The Puritan experiment in government did not long survive and after Cromwell’s death in 1658, and in May 1660 Charles II was restored to the throne of English. The reaction against Puritan manners and morals was inevitable. It gained force from the fact that many of the returned Cavaliers had spent their exile in France and become expert in French wit and French gallantry, and also because Charles II himself encouraged an atmosphere of hedonistic liveliness at Court. Charles set the tone for the Court Wits, who in turn set the tone for the comic plays of the period. Restoration comedy, therefore, represented the stylization of a deliberately cultivated upper-class ethos.
The first accomplished Restoration comedy of Manners was Sir George Etherege. His first play, The Comical Revenge, or Love in Tub, was performed in 1664. The comic plot of the play provided enough opportunity to the author to showcase his remarkable capacity in handling the wit-combats and shows of sophistication that the age loved. His next play, She Would if She Could(1668), explores the usual Restoration battle between male and female prudence with admirable skill. The tone, though sarcastic, is never brutal and the conclusion establishes a satisfactory balance between wit and virtue. The Man of Mode, or, Sir Fopling Flutter(1676) was his last and most brilliant comedy. The play is more purely amoral and the treatment of Dorimant, the hero, of his various women would be brutal if related to any other world than one in which the relation between the sexes was purely a matter of finding the between lust and self-interest.
William Wycherley produced hid four comedies between 1671 and 1676, of which the last two, The Country Wife and The Plain Dealer, were by far the most interesting. Unlike Etherege, his plays clearly display that he never could completely accept the Restoration standards. The Plain Dealer conveys a general outrage about human nature and society as a whole. The contrast between public pretension and private reality is treated in Wycherley with much humour and wit. The real interest of the plot lies in the exposure of Olivia, who turns out to be a selfish and cruel human being under her prudish exterior. The Country Wife is a more coherent and polished play. The play’s name derives from the effort of Mr. Pinchwife to keep his country wife away from the gallants of the town. The jealous husband is of course ridiculed and gulled, but this does not make the behaviour of his wife in any degree acceptable. She starts of being a simpleton and ends up becoming a nasty animal.
John Dryden produced some comedy of manners during the period, but his real reputation was established in other forms of literature. Dryden’s The Wild Gallant, The Rival Ladies, Secret Love, and Sir Martin Mar-all have features of Restoration Comedy of Manners but not the poise or beauty of the best of Etherege or Congreve. His best contribution to the genre is Marriage a la Mode (1672), where the main plot humourously explores the Restoration explores the Restoration attitude to sex, marriage and honour.
The real master of the form, according to Dryden himself, was Congreve. Not all Congreve’s comedies are, however, in the true Restoration mode. Both The Old Bachelor (1693) and Love for Love (1695) combined farce, satire and Johnsonian humour along with the Restoration spirit in its delineation. The scene in Love for Love, where Mr. Tattle teaches Prue, the country girl, the importance of saying one thing and doing another illustrates the contrast between public relation and private behaviour that forms the core of many Restoration wit-combats.
The Way of the World (1700) was Congreve’s last and finest comedy. The plot contains many of the stock devices of Restoration comedy- the witty pair of lovers, the amorous widow, the would-be-wit, intrigues and adulteries- the tone is quite different from that of Etherege or Wycherley. It is half amused, half sad; the comic atmosphere is pervaded with the realization of the ironies and ambiguities of life. The complexity of human relationships, generally glossed over in Restoration comedy, is here presented in insightful detail.
The comedies of Sir John Vanbrugh and George Farquhar reflect a movement away from the general spirit of Restoration comedy. Restoration comedy proper is thus, thought to begin with Etherege and reach its high- point with Congreve. Jeremy Collier’s Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage (1698) showed the changing demands of the society and although it did not immediately kill comedy of Manners, it definitely reflected a changing public attitude. Colley Cibber was already developing a more sentimental bourgeois comedy in 1690s and the heyday of the ideal social world of the Court Wits of the reign of Charles II was all but over.