Restoration Comedy

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Plays

The Beaux' Stratagem

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

The Beaux’ Stratagem (1707) is George Farquhar’s last play: it premiered a month and a half before his untimely death aged 30, at the Queen’s Theatre in Haymarket, a new venue built by dramatist and architect John Vanbrugh on the Western fringes of the city of London. Seen as one of the most humane and democratic writers of the post-Restoration stage, Farquhar did not live to see the play become one of the most performed plays of the eighteenth century.

Farquhar’s last play is the story of two fortune-hunting beaux, Aimwell and Archer, who have journeyed from London to the provincial town of Lichfield. Their plan is to work their way through several towns, alternately pretending to be master and servant until one of them finds a rich heiress. But at the first hurdle, Aimwell falls sincerely in love with his prey, and begins to woo the beautiful Dorinda in earnest. Meanwhile his ‘footman’ Archer arouses the wistful interest of the unhappily married Mrs Sullen, the wife of a boorish squire. The play is further populated by a corrupt innkeeper, his lovely daughter, a highwayman, a disguised Irish priest, a country gentlewoman who believes she has healing powers, and a lowly servant who became one of the best-loved comic roles of the eighteenth century.

The Beaux’ Stratagem has been praised for the range, depth and naturalism of its characters: at a time when most comedies were written in, for and about London, Farquhar leaves behind the tendency to portray country folk as uncouth and laughable rustics. In addition, the play has been seen as broaching the gap between the sharp wit of Restoration comedy and its plots full of rakes and rascals, and the more genteel, sentimental comedy of the eighteenth century, whose focus falls not on sexual one-upmanship but on the realities of marital discord. The use of marriage as a way to improve social status had been long dramatized and satirized, but it is in his discussions of divorce that Farquhar reaches out to a humane understanding of the feasibility of marital harmony.

Feminist criticism has read into the play an early stirring of woman’s rights. In the previous century, plagued by the failings of patriarchal authority in kingship and commonwealth, questions had been raised about marriage being the best and/or only option for women, as it brought with it the possibility of unkind husbands and further loneliness. Farquhar’s comedy, ending with both marriage and divorce, highlighted the need for a reform of the divorce laws; this was a pertinent topic, as, despite the ills of marriage, only six divorces were granted by an Act of Parliament between 1660 and 1714.

The Country Wife

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

A satirical comedy focused on the vices and hypocrisies of Restoration London, The Country Wife has been admired as a farce, condemned as immoral or frivolous, and praised as a sharp and sophisticated drama.

Wycherley satirises female hypocrisy, true and false masculinity and human folly through three neatly linked plots. In the first, the rakish Horner pretends to be sexually impotent in order to trick his way into the intimate company of married ladies; he is confident that their fear of scandal is the only thing keeping them from debauchery.

In the second plot, Mr and Mrs Pinchwife come to London from the country; Mrs Pinchwife wants to enjoy all the pleasures of the town, including being loved by Horner, and her husband’s covetousness plays right into her hands.In the third plot, Horner’s friend Harcourt successfully woos Pinchwife’s sister, Alithea, away from her proposed husband Sparkish.

Wycherley’s racy prose dialogue creates an energetic and complex comedy of sex that combines cynicism, satire and farce. The Country Wife was first performed in 1675 by the King’s Company at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.

Educating Agnes

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Liz Lochhead's Educating Agnes is a Scots-inflected adaptation of Molière’s classic comedy The School for Wives (L’Ecole des Femmes). It was first performed by Theatre Babel at Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, on 25 April 2008. Educating Agnes follows Lochhead's earlier adaptations of Molière’s Tartuffe (Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh,1986) and The Misanthrope (as Miseryguts, Royal Lyceum, 2002).

In her introduction to the published edition, Lochhead writes 'The play [is] about an old man of forty-two [Arnolphe] who is so obsessed with the infidelity and treachery of womankind he decides the solution is to marry a young, young girl [Agnes] – his ward, a child innocent to the point of ignorance – and, all the worse for him, falls in love with her. ...

'Molière’s comedy is profound, universal and eternal. What he reveals here about the power-relationships between old men and young girls – about unhealthy obsession, about youth, sweetness and innocence versus middle-aged male self-deception, terror of sex and misogyny – are, of course, all equally pertinent today. Beyond all that though, it is – as are both of those other masterpieces of his I have come to know and love so well – finally about the comical, appalling suffering which love, especially inappropriate love, causes us human beings.'

The Theatre Babel premiere at Citizens' Theatre was directed by Graham McLaren and designed by Graham McLaren and Robin Peoples. It was performed by Kevin McMonagle, Anneika Rose, John Kielty, Sean Scanlan, Lewis Howden and Maureen Car. The production then embarked on a national tour.

