Restoration Theater

One thing I haven’t been slacking on are my studies in British Literature, my latest round concerning the subject of Restoration Theater. The period is called The Restoration because the monarchy was “restored” after the socially suppressive Commonwealth held control over England during a ten year long national identity crisis. Led by the return of the king, Charles II, from his nine year stay in France, The Restoration revived the art of living, even if likened unto a series of wild parties, and depictions upon the stage were for obvious reasons, descriptive of a freshly insatiable contemporary London life.

Popularized in The Libertine, Johnny Depp aptly portrays the life of a Restoration “Rake,” another word for a young London man who likes to drink excessively and sleep around with prostitutes. The activity promptly sums up the behavior of London life during the age, and Depp’s work in the movie characterizes the exploits of a certain John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester:

Wilmot’s life, as uncivilized as it seems to come across, did not go without due literary recognition. He was a sharp writer with powerful, influential talent. His world amid the aristocratic elite made him the master of sarcasm and wit that he was, yet his final words upon his deathbed (arriving at the ripe old age of 33 by the effects of alcoholism and syphilis) acknowledge the need for God. The atmosphere of this scene leaves one wondering exactly what sort of pity to exert for the poor fellow, but also paves the way for a genre known as the “Reformation of the Rake.” Verily enough, reformation from the world of alcoholic and promiscuous living within literature took its sweet time to materialize, but that is subject for another day; let’s just say that, at least, the feral, instinctual guide ruling the ambitions of the rake finally came to understand and even act on the incivility of his ways.

Restoration Theater is a rebuttal to religious sexual suppression, and what better way to enjoy freedom of sexual expression than to have the king endorse the activity. Charles II was seemingly a man truly bred to rule over society’s sexual whims during his day, and his time in France was a fitting place to have prepared for such a reign. His attitude toward the oppressive, puritanical view on sexuality seems to have been, “Someone needs to lighten up.”

Yet despite the sudden reputation for lavish, carefree living and the propagation of STDs, The Restoration is known ironically enough for its influence in the progression of women’s rights; women were finally allowed to act on stage with men, as in the past amid the Shakespearean Era, women characters were played by men dressed as women.

Here’s my extensive list of reads, and while the notion of wild living and promiscuity may suggest that the scripts were inspired by the powers of heavy inebriation, one thing the play script writers of the Restoration period were not, was illiterate. These scripts are rigorously detailed and often very confusing to follow. The plays are best when seen performed, but they also serve well as a valuable resource for exhausting, British literary reading:

“The Country Wife” by William Wycherley (1675)

“The Rover, or, The Banished Cavaliers” by Aphra Behn (1677)

“All for Love, or, The World Well Lost” by John Dryden (1677)

“Oroonoko, A Tragedy” by Thomas Southerne (1695) [Not to be confused with “Oroonoko: or, The Royal Slave” by Aphra Behn; Southerne simply borrowed characters from Behn’s novel to formulate a play version of the story.]

“The Way of the World” by William Congreve (1700)

“The Conscious Lovers” by Richard Steele (1722)

“The Beggar’s Opera” by John Gay (1728)

“The Author’s Farce” by Henry Fielding (1730)

“She Stoops to Conquer” by Oliver Goldsmith (1773)

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Complimentary readings to the study of Restoration Theater include:

“The Diary of Samuel Pepys” by Samuel Pepys (1660-1670)

“A Short View of the Immortality and Profaneness of the English Stage” by Jeremy Collier (1698)

“The Usefulness of the Stage” by John Dennis (1699)

“The Life of Thomas Betterton” by Charles Gildon (1710)

“On Betterton’s Funeral” by Richard Steele (1710)

“An Apology for the Life of Colley Cibber” by Colley Cibber (1740)

“A Treatise on the Passions, So Far as they Regard the Stage” by Samuel Foote (1747)

“A Narrative on the Life of Mrs. Charlotte Charke” by Charlotte Charke (1756)

“On the Present State of our Theaters” and “An Essay on the Theater; or, a Comparison between Laughing and Sentimental Comedy” by Oliver Goldsmith (1760)

“Boswell’s London Journal” by James Boswell (1762-1763)

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