Arrested Perceptions of Restoration Drama
Generally speaking, when people hear mention of Restoration drama, they think of bawdy, witty social comedies. As it so happens, comedy as a genre did not become popular (again) until the late 1660’s, the first decade of the period consisting largely of revivals and new works by lesser playwrights in the vein of these revivals. The subset of titillating erotic comedies featuring consummated sex between lead characters did not really come into vogue until the mid-1670’s, most notably with the appearance of William Wycherley’s The Country Wife (January 1675). Sir George Etherege’s Man of Mode (March 1676), which followed a year later, caused an even greater stir than its predecessor among London theatergoers. It was in the wake of these plays by Wycherly and Etherege that Aphra Behn wrote one of her most famous plays and her first sex comedy–The Rover (Spring 1677).
In its own day, the popularity of this sub-genre, of course, did not last. Bad box office returns during the 1677-78 season (perhaps, related to the provocative content of these plays) and a once again tumultuous political landscape were largely to blame. By 1678 the Exclusion Crisis was underway, and the English were divided over who had the right to succeed Charles II–his Catholic brother, James, Duke of York; or his illegitimate Protestant son, James, Duke of Monmouth. In the midst of all this, the demand for comedy waned.
Whether or not Restoration sex comedies, such as those by Wycherley, Etherege, and Behn, represent ‘the best’ plays of the period is to some extent a matter of opinion. There were certainly many other genres and subgenres on stage throughout the period. Nonetheless, in spite of their relatively short-lived heyday on the Restoration stage, these particular comedies have endured time’s test. The fact that they are the type of Restoration drama people still associate most with the period has to do with anthology editors, course curricula, and theatre programming, which speak to the dramatic and literary value of the works, and also simply with the sexual frankness of the plays, which has drawn audiences through the centuries, especially in sexually freer times like our own. What often gets forgotten or overlooked about these plays,which have also perennially been tagged as ‘frivolous’ or ‘trivial’, is that they contain darker, more serious moments that in reality are anything but light or funny: Florinda’s close encounter with incest and gang rape in Behn’s The Rover being just one case in point.
Photo credit: Man of Mode, 2007, National Theatre, London. Featuring Nancy Carroll and Tom Hardy. Photo by Johan Persson.