Back To CourseEnglish 101: English Literature
15 chapters | 137 lessons | 10 flashcard sets
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Stacy has taught college English and has a master's degree in literature.
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.
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.
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.
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.
If you want a great example of a rake - and possibly the best example of Restoration comedy imaginable - you've got to look at William Wycherley's The Country Wife, probably now the most staged work of this period (although, 'infamous' is probably a better word for this one). After serious initial success, the play basically disappeared from the stage for 171 years. That's a really long time! Its content was deemed too risqué and immoral to produce. It's crazy to think that London theatergoers of the 1670s were more accepting of things than those in the 1910s, but there you go.
What got people so riled up about The Country Wife? Well, listen to this plot description: Harry Horner, the town rake (again, a womanizer), decides to feign impotence in order to lull women (and their husbands) into a false sense of security. If this guy can't perform sexually, there's no reason not to trust him around the ladies in town, right? Of course, Horner intends to use this lie to climb into bed with every woman in town. Smart guy. Meanwhile, the shoe's on the other foot with newly married couple Mr. and Mrs. Margery Pinchwife (the titular 'country girl'). Mr. Pinchwife has married Margery because he thinks she's a simple rural girl, and she won't be bright enough to cuckold (cheat on) him in the big city. Of course, he turns out to be wrong, and with the help of Horner, Margery soon learns about the joys of sexual freedom and adultery.
Actually, this sounds pretty risqué even for today. We'd love to quote the infamous 'china passage' here that sees the play at its most vulgar, but it's essentially X-rated. If you're curious, find a copy of the play (the full text does exist online) and turn to Act IV, Scene 3 in which Horner and his latest conquest make love under the guise of him showing her precious china. This is stuff that South Park can barely get away with, particularly the lines after Horner and his lover emerge from their bedchamber.
So by now, you probably have a pretty good idea of what Restoration comedy was all about - it's full of lowest-common-denominator, hyper-sexualized romps that entertained audiences from all walks of life (king to servant). After almost two decades of not being able to see a show, you'd probably want something like that, too. Restoration comedy faded in the early 18th century, though, and as we already mentioned, many of its more vulgar offenders weren't performed for over 100 years.
Now many critics respect the works of the period for their humor and their ability to subvert the expected stereotypes. This especially ties in with the increased role of women in the theater during this period, both as actresses on the stage and as playwrights. And while Restoration comedy may once have been a footnote in theater history, it's now a fascinating road bump whose spirit can be respected and enjoyed today. If you're curious, go see a production of The Country Wife some time… just don't take anyone who's easily offended.
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Back To CourseEnglish 101: English Literature
15 chapters | 137 lessons | 10 flashcard sets