Login
Copyright

Restoration Comedy: Theatre of the 1700s

An error occurred trying to load this video.

Try refreshing the page, or contact customer support.

Coming up next: Introduction to Daniel Defoe: Biography and Major Works

You're on a roll. Keep up the good work!

Take Quiz Watch Next Lesson
 Replay
Your next lesson will play in 10 seconds
  • 0:05 Historical Background
  • 1:13 Traits of Restoration Comedy
  • 4:30 The Rover
  • 5:58 The Country Wife
  • 7:59 Lesson Summary
Add to Add to Add to

Want to watch this again later?

Log in or sign up to add this lesson to a Custom Course.

Login or Sign up

Timeline
Autoplay
Autoplay
Create an account to start this course today
Try it free for 5 days!
Create An Account

Recommended Lessons and Courses for You

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Stacy Redd

Stacy has taught college English and has a master's degree in literature.

Despite their name, Restoration comedies have nothing to do with fixing up a theater. Rather, these were shockingly explicit works that were created after almost two decades of live performances being outlawed in England. Watch our video lesson to learn about this surprising and hilarious time in English theatrical history.

Historical Background

Imagine that a religious group, far more conservative than any of the ones operating today, took over the country for almost 20 years, and when they did, they banned theater, TV, movies, YouTube - basically any form of entertainment that we like to rely on. The only thing you could indulge in were essays about virtue and other crap like that. Then, suddenly, that ban was lifted. How crazy would you go?

Believe it or not, this is almost exactly what happened in England in the mid-17th century (although obviously not with YouTube). King Charles II was dethroned by a Puritan named Oliver Cromwell. I love British names so much! Cromwell banned public stage performances for 18 years. When Charles, who was a personal fan of the arts, was restored back to the monarchy in 1660, one of his first acts was to bring theater back. That's why it's known as the Restoration period - the Restoration era of theater. And, given the general air of happiness around this return, you might imagine that, in particular, there would be an awful lot of Restoration comedies during this time. You would be right.

Traits of Restoration Comedy

The phrase 'Restoration comedy' might make you think of a fix-'em-up sitcom like Home Improvement. The truth is, though, that it refers to a type of comedy that is, in many ways, even more modern and edgy than a Tim Allen vehicle. Shocker! It was as though all of these social and performance pressures had built up over those 18 years of Cromwell's rule of boredom, and the decadent Charles II let them all out in grand style. That's why, above all else, Restoration comedies are marked by their emphasis on highly sexual situations - something that would have made the Puritans blush, at least. In fact, it only took a few decades for this to become passé in England again for centuries. But from 1660 to about 1710, sex was the king of the theater. It's like going from Home Improvement to South Park.

During this time, the first professional actresses took the stage.
professional actresses

This emphasis on sexual situations goes hand-in-hand with some other important social and theatrical changes. The period of Restoration comedy marked a transformation in English arts in a lot of ways.

During this time, the first professional actresses took the stage. Prior to that, there were men and boys cross-dressing to fill the female roles. Now they actually let women play women parts, which is great and seems like it should have happened a long time before that. This alone brought in lots of theater-goers at the time; it was considered something of a novelty, maybe a little bit risqué. Ladies on stage! Actresses even parodied and subverted the old cross-dressing tradition; there was a major trend toward breeches roles, or parts in which female characters would pretend to be men on stage. It's something that we don't think of as shocking or novel today, but it really was at the time.

This period also saw a rise of celebrity actors in general. Again, we're really comfortable with the idea of actor as celebrity, but this was new during the Restoration period. Though their names are mostly forgotten to the general public now, in their day, performers like Thomas Betterton, Nell Gwynn and Elizabeth Barry could fill houses based on their star power alone. This was true to such a degree that a group of celebrity actors even started their own theater company in the 1690s.

Also, for the first time in history, it was fair to say that there were truly diverse theater audiences. Everyone from the king to servants patronized the theater during this time, and the bawdy, naughty scripts of the day took advantage of this fact. Going hand-in-hand with that, Restoration comedies aren't really known for being satirical or overly critical of society, at least not in any obvious way. They basically just took the social mores of the day and ran with them, trying to entertain as many people as possible because they had really been starved for entertainment.

Because of that, Restoration comedies were packed to the brim with variety. Playwrights loved to take plots from various sources (the Greeks, the Romans, the French, sometimes their own heads) and toss them all together into a manic hodgepodge. Audiences of the day did not care for ponderous philosophy - they wanted singing, dancing, burlesque - anything that could fit on stage and delight them.

Finally, recalling our first point, Restoration comedies really marked the beginning of the professional female playwright in English society. In particular, Aphra Behn made a large mark on the theatre during this time, and we're going to talk about a couple major works of Restoration comedy right now, including one of hers.

Professional female playwright Aphra Behn wrote The Rover, a Restoration comedy.
The Rover

The Rover

Aphra Behn's The Rover, first produced in 1677, is one of the premiere examples of a Restoration comedy. Remember how we said that these comedies were especially sexually explicit? Well, that should be immediately apparent from this brief plot synopsis. So, here we go (send the kids out of the room if you're sensitive). In The Rover, Willmore, an amorous (fancy word for 'horny') English naval captain, falls in love with Hellena, who wants to experience 'love' - by which we definitely mean sex - before she's sent off to a convent by her brother. Who wouldn't? Meanwhile, the famous courtesan (fancy word for 'prostitute') Angellica Bianca falls for Willmore too and vows to get revenge on Hellena. Spicy already!

Seriously, though, all the explicit sexual intrigue of The Rover is clear even in its most base plot elements. Can you imagine a Shakespeare play with a one-sentence synopsis that just reads 'Juliet wants to have sex as quickly as possible?' No, probably not. There's sex in Romeo and Juliet, but they're in love and they get married first. Then they have sex under appropriate circumstances. It's not like these people who are on a mission.

Discussing The Rover allows us to mention the term for many of the male protagonists of Restoration comedies - they were called rakes and they were basically nothing but immoral womanizers. Their attempts to have sex with basically anything that moved drove most of the comedy of that period.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Study.com Member.
Create your account

Register for a free trial

Are you a student or a teacher?
I am a teacher
What is your educational goal?
 Back

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 10 million people use Study.com

Become a Study.com member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 95 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 2,000 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? Study.com has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it free for 5 days!
Create An Account
Support