The Comedy of Manners
The comedy of manners is a style of comedy that reflects the life, ideals and manners of upper class society. The players must strive to maintain the mask of social artifice whilst revealing to the audience what lies behind such manners. This form of comedy seeks to make attire and social commentary through making the real artificial and the artificial real.
In England, the Restoration period heralded an exciting period in theatre. Prior to this period, the theatres were closed by the Puritans and Commonwealth government between 1642 and 1660 due to Cromwell’s conservative rule. Conversely, Charles II was fond of frivolities, women the theatre and under his reign drama flourished once more. Audiences were predominately from aristocratic backgrounds.
The Comedy of Manners has its origins in the ancient plays of Menander from the New Comedy of the Greek theatre in the fourth century BC and then in the work of Roman writers Plautus and Terence. The actual Restoration period was noted for its comedies although more serious drama was produced by writers such as John Dryden and Thomas Otway.
As a style, Comedy of Manners is characterized by:
· A flamboyant display of witty, blunt sexual dialogue
· Boudoir or bedroom-based intrigues
· Sensual innuendos
· Rakish behavior
· Constancy and inconstancy in love
· Sex as a tempting force
· Love in various forms
· Characters clashing over love entanglements and intrigues
· Settings in the town or scenes that portrayed country life as boring
· Clergy and professional men being treated with distain or indifference
During the Victorian Age in England in the 19th Century, a resurgence of interest in Restoration Drama and the Comedy of Manners happened. Oscar Wilde and some other playwrights perfected elements of Restoration Comedy and the Comedy of manners to develop plays that mocked or made comment on Victorian society and its social divisions and mores. One of Wilde’s most successful plays which does this is The Importance of Being Earnest.
In a Comedy of Manners, humor is achieved in many ways especially through the satiric treatment of those who allowed themselves to be deceived or who attempted to deceive others. Laughter is often directed against the fop, the pretender at wit, the old trying to be young or the old man with a beautiful and youthful wife.
Prologues and Epilogues were important and plays would often begin or end with special pieces such as poetry, often delivered in a coarse, boisterous and hilarious fashion mocking high forms of Romantic poetry and verse.
The Restoration stage was poorly lit due to hooplike chandeliers that generally obstructed the vision of the audience. Oil lamps and candles were used and some theatres even used these below the actors at the front of the stage like footlights.
Dress was the contemporary dress of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries where every possible part of the body was adorned - large brimmed plumed hat, heavy periwig with curls tumbling over the forehead and down to the shoulders, a square cut coat and a waistcoat hanging to the knees, wide stiff cuffs and ruffles reaching to the knuckles and ribbons on every unmarked surface. Women wore gowns with bell shaped skirts and sleeves with high mantillas and veils. Indoors, women were allowed to show their faces, hands, necks and bosoms, but outside, they wore large hooded cloaks. As time progressed, men showed more of their legs and women's attire became more clinging and revealing. The men often wore eye patches.
Both sexes wore excessive make-up, false noses, beards, moustaches, powder, rouge, pencil, lipstick and beauty patches. Facial expression was avoided because it tended to crack the facial make-up.
The voice was brilliant and brittle, witty in language, often prose was used, and rapid repartee was the norm. Actors imitated the Parisian aristocratic style of address with its rich heritage from Moliere. Tone was used to convey emotional quality to the audience and precise pronunciation was encouraged. Singing, dancing, posture, gesture and walking were all taught as special training schools in Britain. Intricate vocal pauses and timing was developed and tempo of delivery was rapid.
As Restoration comedies were predominately presentational, movement was focused on entering and exiting through doors. Action took place mainly downstage on the apron of the stage. Highly graceful and elegant patterns of movement were encouraged and all actions should be precise and inventive. Gesticulation was very important and an entire array of facial grimacing, winking and smiling was developed.
The fop (an effeminate male) was fashionable and also the butt of much of the sarcastic repartee in the plays. They minced, strutted and used copious flowing hand gestures and posing. Female actors flirted over and behind fans, half-masks and handkerchiefs. Bows and curtsies in the seventeenth century manner were used directed both at other actors and the audience. When one character passed another, they would often perform the en passant, a slight bow from the waist with one foot sweeping in an arc around the other foot without losing the pace of the walk. Men always kissed a lady's hand when leaving, held their hands away from their body to emphasise their lace cuffs, handkerchiefs and waling sticks and canes.
Woman balanced enormous and outlandish hats and carried a muff that was used not just for warming the hands but also to carry secret objects such as notes. They walked in a curved, graceful fashion and held their dresses slightly off the floor.
A major distinction between characterisation in Restoration comedy and French Neoclassic comedy is the actor's sense of involvement with a character. Whereas serious involvement is necessary for playing most of the major roles in Moliere, in Restoration Comedy, performing will probably be more successful if a certain level of detached objectivity is retained. Although the manners of the time were said to be realistically portrayed on stage, this is not the same meaning as realism on stage as we now know it. It was indeed, an exaggeration of common traits of the aristocracy.
Modern day sit-coms like Keeping up Appearance, Fawlty Towers, Birds of a Feather, Men Behaving Badly and Ab Fab have some examples of The Comedy of Manners. The films of Woody Allen sometimes rely on some elements of Comedy of Manners but sometimes this is done without the gestural elements evident in many Comedy of Manners pieces.
Lessons and Practical Workshops
‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ is a good play to use for workshops on the Comedy of Manners as a theatre style. The play makes fun of the manners, social class and social expectations and mores.
Some activities which could be undertaken are:
Read, discuss and workshop key scenes from The Importance of Being Earnest. Discuss how different characters could be physically represented and what gestures and actions to sum up the characters’ attitudes and social class. These gestures and actions could be exaggerated to help to mock the character and their social class. Improvise around the scenes and the social and physical constraints of character, setting, time and space to explore significant themes from the focus scene or character.
Alternatively, students can take a well-known story such as Cinderella or The Three Little Pigs and they could explore and present it as a Comedy of Manners piece. The Ugly Sisters and the Step Mother can be shown to be a product of a Middle Class imitating an Upper Class. Gestural acting and even Freeze Framing can be used to refine gestures and the stage picture to increase the commentary and mockery of pretensions and class structure. The story of The Three Little Pigs can also be explored in a Comedy of Manners style. Many other fairy tales can work in this way.
Alternatively, video-clips can be used to work on vocal aspects of characters for Comedy of Manners style pieces. Steve Nallon has a great video of a workshop where he works on vocal aspects of Margaret Thatcher in a Comedy of Manners style. This could be used as a basis for a lesson:
Simon Callow’s video of his lessons in ‘Acting in Restoration Comedy’ has been made into a book but the following link to the video can be used as the basis to a lesson or part of the video can be played and various techniques can be tried out and then the next technique showed on the video can be played:
Aitken, M. & Callow, C. 2000. Acting in Restoration Comedy. Applause Books, London.
Crawford, J. 2007. Acting in Person and in Style. W.C. Brown Publications.
Hirst, D.L. 1979. The Comedy of Manners. Methuen. London.
Hughes, L. 1972. A Century of English Farce. Princeton University Press. Princeton.
McMillan, S. ed. 1997. Restoration and Eighteenth Century Comedy. W.W. Norton Press. London.
Nettleton, A.G.H. 1992. British Dramatists from Dryden to Sheridan. Methuen. London.
Styan, J.L. 1986. Restoration Comedy in Performance. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.
Steve Nallon - Margaret Thatcher in a Comedy of Manners style:
The Restoration Comedy Project:
Restoration Theatre (University of St. Andrews)