Restoration literature is the English literature written during the historical period commonly referred to as the English Restoration (1660–1689), which corresponds to the last years of the direct Stuart reign in England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. In general, the term is used to denote roughly homogeneous styles of literature that center on a celebration of or reaction to the restored court of Charles II. It is a literature that includes extremes, for it encompasses both Paradise Lost and the Earl of Rochester’s Sodom, the high-spirited sexual comedy of The Country Wife and the moral wisdom of The Pilgrim’s Progress. It saw Locke’s Treatises of Government, the founding of the Royal Society, the experiments and holy meditations of Robert Boyle, the hysterical attacks on theaters from Jeremy Collier, and the pioneering of literary criticism from John Dryden and John Dennis. The period witnessed news become a commodity, the essay developed into a periodical art form, and the beginnings of textual criticism.
The dates for Restoration literature are a matter of convention, and they differ markedly from genre to genre. Thus, the “Restoration” in dramamay last until 1700, while in poetry it may last only until 1666 (see 1666 in poetry) and the annus mirabilis; and in prose it might end in 1688, with the increasing tensions over succession and the corresponding rise in journalism and periodicals, or not until 1700, when those periodicals grew more stabilized. In general, scholars use the term “Restoration” to denote the literature that began and flourished under Charles II, whether that literature was the laudatory ode that gained a new life with restored aristocracy, the eschatological literature that showed an increasing despair among Puritans, or the literature of rapid communication and trade that followed in the wake of England’s mercantile empire.
The return of the stage-struck Charles II to power in 1660 was a major event in English theatre history. As soon as the previous Puritan regime’s ban on public stage representations was lifted, the drama recreated itself quickly and abundantly. Two theatre companies, the King’s and the Duke’s Company, were established in London, with two luxurious playhouses built to designs by Christopher Wren and fitted with moveable scenery and thunder and lightning machines. Traditionally, Restoration plays have been studied by genre rather than chronology, more or less as if they were all contemporary, but scholars today insist on the rapid evolvement of drama in the period and on the importance of social and political factors affecting it. (Unless otherwise indicated, the account below is based on Hume’s influential Development of English Drama in the Late Seventeenth Century, 1976.)
The influence of theatre company competition and playhouse economics is also acknowledged, as is the significance of the appearance of the first professional actresses (see Howe). In the 1660s and 1670s, the London scene was vitalised by the competition between the two patent companies. The need to rise to the challenges of the other house made playwrights and managers extremely responsive to public taste, and theatrical fashions fluctuated almost week by week. The mid-1670s were a high point of both quantity and quality, with John Dryden’s Aureng-zebe (1675), William Wycherley’s The Country Wife (1675) and The Plain Dealer(1676), George Etherege’s The Man of Mode (1676), and Aphra Behn’s The Rover (1677), all within a few seasons.
From 1682 the production of new plays dropped sharply, affected both by a merger between the two companies and by the political turmoil of the Popish Plot (1678) and the Exclusion crisis (1682). The 1680s were especially lean years for comedy, the only exception being the remarkable career of Aphra Behn, whose achievement as the first professional British woman dramatist has been the subject of much recent study. There was a swing away from comedy to serious political drama, reflecting preoccupations and divisions following on the political crisis. The few comedies produced also tended to be political in focus, the whig dramatist Thomas Shadwell sparring with the tories John Dryden and Aphra Behn. In the calmer times after 1688, Londoners were again ready to be amused by stage performance, but the single “United Company” was not well prepared to offer it. No longer powered by competition, the company had lost momentum and been taken over by predatory investors (“Adventurers”), while management in the form of the autocratic Christopher Rich attempted to finance a tangle of “farmed” shares and sleeping partners by slashing actors’ salaries.
The upshot of this mismanagement was that the disgruntled actors set up their own co-operative company in 1695.A few years of re-invigorated two-company competition followed which allowed a brief second flowering of the drama, especially comedy. Comedies like William Congreve’s Love For Love (1695) and The Way of the World (1700), and John Vanbrugh’s The Relapse (1696) and The Provoked Wife (1697) were “softer” and more middle class in ethos, very different from the aristocratic extravaganza twenty years earlier, and aimed at a wider audience.
If “Restoration literature” is the literature that reflects and reflects upon the court of Charles II, Restoration drama arguably ends before Charles II’s death, as the playhouse moved rapidly from the domain of courtiers to the domain of the city middle classes. On the other hand, Restoration drama shows altogether more fluidity and rapidity than other types of literature, and so, even more than in other types of literature, its movements should never be viewed as absolute. Each decade has brilliant exceptions to every rule and entirely forgettable confirmations of it. Drama
Main article: Heroic drama
See also: She-tragedy
Genre in Restoration drama is peculiar. Authors labelled their works according to the old tags, “comedy” and “drama” and, especially, “history”, but these plays defied the old categories. From 1660 onwards, new dramatic genres arose, mutated, and intermixed very rapidly. In tragedy, the leading style in the early Restoration period was the male-dominated heroic drama, exemplified by John Dryden’s The Conquest of Granada (1670) and Aureng-Zebe (1675) which celebrated powerful, aggressively masculine heroes and their pursuit of glory both as rulers and conquerors, and as lovers. These plays were sometimes called by their authors’ histories or tragedies, and contemporary critics will call them after Dryden’s term of “Heroic drama”. Heroic dramas centred on the actions of men of decisive natures, men whose physical and (sometimes) intellectual qualities made them natural leaders. In one sense, this was a reflection of an idealised king such as Charles or Charles’s courtiers might have imagined.
