Is There Room for Manners in Comedy?

It seems only fair to acknowledge forms of comedy that are the antithesis of slapstick. A perfect example is Restoration Comedy or Comedy of Manners, proving genteel behavior fits beautifully in comedy as long as it’s over-the-top and ridiculed.

There were many sad years, especially in England, when puritan influence put a real damper on theatre … and fun in general. However, once Charles II took the throne, the fun gates opened and the wealthy flocked back to the theatre, especially to see themselves lampooned onstage.

Blog 7 Comedy of Manners

Comedy of Manners is a cerebral entertainment (hence, the opposite of slapstick) intended to satirize the behaviors of certain social classes, usually the upper class. Large, overly graceful movements and overemphasized “proper” speech were characteristic of the presentational form of entertainment. Characters spent less time looking at each other than looking over the audience in order to make sure their lines were heard, and though entrances might be made through ornate doorways with great flourish, all action took place at the stage’s edge.

In truth, this form of comedy wasn’t new. Ancient Greeks and Romans had similar comedies but they lacked the high powdered wigs, farthingales and ornate brocade clothing of the Restoration. I can’t imagine Aeschylus prancing about waving a lace hanky as he tried to woo a married woman, but that behavior was typical of Comedy of Manners. The idea was to show the “1%’s” obsession with whether others qualified to be their peers while involving themselves in romantic intrigue. At its best, it also showed the truth behind the artifice and the struggle characters experienced while trying to maintain the appearance of social standing.

The greatest of the Restoration Comedy writers was a Frenchman – Moliere. He satirized the hypocrisy and pretensions of French nobleman and their romantic challenges, gaining fame throughout Europe. Among his most famous plays are “The School for Wives,” “The Misanthrope” and “Tartuffe.”

Shakespeare probably brought the genre to England with his play “Much Ado About Nothing.” It’s typical of Shakespeare’s comedies in that it involves some people who are being pressured to marry but don’t want to, others who are falling in love but facing complications, a handful of troublemakers stirring everyone up and a character who runs around in disguise … really, it seems like Shakespeare wrote one comedy and just changed character names and locations. Go ahead – let the hate begin.

There were other British playwrights who created memorable comedies in the era. Oliver Goldsmith’s “She Stoops to Conquer” and Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s “The Rivals” and “The School for Scandal”  all make for fun reads or, when available, fun evenings of theatre.

Blog 7 Comedy of Manners 2

Though the Restoration technically died with fun-loving King Charles II, the influence of the period’s comedy continued through to the modern day. Katharine Hepburn made great films playing the entitled socialite whose manners and romantic bravado threw those around her for a loop. “The Philadelphia Story” and “Bringing Up Baby” immediately come to mind. Popular television shows used ideas from Restoration Comedy to great success, including “Fawlty Towers,” “Frazier” and “Absolutely Fabulous.”


About Doc Davis's Baggy Pants

Doc Davis is a college professor and author of books on Burlesque and Baggy Pants Comedy. He appears regularly as half of the Doc & Stumpy comedy duo. His latest book, "The Delicate Art of Pie Throwing" is nearing completion.
This entry was posted in History of Comedy, Slapstick Comedy and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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