The Comedy of Manners emerged as a significant genre during the Restoration Era and played a pivotal role in shaping the dramatic landscape of the time. Following the reopening of theaters in 1660, this genre developed, drawing inspiration from various sources such as Jonsonian school, Beaumont and Fletcher, as well as the influences of Molière and Calderón.
Referred to as the Comedy of Manners, Restoration comedy focused on portraying the superficial habits and behaviors of a particular section of society—the elegant aristocracy—exposing their vices, intrigues, and the outward glamour of polished conduct. The plays showcased the affectations and cultured veneer prevalent in society, providing an artistic representation of the dilettante society of the era.
Unlike Elizabethan comedy, which often featured exquisite poetry, Restoration comedy predominantly employed prose, reserving poetry for more passionate moments. The main plot was frequently accompanied by subplots revolving around extramarital affairs and sexual intrigue, exploring the amorous intrigues prevalent in society.
In Comedy of Manners, passion and emotion took a backseat, replaced by razor-sharp wit characterized by crystalline polish and hardness. This abundance of wit has been aptly described as "verbal pyrotechnics" by Bonamy Dobree, while Dr. Johnson referred to the characters as "intellectual gladiators." The scintillating dialogues, quick repartees, and discussions of marital relations all reflected the contemporary social milieu.
The characters in Comedy of Manners were often archetypal, with descriptive names that conveyed their nature and role in the narrative. There were sexually frustrated widows, bawds, country squires, and fops, epitomized by characters like Sir Fopling Flutter, Colonel Bulley, Squire Sullen, Lady Bountiful, and Sir John Brute.
Restoration comedies primarily focused on the social elite and were typically set in urban areas such as London or fashionable resorts like Bath. They provided a glimpse into the social pressures on love and marriage, addressing these themes with wit, subtlety, and a keen observation of societal norms.
Notable playwrights who practiced Comedy of Manners during the Restoration era included William Congreve, George Etherege, William Wycherley, Thomas Shadwell, Sir John Vanbrugh, and Farquhar. Among them, William Congreve showcased his mastery of the genre through plays such as The Old Bachelor, The Double Dealer, Love for Love, and The Way of the World, skillfully depicting the complexities of marital relationships.
George Etherege's comedies paved the way for Congreve, marked by brilliant dialogue and graceful language, despite occasionally weak plot construction. William Wycherley, known for his plays like The Country Wife and The Plain Dealer, presented a "manly" and candid exposure of human weaknesses.
Sir John Vanbrugh, a renowned architect turned dramatist, achieved popularity with plays like The Relapse, The Provoked Wife, and The Confederacy. Thomas Shadwell, an ardent Whig, wrote prolifically, with notable works including The Sullen Lovers, Epsom Wells, and Bury Fairs. Farquhar, known for Love and a Bottle, The Constant Couple, and The Beaux' Stratagem, also contributed significantly to the genre.
Though Restoration comedies faced criticism and condemnation, with Charles Lamb calling them a "world of themselves almost as much as fairy land," they courageously reflected the manners and customs of society. It is worth mentioning that the Comedy of Manners was later revived by Sheridan and Goldsmith through plays like The Rivals, The School for Scandal, and She Stoops to Conquer.
In conclusion, the Comedy of Manners in the Restoration Era stands as a testament to the skillful portrayal of societal norms, satirizing the aristocratic elite with sharp wit and insightful observations. It not only reflected the cultural milieu of the time but also left a lasting impact on the subsequent development of comedy in literature and theater.