Date of Award
Master of Arts
The so called "Restoration period" in English literature stands as an age of comic production that ranks as one of the most brilliant in the history of the English stage, second perhaps only to the preceding Elizabethan period. Restoration comedy has been famed for its indecency and immorality, and critical Judgment has always been influenced by concern over the "excesses" which the playwrights introduced into their works.
Morality is a relative term. What is sinful in one age is commonly accepted in another. Semantic differences may cause different moral connotations to be placed on certain words. Thus, in considering whether Restoration comedy was immoral, one must judge it to a large extent by the moral standards of the age and by the opinions of the playwrights themselves as to the degree of licentiousness appearing in their comedies. It was a common characteristic of nineteenth century critics to judge the Restoration by nineteenth century moral standards, and critics of the eighteenth and twentieth centuries have often permitted their critical estimates to be affected by their moral sensibilities.
The essential question is, "Did Restoration playgoers find the comedies immoral?" The answer is yes. They expected to hear language that they considered bawdy and to observe scenes that they felt were indecent. It was, fashionable to flaunt recognized moral standards, and for many, who dared not indulge in the flagrant excesses of men such as Rochester or Buckingham, the theater offered the setting wherein fictionalized heroes could display the cleverness that was considered ideal. The comic writers catered to the public tastes.
Yet there is far more to Restoration comedy than studied immorality. For the writers of the day had keen minds and sharp eyes, and their plays are filled with excellent satirical barbs directed against the foibles of the period. Although they shared the vices of the age, the playwrights did not hesitate to ridicule those vices.
This paper attempts to measure to some degree the extent of immorality found in Restoration comedy and to set forth a brief description of the common characteristics of that comedy, to discuss the general status of the society supporting the stage, to examine the controversy which led to the moral reform of the theaters, and to witness the decline in the quality of dramatic production. The basic conclusions reached are these:
1. The comedies were deliberately immoral.
2. Their immorality is not so much a reflection on the playwrights themselves as a commentary on the social mores of genteel society during the Restoration, for the playwrights understood that society thoroughly and wrote to satisfy its whims.
3. The plays were successful, they are genuinely funny, and they are a real dramatic achievement.
4. Both the playwrights and their contemporary critics were unable to recognize the importance of judging their plays on artistic merits, but that it is on their artistry alone that the plays can be defended.
5. That the comedies present us with an excellent and accurate, satirical portrait of fashionable society after the Restoration.
Blackwell, Herbert Robinson, "A study of the moral tone of Restoration comedy" (1955). Master's Theses. 97.