So I mentioned them as a Restoration innovation in “Shakespearian Tragedies & Happy Endings,” but what exactly is a comedy of manners? To be honest, it sounds pretty dull, right? (If I tried to think of a comical topic, manners wouldn’t be first on my list…at least not for wit) Yeah, well, although the genre does have to do with manners, it’s more about making fun of the upper classes. Mostly the English ones made fun of the aristocracy under Charles II.
Sounds a lot more interesting now, right?
Life under Charles II was a bit racy, especially compared to the previous Puritan regime (I know that’s not saying much, but this was an exponential difference). The dramas of the time played up on the scandalous affairs and behavior, making them the centerpieces of the convoluted plots, secondary only to the witty dialogue.
Granted, the English weren’t the first to write a comedy of manners. The genre goes back at least to Roman times, and even Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors is older than the Restoration plays; however, when you hear the term, it’s usually in reference to either Restoration comedy or Moliere’s plays, which were written during the same period (but in France). Oscar Wilde’s plays are the exception to this rule, especially The Importance of Being Ernest, which is a barrage of witty lines (One warning: watching it is hilarity – reading it is torture.).
Hmmm. The fact that they’ve been written for centuries makes me wonder about the modern version. What would a comedy of manners be like today? (Anyone want to make fun of rich people?)