Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Comedy [NORTON]

The third book in my exploration of Norton Critical Editions is Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Comedy, edited by Scott McMillin.  I knew this one might be a bit of a tough slog (attending plays can be fun; reading scripts can be far less so), but I persevered through 565 pages.  The first half of the book contains five English comedies:

The Country Wife (1675) is a good example of how bawdy these comedies can be.  The main character, a Mr. Horner, uses his friendship with a quack doctor to spread widely gossip that he's functionally a eunuch due to contracting venereal disease.  Horner's goal is to stop women from annoying him and getting him caught up in romantic intrigues, on the theory that they will be disgusted by the gossip and want nothing to do with him.   It turns out, however, that he's constantly asked and given the opportunity to spend time alone with his friends' wives because he's viewed as unthreatening.  He can't help but take advantage, and ends up cuckolding several of his associates.  It's a very funny, very dirty play full of talk of prostitutes, double entendres regarding sexual positions, and more.

The Man of Mode (1676) was a let-down after the sparkling wit of The Country Wife.  The story concerns a lady's man falling in love and the various romantic maneuvers he and his friends make, with the usual complications of the wrong people being in the wrong places, mistake of identity, etc.  There's one or two good lines, but otherwise it's forgettable.

The Way of the World (1700) started off slowly.  Too many indistinguishable characters and a complicated plot involving a scheme to bilk a dowager out of her estate.  I finally started to make sense of it in the final act, and then it was more enjoyable.  Far more moralistic than the past two, and less bawdy.

The Conscious Lovers (1722) was, self-professedly, a wholesome counterpart to the tendency of plays to be profane, ribald, and setting poor moral lessons.  I was prepared to be extremely bored, and it's true there's not a lick of wit or humor in the play.  On the other hand, it was quite readable and reasonably interesting.  The central plot is a dutiful son who has been directed by his father to marry a woman he does not love, and how he tries (virtuously) to extricate himself from the commitment.

The School for Scandal (1777) condemns the venomous gossip and back-biting that was seen by many as the vocation of the upper-class.  It makes the point well, and was fairly amusing.

A collection of essays makes up the second half of the book.  Not page-turners by any means, but there are some interesting themes developed: the definition and role of humor; the polemic against "immoral" stage plays written by Jeremy Collier in 1698 (and contemporary rebuttals); the development of stage dress and structure; the role of women on the stage, and more.

It's safe to say the subject of this book is far removed from any of my interests (personal or professional), but the purpose of an exercise like this is to be briefly immersed in an area I would otherwise absolutely no knowledge about.  It was eye-opening to read The Country Wife, because it's easy to forget that standards of decency fluctuate, and not all of English history had Victorian-style condemnation of anything prurient.

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