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Another lost lecture... Restoration Theatre

Yes, yes, yes, I know this is all rather self-aggrandizing - but honestly a lot of time and energy gets put into preparing a lecture and presentation, so it is always with a sad sigh that I issue one of them with a redundancy notice.

This particular one I let go of with especial reluctance, because the teaching Restoration comedy is frankly just about as much fun as you can get in a classroom.  Anyway, here it is - doubtless no real loss to the world in the great scheme of things...

It is, of course, absurd to point to any one moment I time, or any single event, and to suggest that the modern world began there. Society, history and culture are far more complex than that. However, something of significance certainly did happen in 1660, and the echoes of that something can certainly be argued, convincingly, to still be heard today.

To recap. In 1642 parliament and King Charles I divided, and civil war broke out. In such times, the frivolity of theatres was considered inappropriate, so parliament close them. Cromwell, who up to that time had been a mere MP in Cambridge, gathered together an army, and built them into the first professional army, known as the ‘New Model Army’ (immortalised, as if they needed to be, in Elvis Costello’s Olivers Army). In 1645, this army inflicted a crushing defeat on the Kings army, and Cromwell convinced parliament to try and, eventually, execute the King. Further military victories in 1649, 1650 and 1651 effectively wiped out any opposition and dissenting voices, and in 1653 Cromwell effectively dissolved parliament itself, and established himself Lord Protector of the realm.

England under Cromwell was characterised by a stern Puritanism, which Cromwell encouraged through a series of religious reforms, and through the continued abolition of such frivolities as the theatre. Theatre was considered both hedonistic, and thanks to its similarities with liturgical pageantry, was in many ways associated with Catholicism.

Even Cromwell’s eventual death in 1658 did not see the theatres re-opened. Oliver’s son Richard succeeded him as Lord Protector, and maintained the ban. Richard’s rule was an unhappy one, however, and by 1659 his armies and his government were as much at odds as parliament had been with the monarch seventeen years earlier.

Things were certainly touch and go, and the restoration of the monarchy was by no means assured until the decisive (if ambiguous) interventions of General George Monck. Restored the monarchy was, however, in May 1660. Charles II landed at Dover, and was met by General Monck before marching to Westminster for the coronation.

It did not take long for the theatres to be re-opened – but when they were, it was on the King’s terms, and this meant some changes.

In July 1660, the King dissolved the post of Master of the Revels and, rather than permitting general independence in the theatres, licensed just two companies: the King’s Men (under the management of Thomas Killigrew, a loyal servant of the crown albeit with no previous theatre experience), and the Duke’s Men (under William Davenant, an impresario of considerable experience, thought by some to have been Shakespeare’s godfather).

It was an astute move, which allowed for the re-establishment of the theatres in London without unduly testing the patience of the puritan lobby, which remained strong even if in disarray.

With an eighteen-year barren period, there was no new plays which either of these new theatre managers could produce, so revivals of Ben Jonson and Beaumont and Fletcher were the order of the day – certainly for royal favourite Killigrew, who was granted rights to the old plays of the King’s Men.

With the closure of the established theatre houses, what performances had taken place in the period from 1642 to 1660 took place in private indoor theatres. It was perhaps for this reason that both the King’s Men and the Duke’s men took up residence in indoor spaces, instead of the outdoor venues which Shakespeare had known. Davanent took up residence at Lincoln’s Inn Fields, in a converted tennis court while Killigrew eventually moved to a purpose-built theatre in Drury Lane. For both, investment in all the mechanics and artistry of elaborate sets was all-important to drawn the crowds – and the theatres were designed and adapted to accommodate a new form of ‘intimate’ spectacles.

The demand for new writing after the re-opening of the theatres was high, and as a consequence a range of writers began to emerge, any one of which would have graced any previous or subsequent generation of dramatists. The likes of Etherege, Wycherley, Vanbrugh, Farquhar, Congreve and Behn have since become synonymous with sparkling dialogue and razor-sharp wit. This wit and dextrous writing made the most of the new theatrical spaces which the King’s patent system had encouraged. They were also, however, characterised by the frequent representation on stage of immorality and vice.

Peter Thompson describes the “typical plot of so-called ‘Restoration comedy’” as bringing together “sexually predatory well-born men, adulterously inclined well-born women, well-born husbands who generally deserve to be cuckolded and well-born ingénues who are not as ingenuous as all that. It ends when the liveliest of the men and the sprightliest of the ingénues agree to get married, in apparent denial of everything the play has previously done to discredit marriage” (2006. p. 31).

As Thompson neatly puts it: “The comedies that express the mood of high life in post-Restoration England have generally more truck with the genitals than with the heart” (2006. p. 31-2).

