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… Read the rest of this entry
The best plays by women
As Virginia Woolf pointed out in A Room of One’s Own, Shakespeare’s hypothetical sister Judith would have found it impossible to make it in the world of Elizabethan theatre. But in fact, ever since the time of Shakespeare, women have found a way to write for the English (or American) stage, and have changed the way we think about theatre. In this pick of 10 of the greatest plays by women writers, we’ve tried to include a representative chronological range, from the early years of female dramatists through to the present day.
Elizabeth Cary, Viscountess Falkland, The Tragedy of Mariam, the Fair Queen of Jewry. This play is a notable first in English history, since it’s the first original play written in English by a woman under her own name. (There had been an earlier English female dramatist – a Tudor translator by the name of Joanna Lumley – but Cary’s is the first substantial dramatic work composed, rather than translated, by a woman.) Written in the early 1600s and first performed in 1613, The Tragedy of Mariam is about the second wife of Herod the Great, whose sister Salome convinces Herod that Mariam has been unfaithful to her husband. Read the rest of this entry
An introduction to a classic play
The Frogs is one of Aristophanes’ most curious plays. It’s the only Greek play which we know for a fact was popular enough to have been given a repeat performance. It’s also notable for its discussion of the nature of theatre – an early version of literary theory and analysis, which Aristotle would help to develop in his Poetics nearly a century later. The 1974 Stephen Sondheim musical version of The Frogs was the first musical ever staged in a swimming pool, which, if nothing else, shows that people are continuing to experiment with this most experimental of plays.
The plot of The Frogs can be summarised easily enough. The god Dionysus – in whose name the City Dionysia, incorporating the ancient Greek theatre festival, was held – goes down into the Underworld to find the tragedian, Euripides, who had died a year earlier. He is looking for Euripides because he believes the recently deceased playwright will be able to save the city of Athens from itself. Disguised as his own altogether more tough and heroic half-brother Heracles, so that spirits won’t be tempted to tangle with him, the rather incompetent Dionysus gets ferried by Charon across the lake leading to the Underworld, debating with a chorus of frogs as he makes his journey. Read the rest of this entry