Restoration Comedy: Theatre of the 1700s

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  • 0:05 Historical Background
  • 1:13 Traits of Restoration Comedy
  • 4:30 The Rover
  • 5:58 The Country Wife
  • 7:59 Lesson Summary
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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!

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