The Impact of Restoration Comedy on Theatre

The Impact of Restoration Comedy on Theatre

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The Impact of Restoration Comedy on Theatre

Shortly after the glory days of Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre, a Puritanical movement led by Oliver Cromwell gained control of Parliament. Cromwell ethics did not extend to cover the moral extravagance of theatre. Under the guise of public health and safety, Parliament ordered the closing of all theatres on September 2, 1642. Such dirty public areas were the perfect breeding ground for the spreading of plague. Actors were left with two options, join Charles I in the civil war against Cromwell, or defy the law and continue performing. Then, in 1649, Charles lost his head, establishing the new Commonwealth. In 1653, Cromwell disbanded Parliament and named himself Lord High Protector. During these days of political chaos, a new underground theater evolved.

This new theatre was an extremely risky venture. Any actor caught performing would be imprisoned. Box office receipts would be confiscated for the Commonwealth. Enormous fines would be levied against any daring to sit in an audience. Entire playhouses would be destroyed, their interiors gutted or exteriors burned. Theatre faced extinction. It became an obsequious art, catering to Cromwell's strict moral code. Killigrew would survive, and eventually form the Theatre Royal, but he lived in constant fear. Davenant worked through legal channels to produce theatre Cromwell could not dispute. His pieces were simple, more opera then play, and propaganda for the Commonwealth. Interestingly, the first woman to appear on the British stage did so in this time, in Davenant's The Siege of Rhodes. He began pushing the envelope, uncomfortable in his new sycophantic role. He renewed his ties to the British aristocracy, exiled to France. He befriended Charles II, and when the young king made his triumphant return to power, Davenant was given the monopoly on all theatre in London. He shared this power with his old friend Thomas Killigrew. Under their guidance, the theatre exploded back into being.

Those who had remained in England during the Commonwealth had faced years of strict moral repression. Those who fled to France had acquired some of the decadence bred across the channel. In combination, these two forces created a nation of wealthy, witty, amoral hedonists. Their theatre reflected their lifestyles. Thus was born the Restoration Tragedy and the Comedy of Manners.

The tragedies were broad, sweeping tales of great heroism. The aristocracy liked to picture themselves in these far off lands, being oh so noble and eloquent.

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The acting style was high and grandiose in the foreground, with spectacular scenery behind. The language was heavily poetic, entirely composed of rhyming couplets. It was the epitome of art in its day.

It is in the Restoration Comedy, however, that the audience got a true picture of themselves. This world of class and manners is peopled by stock characters. The rake, the fop, the country gentleman, bitter ex-mistresses, randy young men, and witty young women are all present in most Restoration comedies. They exist in a world of debauchery covered with a veneer of decorum. The language is sharp and witty, the story lines multiple and convoluted, combining to hilariously cynical effect. Later to be condemned for its flagrant lack of morals, restoration comedy remains a popular form of entertainment.

The audience of the restoration was upper class. Theatre was expensive, and the nobles could pay the price. The plays were oriented toward this specific audience, so the absence of lower classes is not surprising. The theatre became a place to be seen, and these people loved nothing more then showing off their opulence. The plays had devolved into bawdy, noisy events, the audience usually creating more drama then the actors. All in all, though, it was a happy time, a time when the theatre prospered.

Congreve, whose Way of the World is our current project produced his play long after the peak of the Restoration. By 1700, things had begun to settle down. During the reign of William and Mary, patronage of the theatre fell off, the sparkle gone from its eye. The upper class Restoration theatre began to shift into the eighteenth century mode, dominated by the middle class. The Way of the World reflects this movement, its characters upper class, but not gaudily so. Congreve keeps the immorality close to the vest, with things implied but never acted upon. He was under attack by Jeremy Collier of the Anglican church. Collier's work, A Short View of the Immorality and the Profaneness of the English Stage, effectively brought about the culmination of Restoration Comedy. Congreve created what is considered one of the most brilliant comedies of the English language, but with it the Restoration effectively came to an end.

Theatre is a constantly evolving entity. It cannot be destroyed, as Cromwell wished, but it also cannot run wild for long. It is a force of society, both reflecting and creating the way of the world. The Commonwealth and Restoration will always stand as examples of the power this art form holds. Some fear it, some revel in it, but everyone feels its impact.
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