.

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The rake and his rivals

The rake was an invention of Restoration comedy. Seductive, witty and arrogant, he represented a flattering type of male prowess and drive, much admired in court circles. Through the rake, the plays explore the possibility of a sexual freedom which was simply not possible in London society at large, but was more than tolerated at court.

Portrait of the Earl of Rochester, c. 1665–70

Painted portrait of the Earl of Rochester, who is wearing loose silk shirts and holding a bunch of grapes above a monkey

This flamboyant yet playful portrait of John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester (1647–1680) captures the poet’s wit, charm and disregard for convention.

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The rake has many enemies to defeat on his journey to possess and control the female body. Intelligent, manipulative women out for revenge pose a particular threat. Since they have already lost their honour to the rake, they are dangerous free agents.

Newly enriched middle-class pretenders and foolish fops such as Sir Fopling Flutter (The Man of Mode) present the rake with serious competition for rich heiresses. The pretenders are always exposed as out of their depth in the courtship game. The fops are more of a concern; they understand women and can get close to them with their shared interests in fashion, gossip and faro (a gambling card game).

The rake reminds us that there were real anxieties concerning male authority in an uncertain age. Women had run estates and businesses very capably while men fought in the Civil Wars. Old assumptions about the family, based on a belief in religious and national hierarchies, were being challenged. The king’s sexual prowess was legendary, yet his wife was childless and he had no Protestant heir to continue the Stuart line. Audiences thronged the theatres to laugh at impotence jokes, applaud serial seducers such as Horner (The Country Wife) and laugh at the energetic intrigues of Lady Fidget (The Country Wife) and other sexually frustrated wives.

What women say and do

Allowing women to act was a mixed blessing. At best, it meant playwrights such as Aphra Behn could write great parts for them, giving them more agency and longer speeches. (Behn was the first to pay serious attention to the life and mind of a courtesan in her portrayal of Angellica Bianca in The Rover.) At worst, allowing women to act meant that new plays were more likely to feature scenes containing sexual harassment and rape threats, which were largely intended to titillate audiences.

Somewhere in this complex territory lies the breeches part. Plots which involved women cross-dressing were in high demand throughout the period. Although we can point to many plots that feature a young woman for whom putting on a pair of breeches means the freedom to leave the parental home and test the loyalty and calibre of the man she seeks to marry, some critics have argued that these roles were simply another way to sexualise actresses and entertain male spectators.

Photographs of the RSC's The Rover, 2016

Photograph of Hellena and Willmore on stage in a 2016 production of The Rover

Faye Castelow as Hellena, disguised as a young man in the ‘breeches role’, and Millson’s Willmore in Act 4, Scene 2.

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The business of courtship and marriage

In Restoration comedy the finest couples make the best financial deal for themselves in the marriage market. Mutual attraction, if it exists, is a bonus. In the real world things were not so certain. Some returning Cavaliers had failed to recoup their lands and fortunes and were having to widen their search for a wife to include the daughters of the middle class. This sharpened competition for wives and placed an extra premium on women’s honour and reputation.

Towards the end of the century, new ideas emerged about the position of women in marriage. Their subservience to their husbands, though fully endorsed in law, was no longer seen as a natural rather than a social circumstance. As the number of women in the audience grew, Congreve (The Way of the World) and other playwrights explored concerns of particular interest to them. Proviso scenes became increasingly common. These are scenes in which couples debate how best to enjoy or endure the married state. Usually, each gives up some power over the other and forfeits individual rights in order to put unity in marriage first. This writing put forward fresh thinking; perhaps marriage could be an alliance of like-minded, consenting men and women?

Mary Astell's Reflections Upon Marriage

Printed title page from Mary Astell's Reflections Upon Marriage, 1700 edition

Mary Astell’s pithy proto-feminist Reflections Upon Marriage (1700) was a radical treatise exposing the inequalities of early modern marriage practices.

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Marriage is always the proper end of Restoration comedy. Women may roam freely, engage in repartee and intrigue, but in the end they consent to marry and confirm the value of patriarchy. Although the plays may ask probing questions about the ‘natural’ hierarchies underpinning the family and society, their endings are ultimately reassuring to audiences who have, after all, come to the theatre to be entertained.