This apparent licentiousness in playhouses led to concerns among more conservative social commentators to the view that theatre encouraged promiscuity. Certainly the very style of the Restoration rake – the witty sexual adventurer hero of so many Restoration comedies – appears much in the mould of such popular figures as the Earl of Rochester. Rochester was a confirmed libertine, a drunkard and a gambler, who wrote (when he could be bothered) poetry of both startling crudity (‘Cupid and Bacchus my saints are, / May drink and love still reign, / With wine I wash away my cares, / And then to cunt again’) and savage virtue:

Were I (who to my cost already am
One of those strange prodigious Creatures Man)
A Spirit free, to choose for my own share,
What Case of Flesh, and Blood, I pleas'd to weare,
I'd be a Dog, a Monkey, or a Bear,
Or any thing but that vain Animal,
Who is so proud of being rational.

He was also a renowned wit: in conversation he would shock with flair and grace, and could, too, dissect what he saw as the pride and vanity of society with remarks of razor-like sharpness:

Such a combination of characteristics would be an effective summary of many heroes of Restoration comedies, and it is known that Etherege based his rakish hero Dorimant in The Man of Mode on him. “I know he is a Devil”, Etherege commented, “but he has something of the Angel yet defac'd in him”.

What attracted writers to figures such as Rochester was their wit. As such, the dramatic comedies which drew their inspiration from such characters often placed more focus on conversation and dialogue, than on plot. What was important was the demonstration of wit – powers (following the definition of wit by Hobbes (1588 – 1679)) of analysis and discrimination, of judgment and fancy.

What plot there was, was highly structured in terms of social hierarchies. Sherburne and Bond offer a useful illustration of this by referring to Etherege’s play Comical Revenge:

Etherege’s Comical Revenge has four plots: a noble plot (presented in rime) concerning the loves of Lord Beville’s daughters; a genteel plot that presents Sir Frederick’s wooing of his widow; a low comedy plot in the gulling of the Cromwellian knight, Sir Nicholas Culley; and lastly a servant plot involving the discomforture of the valet, Dufoy (1993, pp. 763-4).

The characters who engaged in these often convoluted plots were very much generic or stock characters. They were stereotypes that audiences were familiar with: the rake, the boor, the coquette, and harlot, the fop.

Sam and Willis vs. Hally in Fugard’s ‘Master Harold’ … and the boys.
Speaking from a particular sort of position, e. g. a pessimist, Marxist, royalist
Katherina in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew
From a distinct ‘time’ in relation to other characters, e.g. Kent and Cordelia in Shakespeare’s King Lear
Basis confined to the play’s rhetorical aspect, e.g. narrators, chorus
Stock types, e.g. the wicked squire in melodrama; or typical of another genre than the main one of the play (e.g. Cordelia)
e.g. Oppenheimer in Kipphardt’s In the Matter of Robert J. Oppenheimer
Quoted from a different name genre, e.g. the Gods in Brecht’s Good Person of Setzuan
Designed to move the audience (pathos), e.g. Laura in William’ The Glass Menagerie
i.e. representing a poetic force, like Nemesis, e.g. Death in Everyman
Late Naturalism, but also e.g. Mathias in Lewis’ The Bells
Social prejudice
Race, class, gender stereotypes
Archetypes, e.g. Man and Woman in Toller’s Masses and Man

These characters were often easily identifiable by their names: Lady Gimcrack, Friendall, Squire Sullen, Scrub, Mr Pinchwife, Mrs Dainty Fidget, Sir Fopling Flutter, Sir John Brute, Lady Fanciful, Lord Rakk, Mrs Malaprop, Lydia Languish, Sir Wilful Witwoud, and on, and on…

The Restoration had brought with it an enormous sense of euphoria. Dryden wrote:

Men met each other with erected look,
The steps were higher that they took;
Friends to congratulate their friends made haste,
And long-inveterate foes saluted as they pass’d.

The arrival of Charles II was seen by many to herald a great and noble new world, a world of such sophistication as to rival the time of Augustus in classical history:

“I question whether in Charles the Second’s reign, English did not come to its full perfection; and whether it has not had its Augustan Age, as well as the Latin” (The Second Part of Mr. Waller’s Poems, 1690).

But this enthusiasm did not last. While Charles was clearly quick-witted and intelligent, he was lazy, and a libertine. John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, was soon attacking the King with his usual flair:

We have a pretty witty king,
Whose word no man relies on;
He never said a foolish thing,
Nor ever did a wise one.

The Restoration world was one in which society was feeling pretty good about itself. It is always in such a climate that satire breeds apace. Satire’s purpose is to improve mankind – and the most common strategy used to achieve such a purpose is to highlight its follies. Restoration comedies were witty and crude, but many of them sate expressly stated that their intentions in presenting such a world on the stage was precisely to allow the world to perceive its own vices all the more clearly.

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