The Salient Features of Restoration Drama and Sentimental Comedy

1. Introduction

The period from 1660 to 1700 is known as the Restoration period or the Age of Dryden. Dryden was the representative writer of this period. The restoration of King Charles II in 1660 marks the beginning of a new era both in the life and the literature of England. 

2. Restoration Drama

The theatres which were closed in 1642 were opened during the Restoration. They became the riotous haunt of the upper classes. Consequently, the plays written for the play houses were distinctly calculated by the authors to appeal to a courtly and cavalier audience. It is this that explains the rise of the heroic tragedy and the development of the comedy of manners. The heroic tragedy appealed to artificial, aristocratic sentiments on the subject of honour. And the Restoration comedy of manners reflected the morally vicious but intellectually brilliant atmosphere of the saloons and the chocolate houses.   

2.1 The Restoration Heroic Tragedy

The Restoration tragedy is also known as the Heroic Tragedy. The influence of French romance and drama produced its first important result in the form of the heroic play. The Restoration Tragedy is artificial. Its emotions are unreal. It mainly deals with conflict between love and honour. John Dryden was the principal writer of the Heroic tragedy. His famous tragedies are Tyrannic Love, Conquest of Granada and All for Love. In Dryden‘s heroic plays we find a hero of superhuman powers and with superhuman ideals; there is a heroine of unsurpassed beauty and constancy; there is an inner conflict in the minds of several characters between love and honour; and there is a striving story of fighting and martial enthusiasm, filled with intense dramatic interest. All For Love is the finest tragedy of this period. Another playwright was Thomas Otway. He wrote Alcibiades, Don Carlos, The Orphan and Venice Preserved. 

2.2 Restoration Comedy of Manners

The Restoration comedy is also known as Comedy of Manners. These comedies expressed a reaction against Puritanism and the sexual repression it had attempted to enforce. Fashionable intrigues, sex, marriage and adultery were treated with cynicism, with worldly wit and a sense of the comedy of life. The characters in the plays no doubt owed much to the courtiers, the wits, and the men about town as well as to ladies of fashion, citizens, wives and country girls. The Restoration comedy was shaped both by native and French influences. It drew its inspiration from the native tradition which had flourished before the closing of theatres in 1642. It was also influenced by continental writers, especially by Moliere and Spaniard. It reflected closely the dissolute court life of the period. There was a community of spirit which led to an interest in French comedy. Moliere gave English dramatists the brilliant ideas of plots and some fine examples of comic characterisation.

The comedy of manners is conspicuous for intellectual and refined tone. It is devoid of romantic passions and sentiments. The plays show a close and satirical observation of life and manners. The Comedy of Manners recalls the works of Ben Jonson. It is realistic. The simple aim of this comedy is to show the manners of the upper ranks of society. They are shown with unemotional frankness. The aristocratic refined society, which it presents, is fashionable. It does expose ―follies, but these are the follies of refined gentlemen, and not of ―low characters. Its setting is provided by the public parks, fashionable clubs, taverns and drawing rooms of the aristocratic and the leisured classes of the time. Its main subject is the intimate relationship between men and women. The people of this period looked upon love as a purely personal matter, marriage as a social performance. The writers of the comedy of manners dissected the complications of these relationships. The Restoration dramatists drew their characters and copied their situations from the life they saw around them. The Restoration dramatists were interested in wit and portrayal of manners rather than in the movement and progression of events. So they employed a spatial rather than a temporal plot. The loose-knit pattern of such a plot was a definite advantage to them. It provided a better scope for the contrast and balance of characters. Conflict and intrigues occupy an important place in the Restoration Comedy.

3. Sentimental Comedy

Sentimental comedy is an 18th-century dramatic genre which sprang up as a reaction to the immoral tone of English Restoration plays. In Sentimental comedies middle-class protagonists triumphantly overcome a series of moral trials. These plays aimed to produce tears rather than laughter and reflected contemporary philosophical conceptions of humans as inherently good but capable of being led astray by bad example. By appealing to his noble sentiments, a man could be reformed and set back on the path of virtue. While the plays contained characters whose natures seemed overly virtuous and whose problems were too easily resolved, they were accepted by audiences as truthful representations of the human predicament. 

3.1 Elements of Sentimental Comedy

The characters in sentimental comedy are either strictly good or bad. Heroes have no faults or bad habits, villains are thoroughly evil or morally degraded. The authors’ purpose was to show the audience the innate goodness of people and that through morality people who have been led astray can find the path of righteousness. 

The plot usually centered on the domestic trials of middle-class couples and included romantic love scenes. Their private woes are exhibited with much emotional stress intended to arouse the spectator’s pity and suspense in advance of the approaching happy ending. Lovers are often shown separated from each other by socioeconomic factors at the beginning, but brought together in the end by a discovery about the identity of the lower class lover.[2] Plots also contained an element of mystery to be solved.[5] Verse was not used in order to create a closer illusion of reality. It was thought that rhyme would obscure the true meaning of the words and make the truth disappear. 

The playwrights of this genre aimed to bring the audience to tears, not laughter, as the name sentimental comedy might suggest. They believed that noisy laughter inhibited the silent sympathy and thought of the audience. Playwrights strove to touch the feelings of the spectators so that they could learn from the play and relate the events they witnessed on stage to their own lives, causing them to live more virtuously.

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