Restoration Theatre | Restoration Drama Characteristics

Under Puritan rigidity, the English theater underwent a particularly difficult time. After Charles I’s deposition in the same year (1642), the theater, which had seen tremendous popularity throughout the reigns of Elizabeth and the Stuarts, was formally closed by an order of Parliament. Up to the reinstatement of the monarchy in 1660, theater was not permitted to be performed in public and was inactive.

Charles II was reinstated to the throne in 1660. After a long twenty years of official silence during the Puritan’s rule, drama also formally returned to England. The English people’s thirst for this was undoubtedly unaffected by the 20-year absence of theatrical entertainment. However, the plays that were performed for them were remarkably dissimilar from those of the Elizabethan era and the early seventeenth century. With the civil war, something in England perished. Particularly in dramatic writing, one could experience that intense yet frequently elusive sensation of loss.

Characteristics of Restoration drama

The Elizabethan theater’s spontaneity seems to have vanished. The dramatist’s personal perspective on life vanished. Drama has, in some ways, become arrogant, fake, and overly staged. The primary source of the dramatists’ dramatic ideas became court life, with all its mannerisms, immorality, and illusory glory. Of course, this new trend in the theater was noticed over time rather than right once. Through Dryden’s “The Wild Gallant” and Etherege’s “Love in a Tub,” it became blatantly apparent in the world of comedy. 

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Changes in theatrical technique also occurred. Stage equipment became necessary, and moveable scenery started to be utilized. Actresses were then brought in to perform female roles. Compared to the Elizabethan era, the Restoration era’s audience had a different makeup. The Restoration theater became a hub of obscene behavior and cheap entertainment for dishonest courtiers and haughty royalists. As a result, the dramatic works—especially the comedies—were extremely licentious.

Heroic Plays of Restoration age

The heroic plays that replaced serious tragic dramas marked the beginning of the Restoration theatre’s new fashion. The incredible adventures that certain heroic individuals undertook were the basis of heroic plays. Heroic feats, dramatic events, and bombastic reactions were performed in front of a crowded theater. Heroic playwrights include John Dryden, the principal architect, Sir Robert Howard, and Davenant, the pioneers.

As a middle ground between tragedy and romance, the heroic plays of the Restoration seem to be in a class by themselves. Chivalrous-honor, love, and conflict are the principal topics of these plays. A romantic scene is used to try to illustrate the tension between love and honor. In the heroic plays, heroic characters are shown as having superhuman abilities and acting or expressing somewhat differently from the normal. The fight between love and honor in a heroic character or personalities is the main focus of the entire action, to some extent.

The main honor of the Restoration theater, however, goes to Dryden, the greatest writer of the time. Between 1669 and 1677, he successfully continued his theatrical career with “Tyrannic Love” or “The Royal Martyr”, “The Conquest of Granada” by the Spaniards, in two parts, “Aureng-Zebe” or “The Great Mughol”. His famous play, “All for Love,” is regarded as both a tragedy and a heroic play.

But in the English theatre of the Restoration, the heroic plays don’t appear to have had a long and illustrious career. It reached its pinnacle with Dryden and nearly fell with him. Its supremacy was quickly displaced by the Restoration’s social comedy of manners, which was more in line with the spirit of the time.

Restoration tragedy

However, despite being significantly overshadowed by the heroic, tragic plays are still represented in the history of the Restoration theater. The Elizabethan tragedy lacks both the elegant allure and tragic grandeur of the Restoration tragedy.

The Restoration tragedy was mostly known for Dryden. His “All for Love” (or The World Well Lost), which was written in emulation of Shakespeare‘s classic play “Antony and Cleopatra” in 1677, is particularly notable in the annals of English tragedy. The form of Dryden’s tragedy is traditional, and it adheres meticulously to the idea of three unities. The play is without a doubt Dryden’s best, and is perhaps the finest Restoration tragedy, despite contrasts from Shakespeare‘s classic Roman drama in its concept and characters.

However, Thomas Otway stands out as the most notable figure in the Restoration tragedy because his two potent plays, “The Orphan” and  “Venice Preserved”, have enhanced the stature of this tragedy on their own. Otway has created tragic feelings using a fully human approach, as though he knows the key to the tragic emotion. A sincere tragic emotion takes the place of the foolishness of circumstances or of verbal bombast. In later times, Otway’s tragedies garner more honor and fame than Dryden’s. In contrast to Dryden’s, they are not heroic tragedies. These plays are more closely related to the category of domestic tragedy that includes “Othello” by Shakespeare and “The Duchess of Malfi” by Webster.

Restoration comedy:

However, comedies are the main genre in which the Restoration theater excels. These comedies are discovered to have a variety of aspects, including farcical comedy, comedy of manners, comedy of intrigue, and comedy of humor. The clever, entertaining lighthearted comedies of the era may have best captured the sentiment of the people who had just been freed from the stringent restrictions of the Puritans.

Again, Dryden is at the center of the Restoration comedy with works like “The Assignation”, “The Spanish Friar”, “Wild Gallant”, and “Marriage a la Mode”. However, despite the fact that he uses excellent effects in dialogue, his achievement is limited.

It’s been discovered that the Restoration comedies’ humor mimics that of the Jonsonian comedies. Early Restoration comedists like Shadwell, Sadley, Crowne, and a few others appear to have been inspired by Ben Johnson’s comedy of humor; yet, their feeble attempts to emulate the great Elizabethan master only serve to highlight their weak dramatic abilities.

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