Oxford's oldest student newspaper

Independent since 1920


    Milestones: Restoration Comedy

    Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the recent memories of Oliver Cromwell’s oppressively puritanical turn as Lord Protector, when monarchy returned in the form of Charles II, Britain was in need of a good laugh. The theatres had been closed for the past 18 years, but they were swiftly reopened, and the theatrical fare on offer – and in particular what we now know as the “Restoration Comedy” – was more riotous and raunchy than ever before.

    Restoration comedies often feature rakish heroes seduced into matrimony by witty women, but the occasional similarities between works haven’t stopped them from becoming firm favourites of the theatre-going public and actors alike – last year in Oxford we had a well-received production of Etherege’s The Man of Mode, and Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer, while Our Country’s Good was also a recent choice by our university’s dramatists.

    Performed in their original context, these comedies had an added appeal – for the first time, women had been permitted to act on the British stage. The first female actors proved themselves more than capable of achieving levels of fame comparable to their male counterparts, perhaps the most notorious of all being Nell Gwyn, who, following on from her time on the stage, ultimately became the mistress of the king himself.

    The trend of having female characters disguise themselves as men really took off post-1660, a fashion cited by some critics as showing additional agency was being afforded to female characters in their taking on of the traditionally male roles in society. However, there’s arguably a more cynical motive at play in this plot device – male dress involved stockings and breeches, allowing the men in the audience to get a close look at the contours of the women’s legs that just wouldn’t have been possible in the more cumbersome female fashions of the time.

    Though these arguably more exploitative elements of the Restoration stage might be seen as eclipsing any chance of female success, women in behind-the-scenes roles were having unprecedented triumphs. The era found in Aphra Behn the first female commercial playwright, who was for a time the most performed playwright on the English stage of any gender, her hilarious characters winning over the theatre-going public whilst she somehow found the time to produce novels, translations and work as a spy for the Britain, as well as having affairs with male and female lovers.

    Behn’s work, along with that of many authors of Restoration comedies, was neglected in later centuries due to its bawdiness, but has been regaining popularity in recent years. Contemporary readers and audiences might be surprised at how ‘modern’ some of the attitudes expressed in these plays seem. The past might not be such a foreign country after all, and Restoration comedy shows we still share moral preoccupations and sources of comedy with the cultural world of the late Seventeenth Century.

    We find in these comedies attitudes that can be both appealing and repellent, but that are always current.

    Support student journalism

    Student journalism does not come cheap. Now, more than ever, we need your support.

    Check out our other content

    Most Popular Articles