The best Restoration comedies and tragedies
Restoration comedies and tragedies often get overlooked in our rush to celebrate the Elizabethan and Jacobean drama of Marlowe, Shakespeare, and Jonson. Yet any survey of English literature would be substantially poorer if it didn’t mention Aphra Behn, William Wycherley, or William Congreve. Below we introduce ten of the greatest works of Restoration theatre – comedies and tragedies, though mostly the former.
John Dryden, Marriage a la Mode. Probably the earliest of the great Restoration comedies, this play premiered in 1673 and was written by the first official Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom. Interweaving two separate storylines, the play features plotting and deceit, thwarted marriages, and squabbles over property – all ingredients that would become firm favourites in later Restoration comedies.
William Wycherley, The Country Wife. For many years – indeed, the best part of two centuries – this play, now regarded as a classic and widely studied in universities, was effectively absent from the English stage, thanks to its bawdy content and sexual explicitness (instead, a version written by the pioneering actor David Garrick, called The Country Girl, was staged). First performed in 1675, The Country Wife features several interwoven plots, including a young country girl’s marriage to the older Pinchwife (hence the play’s title). Intersecting with this plot line is the lecherous rake Horner’s plot to seduce women by, of all things, pretending he is impotent…
George Etherege, The Man of Mode. With a central character, the libertine Dorimant, who is thought to be based on the poet John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, this 1676 play is one of the most famous examples of the Restoration comedy. Like The Country Wife we have a number of intersecting plots here, featuring Dorimant’s affair with Lady Loveit and Young Bellair’s relationship with Emilia, which comes under threat when Old Bellair commands his son to marry another woman or be disinherited. The play is sometimes revived, such as by the National Theatre in 2007 when Tom Hardy played the role of the rakish Dorimant.
Aphra Behn, The Rover. Virginia Woolf called Aphra Behn the first professional woman writer in English literature, and during the 1670s and 1680s, Behn was one of the leading playwrights for the Restoration stage (although she also pioneered the English novel and wrote acclaimed poems). The Rover (1677) is probably her most famous play, and was recently revived by the RSC. Based on an earlier play by Thomas Killigrew, The Rover focuses on a group of exiled Cavaliers in Naples.
Thomas Otway, Venice Preserv’d. This 1680s tragedy has been called a ‘masterpiece’ by the theatre critic Michael Billington and ‘the last great verse play in the English language’ by the fascinating critic and provocateur Kenneth Tynan. Yet it’s rarely read, studied, analysed, or staged nowadays – which is a shame, since this play about sex, politics, betrayal, and – for want of a better word – ‘bromance’ is one of the great late verse tragedies in English literature. In the play, Pierre persuades his close friend Jaffeir to join a conspiracy to overthrow the Venetian Senate. Jaffeir agrees, but when he learns that ‘overthrow’ means ‘exterminate’, and that all of the senators will be murdered, he betrays his fellow conspirators, on the condition that they will not be executed for their planned crime.
John Vanbrugh, The Provoked Wife. Sir John Vanbrugh (1664-1726) was a remarkable man: an architect (he designed both Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard), a political activist, and a playwright, whose two Restoration comedies The Relapse and The Provoked Wife remain popular. The latter is the more celebrated of the two: first staged in 1697, it centres on a man, a rather disagreeable drunk, whose behaviour provokes his wife to commit adultery. Drunkenness, marital misery, cross-dressing: this Restoration comedy has it all.
William Congreve, The Way of the World. The first of two plays on this list from 1700, The Way of the World is one of Congreve’s best-known plays, and one of the greatest Restoration comedies. It premiered shortly after his thirtieth birthday, but was received hostilely by many theatregoers, who objected to the immoral nature of the play (showing how much attitudes had changed in the quarter-century since The Country Wife premiered). All of the classic ingredients of the Restoration comedy are here: the clash between marriage for love and marriage for money, devious trickery, sexual politics.
Mary Pix, The Beau Defeated. In this lesser-known Restoration comedy, also from 1700, two women are on the hunt for good husbands. As with many classic Restoration comedies, underhand trickery and deceit loom large in this poem where everyone seems to be wearing some sort of mask, if only metaphorically, while social climbing is the name of the game.
Susannah Centlivre, The Basset Table. This 1705 play was an example of ‘late Restoration theatre’, although it was first staged during the reign of Queen Anne, some two decades after the ‘restored’ King Charles II had died. The original production ran for just four nights, but Centlivre is now regarded as the second woman of the English stage, after Behn. In The Basset Table interweaves a number of gambling plots which also reveal the relationships between the characters, who include a would-be social climber embezzling her husband’s money to fund her visits to Lady Reveller’s and a man trying to marry his daughter off to a naval officer.
George Farquhar, The Recruiting Officer. This play from 1706 is a later example of the Restoration comedy (produced, somewhat confusingly, some time after the Restoration era had ended – but then a good label tends to hang around), and concludes our pick of the greatest Restoration plays. In Shrewsbury, Captain Plume (the ‘recruiting officer’ of the play’s title) and his sidekick Sergeant Kite get involved in romantic scrapes with the local women, leading to much confusion and conflict involving fortune-tellers and mask-based mix-ups. This play was the first ever to be staged in the Colony of New South Wales in 1789 – an event that forms the backdrop to Timberlake Wertenbaker’s play Our Country’s Good.