However, such dashing heroes were also seen by the audiences as occasionally standing in for noble rebels who would redress injustice with the sword. The plays were, however, tragic in the strictest definition, even though they were not necessarily sad. In the 1670s and 1680s, a gradual shift occurred from heroic to pathetic tragedy, where the focus was on love and domestic concerns, even though the main characters might often be public figures. After the phenomenal success of Elizabeth Barry in moving the audience to tears in the role of Monimia in Thomas Otway’s The Orphan (1680), “she-tragedies” (a term coined by Nicholas Rowe), which focused on the sufferings of an innocent and virtuous woman, became the dominant form of pathetic tragedy. Elizabeth Howe has argued that the most important explanation for the shift in taste was the emergence of tragic actresses whose popularity made it unavoidable for dramatists to create major roles for them.
With the conjunction of the playwright “master of pathos” Thomas Otway and the great tragedienne Elizabeth Barry in The Orphan, the focus shifted from hero to heroine. Prominent she-tragedies include John Banks’s Virtue Betrayed, or, Anna Bullen(1682) (about the execution of Anne Boleyn), Thomas Southerne’s The Fatal Marriage (1694), and Nicholas Rowe’s The Fair Penitent (1703) and Lady Jane Grey, 1715. While she-tragedies were more comfortably tragic, in that they showed women who suffered for no fault of their own and featured tragic flaws that were emotional rather than moral or intellectual, their success did not mean that more overtly political tragedy was not staged. The Exclusion crisis brought with it a number of tragic implications in real politics, and therefore any treatment of, for example, the Earl of Essex (several versions of which were circulated and briefly acted at non-patent theatres) could be read as seditious.
Thomas Otway’s Venice Preserv’d of 1682 was a royalist political play that, like Dryden’s Absalom and Achitophel, seemed to praise the king for his actions in the meal tub plot. Otway’s play had the floating city of Venice stand in for the river town ofLondon, and it had the dark senatorial plotters of the play stand in for the Earl of Shaftesbury. It even managed to figure in the Duke of Monmouth, Charles’s illegitimate, war-hero son who was favoured by many as Charles’s successor over the Roman Catholic James. Venice Preserv’d is, in a sense, the perfect synthesis of the older politically royalist tragedies and histories of Dryden and the newer she-tragedies of feminine suffering, for, although the plot seems to be a political allegory, the action centres on a woman who cares for a man in conflict, and most of the scenes and dialogue concern her pitiable sufferings at his hands.
Main article: Restoration comedy
Restoration comedy is notorious for its sexual explicitness, a quality encouraged by Charles II personally and by the rakish aristocratic ethos of his court. The best-known plays of the early Restoration period are the unsentimental or “hard” comedies of John Dryden, William Wycherley, and George Etherege, which reflect the atmosphere at Court, and celebrate an aristocratic macholifestyle of unremitting sexual intrigue and conquest. The Earl of Rochester, real-life Restoration rake, courtier and poet, is flatteringly portrayed in Etherege’s Man of Mode (1676) as a riotous, witty, intellectual, and sexually irresistible aristocrat, a template for posterity.s idea of the glamorous Restoration rake (actually never a very common character in Restoration comedy). Wycherley’s The Plain Dealer (1676), a variation on the theme of Molière’s Le misanthrope, was highly regarded for its uncompromising satire and earned Wycherley the appellation “Plain Dealer” Wycherley or “Manly” Wycherley, after the play’s main character Manly. The single writer who most supports the charge of obscenity levelled then and now at Restoration comedy is probably Wycherley.
During the second wave of Restoration comedy in the 1690s, the “softer” comedies of William Congreve and John Vanbrugh reflected mutating cultural perceptions and great social change. The playwrights of the 1690s set out to appeal to more socially mixed audiences with a strong middle-class element, and to female spectators, for instance by moving the war between the sexes from the arena of intrigue into that of marriage. The focus in comedy is less on young lovers outwitting the older generation, more on marital relations after the wedding bells. In Congreve’s plays, the give-and-take set pieces of couples still testing their attraction for each other have mutated into witty prenuptial debates on the eve of marriage, as in the famous “Proviso” scene in The Way of the World (1700).
Restoration drama had a bad reputation for three centuries. The “incongruous” mixing of comedy and tragedy beloved by Restoration audiences was decried. The Victorians denounced the comedy as too indecent for the stage, and the standard reference work of the early 20th century, The Cambridge History of English and American Literature, dismissed the tragedy as being of “a level of dulness and lubricity never surpassed before or since”. Today, the Restoration total theatre experience is again valued, both by postmodern literary critics and on the stage. The comedies of Aphra Behn in particular, long condemned as especially offensive in coming from a woman’s pen, have become academic and repertory favourites.