1688 and after

Towards the end of Charles II’s reign the atmosphere in London was rife with conspiracies, and theatres emptied, killing off the demand for new plays. When Charles died without a Protestant heir in 1685, three years of intense unrest followed as his Catholic brother James II tussled with Parliament for control of the country. James was deposed in a bloodless coup in 1688 (the so-called Glorious Revolution), and the nation welcomed William and Mary to reign as constitutional monarchs with greatly reduced powers.

The royal couple had no interest in the theatre, and there followed a succession of legislative acts that severely curtailed playwrights’ freedoms. In 1692 the Society for the Reformation of Manners was founded, and it quickly started to bring lawsuits against playwrights deemed to have offended public decency. From 1696 the Lord Chamberlain reserved the right to censor plays before granting them a licence. In 1698 theologian Jeremy Collier published A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage, a highly misleading but influential text.

Collier damned all Restoration comedy outright, with Vanbrugh and Congreve singled out as being particularly offensive. The prevailing mood by 1700 was for plays with a clear moral and emotional purpose. The public indifference, even hostility, that greeted the premiere of Congreve’s masterpiece The Way of the World, showed that Restoration comedy was out of step with a new age which was at last asserting its identity 12 years after the Glorious Revolution.

By 1700 England’s mercantile class was creating most of the nation’s wealth and driving radical ideas. Among these was the call for a stronger parliamentary voice to reflect the importance of trade and banking to the economy and England’s standing in the world as a trading nation. Comedy’s unruly voices of libertine disorder were replaced by sound Whig values: restraint, common sense and judgement informed by law. Good order in political and family life could banish Hobbesian appetite after all, by the power of plain speaking, safeguarding women’s freedoms and a respect for property rights. Comedy required a profound rethink.

Critical debates from the 18th century to the present day

Restoration comedies have faced many obstacles in their 350-year journey to the modern stage. Throughout the 18th century scripts were subject to heavy revisions and bowdlerisation. By the 19th century the plays were considered highly immoral, artificial or just plain old-fashioned.

First edition of Aphra Behn's The Rover, with 18th-century prompt-book notes

Page 3 from a first edition of Aphra Behn's The Rover, showing dialogue between Hellena, Pedro and Florinda

In this 18th-century adaptation of The Rover, Hellena is made less confrontational by cutting her speeches in Act 1, Scene 1.

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Usage terms Courtesy of Senate House Library, University of London. [D.-L.L.] (XVII) Bc [Behn]
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The early 20th century saw a revival of interest, and a determination amongst some directors to restore the play scripts to their original form. The productions mounted by the Mermaid Society and the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, were welcome, but they led to an unfortunate trend that dogged productions throughout most of the century. They presented Restoration comedy as a bizarre world, with fantastical, over-fussy sets, extravagantly detailed costumes and ridiculous wigs. This concentration on the visual effect of the plays detracted from their real strengths, which lay in characterisation, wit and dialogue.

Later 20th-century critics shed new light on the plays through the lens of literary theories such as feminism and New Historicism. They have been notably successful in their reappraisal of Aphra Behn, introducing a new generation of students and audiences to her work.

Any modern production has to find a way of delivering the dialogue to appeal to a contemporary ear, while remaining faithful to the original. Equally challenging is the search for the right gestures and mannerisms. Little can be gained from removing the plays from their historical settings, yet approaching them as heritage theatre will fail to enliven them for today’s audiences. The best approach is to relish the sparkling wit and brilliant dialogue, while engaging with the sexual politics that are at play in every scene.

Banner image: © Senate House Library

  • Diane Maybank
  • Diane Maybank BA. MA. taught English Language and Literature for over 35 years in schools and colleges in France, New Zealand and the UK. She now works as a freelance editor specialising in seventeenth and eighteenth century drama. Her editions for the Oxford Student Texts series include Aphra Behn’s The Rover, William Congreve’s The Way of the World, George Farquhar’s The Beaux Stratagem, Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer and Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.