The play was revived in 2011 at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh.

The Hypochondriac

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

The Hypochondriac is a comédie-ballet, a genre of French drama mixing spoken scenes with interludes of music and dance. It would turn out to be Molière’s last play. Ironically, he collapsed onstage during his fourth performance in the lead role. He insisted on completing the play and died later that evening at home from tuberculosis.

Argan is an ‘imaginary invalid.’ A man so obsessed with his health that he fails to notice what is happening around him in his own family. After the loss of his first wife, he has been left to bring up two daughters. The elder, Angélique has fallen in love with Cléante but Argan has promised her hand to Thomas Diaforious, the son of a noted doctor. Meanwhile, Argan’s second wife Béline is scheming against her husband’s daughters for the lion’s share of his inheritance. In order to reveal to him the way things truly stand, Argan’s brother Beralde persuades him to feign death with the aid of the maid Toinette who breaks the news to Béline. Only now does he see Béline’s true colours and abandons her. He finally agrees to the union between his daughter and Cléante. The rousing finale features a ceremonial song-and-dance number that confers the status of doctor upon Argan.

The Hypochondriac was first performed at the Palais-Royal in Paris in 1673.

The Learned Ladies

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

The Learned Ladies is one of Molière’s most popular comedies. Written in five acts the play is a satire on academic pretention and female education.

Henriette and Clitandre are in love and planning to marry. Henriette’s beloved father, Chrysale, and his brother, Ariste are in favour of the marriage but it’s her female relatives that are proving harder to convince. Her bossy mother, Philaminte would prefer her to marry the scholar Trissotin, a lofty yet mediocre poet with pretentions to literary greatness. Philaminte, along with Henriette’s sister, Armanda and Chrysale’s sister, Bélise, are in thrall to Trissotin. They are the ‘learned ladies’ of the title and display a rampant snobbery towards anyone they deem uneducated. Flattered by the sycophantic Trissotin they fawn over him, but Ariste has a plan to show the whole family his true colours.

Written in rhyming couplets, The Learned Ladies was Molière’s penultimate play premiering at the Palais-Royal in Paris in 1672.

Love For Love

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Love for Love is an acute and comical examination of gender identity, dissecting humours and affectations with the wit, energy and complexity of a farce of manners.

Mrs Foresight, who is married to an impotent, superstitious, old hypochondriac, is consumed by unsatisfied needs; her aging sister, Mrs Frail, who has sown her wild oats, is looking for a wealthy husband. The men are only too eager to satisfy the women. Sailor Ben has returned from the sea, his heart set upon finding a partner; Tattle, a rake, pursues the rich and lovely Angelica, but is more than happy to seduce Miss Prue on the side; while Valentine, the preferred suitor of the play’s heroine Angelica, has financially ruined himself among women of the town and has a bastard child to support. The plot of this socially satiric Restoration comedy turns upon the devices used by Angelica to find, in a corrupt society, true love in marriage.

Love for Love was written by 1694 and first performed in 1695, in an indoor tennis court.

The Misanthrope (trans. Mulrine)

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Arguably one of Molière’s best-known and most loved plays, The Misanthrope is a classic comedy that satirises the hypocrisies of French aristocratic society.

Alceste, the misanthrope, hates all mankind and despairs of its falseness. He believes that the world could be perfected if only people were more honest with one another. But his candidness soon starts to make him enemies and he becomes the target of malicious rumours. He alienates his love, Célimène, by reproaching her coquettish behaviour and is summoned before the court of marshals to defend his negative opinion on some poetry composed by a powerful noble. Alceste begins to realise that the only way to be left alone is to disengage from society itself – but he struggles to persuade Célimène to go with him and is ultimately left alone.

Molière is responsible for elevating comedy to the status of the great tragedies written by his contemporaries Racine and Corneille. Though The Misanthrope is widely considered to be his comedic masterpiece, it was actually a commercial failure when it first appeared in 1666 at the Palais-Royal in Paris. Perhaps its uneasy mix of comedy and tragedy caused consternation among those original Parisian theatregoers since it represented a significant break from Molière’s usual farcical fare. However, its stature has only increased since then and the play is now an established part of the theatrical canon.

The Miser

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

The Miser is a five-act comedy written in prose, which makes it a fairly unusual addition to Molière’s oeuvre. The play premiered at the Palais-Royal in Paris in 1668 and was not an instant success, perhaps in part due to the decision not to write in verse. However, records show that its fortunes improved and by 1900 and the founding of the Comédie Française, The Miser had become the most performed 17th century play with over 1500 performances.

