Friday, 16 August 2013

Comedy of Manners


Comedy of Manners is a name given to witty, intellectual form of dramatic comedy that depicts and often satirizes the manners and affectations of a contemporary society. The plot of such a comedy usually concerned with an illicit love affair or similarly scandalous matter. It also consists witty dialogue and pungent commentary on human foibles.

Plays of this type are typically set in the world of the upper class, and ridicule the pretensions of those who consider themselves socially superior, deflating them with satire. With witty dialogue and cleverly constructed scenarios, comedies of manners comment on the standards and mores of society and explore the relationships of the sexes. Marriage is a frequent subject. Typically, there is little depth of characterization; instead, the playwrights used stock character types—the fool, the schemer, the hypocrite, the jealous husband, the interfering old parents—and constructed plots with rapid twists in events, often precipitated by miscommunications. 

Put simply, the comedy of manners is a style of comedy that reflects the life, ideals and manners of upper class society in a way that is essentially true to its traditions and philosophy. The players must strive to maintain the mask of social artifice whilst revealing to the audience what lies behind such manners. In other words it is to make: The real artificial and the artificial real.

In England the Comedy of Manners had its great day during the Restoration period. Although influenced by Ben Jonson’s comedy of humours, the Restoration comedy of Manners was lighter, defter and more vivacious in tone. The chief practitioners of this comedy were Sir George Etherge, William Wycherley, William Congreve, Sir John Vanbrugh, George Farquhar.

           In the late 18th century Oliver Goldsmith and Richard Brinsley Sheridan revived the form.

The tradition of elaborate, artificial plotting and epigrammatic dialogue was carried on by the Anglo-Irish playwright Oscar Wilde in Lady Windermere’s Fan and The Importance of Being Earnest during the 19th century.

          In the 20th century the comedy of manners reappeared in the witty, sophisticated drawing-room plays of the British dramatists Noel Coward and Somerset Maugham and the American Philip Barry and S.N. Behrman.

          Chiefly the Restoration Age (1660-1700) is associated with the rise and development of Comedy of Manners. To any other age, except this one, manners are only an artificial aspect of a personality of man, something which is acquired and learnt; therefore, Restoration Comedy also came to be known as Artificial Comedy. It tended to laugh at the people out of their follies. That is why it is called Critical Comedy too.

Realism, Social Analysis And Satire

          Unlike the Elizabethan romantic comedy, the comedy of Manners is characterized by realism, social analysis and satire. Its use of prose served to heighten the realistic effect. These dramatists held a mirror to the finer society of their age. They portrayed the sophisticated life of the dominating class of society—its gaiety, foppery, insolence and intrigue. The scene of most comedies of manners is London, more specifically its coffee-and–chocolate houses, clubs, and gambling houses which were the haunts of the corrupt and fashionable ladies and gentlemen of the age. Women, visits, conversation, wit, manners and love affairs are the chief themes of these comedies. Gallantry was the most fashionable vocation of men, and coquetry and flirtation of women.

In ‘The Way of the World’, the phrase ‘the way of the world’ has been recurrently used, for example, Fainall first uses it in Act 2: ‘the Ways of Wedlock and this World’, and repeats in the third act: ‘all in the Way of the World’ and also in the final act, and at the end Mirabell's mocking approach: ‘'tis the Way of the World, Sir; of the Widows of the World’. This repetitive motif makes it clear that the play is concerned with the problems of the social system.

Witty Dialogues

          Both the heroes and heroines are extremely witty and clever. In fact gallantry or coquetry and wit went hand in hand. The art of conversation was a weapon for a man and a ‘special grace of the lady’. In fact the age was proud of its refinement of wit and conversation. Millament, the heroine of Congreve’s ‘The Way of the World’, is perhaps the wittiest heroine in Restoration Comedy. In her Congreve’s wit reaches its highest watermark. She is not only herself witty but demands wit in others too.

In ‘The School for Scandal’ the conversation between the Teazles is one of the excellent examples of Sheridan’s wit.


          Another striking feature of the inhabitants of Restoration Comedy was their hypocrisy. As the new values took hold over the younger generation, the older generation too tried to follow suit. But as it always happens they are never the complete converts. In their attempt to become fashionable, they practice the prevalent mode of living but their basic sensibility is still steeped in the old ideals. This difference between the inner and external life of persons encouraged hypocrisy. Of course, this was more prominent in the older generation and in those who are supposed to be the inferior characters. The most memorable quotes in the Restoration Comedy are Lady Fidget’s ‘Do not use the word naked’. Again she words this spirit of hypocrisy in ‘The Country Wife’:

‘Why should you not think that we, women, make use of our reputation, as you men of yours, only to deceive the world with less suspicion’.


The intrigue, in the plot of ‘The School for Scandal’, is a significant theme, and has been used as a tool to satirize the degradation and follies in the social and individual behaviors.

This intrigue is best expressed via the hide-and-seek between the Fainalls. Both the husband and the wife lack love, faith and adjustment. They hate each other; get involved in extra-marital affair, yet, both pretend to be extremely loving to each other in front of others. Fainall bears his marital life since his sole concern is his wife's money. And, this is the money which makes Marwood play love-game with Fainall. Mirabell, too, plays with innocent Wishfort to get her niece. So, all are planning and scheming against one another for their own sake.

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