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Teaching Restoration Drama

August 29, 2013

I’ve just remembered to update my page to take account of the fact that I enjoy Restoration Drama as a teaching specialism.

There we are.

Most “centuries” are variously prolonged or truncated.  In eighteenth-century studies people variously refer to “the short eighteenth century” (typically 1714-1789) or “the long eighteenth century” which might involve 1688-1815 or sometimes even 1660-1832.

The Irish eighteenth century ends very neatly and abruptly in 1800 with the Act of Union, but nobody can say with such certainty where exactly it starts.

Restoration Drama, as it is called, on the other hand has a very definite start point and a very indeterminate end point.  Restoration Drama begin, fittingly, with the Restoration, and all histories begin with the year 1660.  The point at which this new form of drama ceases to feel “restored” and becomes merely seventeenth or eighteenth-century drama is much harder to establish however.

Some classic Restoration plays are now harder to demonstrate to students.  A deal of time is spent explaining the revolution in theatre design and theatre technologies that makes going to a play in 1680 so radically different from going to a play in 1600.  Many mourn the fact that witty sex comedy seems to have little need for poetry of any great merit.  Some are startled by quite how much transvestism is shoehorned into the plots.  Thomas Southerne, notoriously managed to nail a transvestite sex comedy onto his adaptation of Behn’s Oroonoko, bawdy trouser jokes alternating with a blood-drenched slave revolt story.

The plays that seem to work best are the least urban, or rather, plays in which the urbanity is less assuming.  Behn’s The Rover (1677), with its “Brits on the Piss” boorishness, works in part, because the main characters have no idea how Neapolitan society works, and therefore have to have certain things explained to them.  This helps modern audiences, who welcome having things explained to them also, but enjoy the fact that it is the idiots on stage who are getting things wrong rather than themselves.

George Farquhar’s two mature comedies, The Recruiting Officer (1706) and The Beaux Stratagem (1707) also benefit from a lack or urbanity.  Set in the provinces (perhaps set in English provinces that stand as surrogates for Ireland), the metropolitan interlopers in these plays end up getting entangled in local affairs beyond their ken.  They get more than they bargain for.  And Farquhar’s conceit of having a play conclude with  a happy divorce rather than a happy marriage is one of the most priceless inventions of “English” comic writing.  Some ink has been spilled trying to prove that Farquhar may have read Milton in divorce, but a more interesting and plausible notion is that he retained an awareness of traditional Brehon law customs of marriage dissolution.

Most teachable 18th century dramatists are, of course, Irish.  Congreve, Farquhar, Goldsmith, Sheridan etc.   This over-representation is matched only by the over-representation of Irish actors on the London stage during the same period.  Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer (1773), which very explicitly references Farquhar, and which is successful for many of the same reasons as The Beaux Stratagem, pushes the suggestion that the more distant English provinces may well be standing as surrogates for a version of Ireland even further.  Goldsmith treats the metropolitan London visitors in much the same way that countless British and American tourists wandering round rural Ireland have been treated in plays, short stories, films and TV dramas.

Tony Lumpkin is close kin to Dion Boucicault’s  Shaughraun.

In fact the only comparable English dramatist to really emerge in the eighteenth-century is one William Shakespeare.  Or at least, it is only in the eighteenth century that one William Shakespeare emerges as WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE.

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One Comment
  1. Hi, this site may be of interest. It’s only just started but it will build regularly over the coming months. Btw I like your definition of ‘The Rover’ as Brits on the piss.

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