Harpagon is an unashamed miser. Yet he lives in relative wealth that he takes great pains to protect. Now a widow and over seventy years of age, he plans on marrying Mariane – a wholly inappropriate choice given her young age and her existing romantic attachment to his son, Cléante. As part of an impoverished family, Cléante helps secure Mariane a loan much to his father’s ire. Meanwhile, Harpagon’s daughter Élise is in love with Valère but her father plans to sell her off to a much higher bidder, preferably the wealthy Anselme. When Harpagon’s hoard is stolen, he begins pointing the finger at anyone and everyone, even the theatregoers themselves. Things are rapidly resolved in the fifth act in a finale full of comedic coincidences: Anselme is revealed to be the father of both Valère and Mariane and agrees to pay for both marriages whilst Harpagon is reunited with his beloved hoard.

The Miser has been translated into many different languages and performed all over the world. Its story has formed the basis of a Bollywood musical, a Russian opera and numerous film and TV adaptations.

The Recruiting Officer

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Farquhar’s warm-hearted comedy combines satire and bonhomie to depict the army’s exploitation of sex, money, law and class in a provincial town.

The dashing Captain Plume, a recruiting officer for the Grenadiers, and his sidekick Sergeant Kite have returned from the Battle of Blenheim in order to recruit in Shrewsbury. Plume is in love with the county heiress Silvia; his friend Worthy, a local gentleman, is in love with Silvia’s cousin Melinda. But both women have recently come into splendid fortunes, putting them out of reach of their lovers.

Silvia’s father sends her away to the country to distance her from Plume, but she returns to town dressed as a man and offers to enlist in the army with him. Meanwhile Kite is dressing up as a fortune teller in order to recruit gullible young men into the army; Melinda is conducting a strategic flirtation with Captain Brazen; and Melinda’s maid Lucy is also trying to recruit a husband for herself.

Farquhar’s smart plotting deals with army corruption and sexual intrigue, but with a light-heartedness and optimism that is fresh and entertaining. His touching exploration of the impact of warfare on civilian society has been a stage favourite since it was first performed in 1706 at Drury Lane.

The Relapse

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Vanbrugh’s vivacious study of characters is an ironic sequel to Colley Cibber’s Love’s Last Shift and contains many of the same characters and themes.

While in Cibber’s play the hedonistic rake, Loveless, ultimately resolves to be faithful to his long-suffering wife Amanda, Vanbrugh’s play tells of Loveless’s relapse into marital infidelity when he falls for the beautiful Berinthia. Meanwhile, Worthy, an ex-lover of Berinthia’s, tries to seduce Amanda by alerting her to her husband’s unfaithfulness.

Vanbrugh’s play also features a prominent and hugely entertaining farcical subplot in which the newly ennobled Lord Foppington (Sir Novelty in Cibber’s play) vies unknowingly with his penniless younger brother for the hand in marriage of Sir Tunbelly Clumsey’s daughter, Hoyden.

First performed in 1696, Vanbrugh’s witty and cynically comic play addresses the double standards expected of men and women in society and the hypocrisy that encouraged marriage as a cover for adultery.

The revival of drama in England after the restoration of the monarchy (1660) led to the reopening of the theatres (after the Puritan interregnum), the formation of new acting companies, and the first appearance of women on the English stage. The dominant genres of the era were the comedy of manners and the heroic drama of Dryden and others, both of which show a strong French influence.

The greatest achievement of the Restoration theatre was in comedy. The English comedy of manners was pioneered by Sir George Etherege, who took his cue from the works of Molière and other French and Spanish masters. The form was subsequently perfected by Congreve in such sophisticated works as Love for Love (1695) and The Way of the World (1700). Other writers to produce witty comedies of intrigue and sentiment included Aphra Behn and John Vanbrugh: the works of William Wycherly are darker and more satirical. George Farquhar, who enjoyed success with The Beaux’ Stratagem in 1707, is usually considered the last true exponent of Restoration comedy.

The Restoration style of comedy fell out of favour in the early 18th century, when middle class audiences began to reject its cynicism and licentiousness Samuel Johnson summed up the attitude of his age to the Restoration wits when he wrote: “Themselves they studied, as they felt they writ;/ Intrigue was plot, obscenity was wit./ Vice always found a sympathetic friend;/ They pleas’d their age, and did not aim to mend.” The comedies were generally staged in bowdlerized form until the mid 20th century.

from Jonathan Law ed., The Methuen Drama Dictionary of the Theatre (London, 2011)