The Comedy of Manners


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.

As a theatre form, it has transformed over the years.

Some considerations:

The Restoration period heralded an exciting and boisterous period in theatre after theatres were closed by the Puritans and Commonwealth government between 1642 and 1660 (due to Cromwell). Charles 11 was a fun loving, woman loving and theatre loving king and it was under his reign that drama flourished once more. Audiences were predominately from aristocratic backgrounds.

The Restoration period was noted for its comedies although more serious drama was produced by writers such as John Dryden and Thomas Otway.

Can be witnessed in ancient form in the 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 English comedy of manners began with Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing and then can be seen at its best in Restoration comedy and in the work of Wilde, Shaw and Pinero. In more recent times, work by Coward, Orton and Rattigan encaptured the elements whilst in more modern day drama, Neil Simon and Edward Albee provide worthwhile examples.


Characterised by

A flamboyant display of witty, blunt sexual dialogue

Boudoir intrigues

Sensual innuendos

Rakish behaviour


Conventions that governed Restoration/Comedy of Manners

Constancy in love (especially in marriage) was boring

Sex should be tempting

Love thrived on variety

Genuine sexual feelings had no place on stage

Characters clashed with each other in situations of conflicting love entanglements and intrigues

Country life was considered boring

Clergy and professional men were treated with indifference or condescension


Other notable considerations

Humour was in the satiric treatment of those who allowed themselves to be deceived or who attempted to deceive others

Laughter was 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.

The Restoration stage was poorly lit due to hooplike chandeliers that generally obstructed the vision of the audience. Oil lamps and candles were used until the eighteenth century when Actor-Manager David Garrick removed the chandeliers and placed them out of sight of the audience. He also used backlighting to illuminate the stage.

In modern day sit-coms some excellent examples of The Comedy of Manners include the English shows, Keeping up Appearance, Steptoe and Son, Fawlty Towers (Sybil), Birds of a Feather (Dorian), Men Behaving Badly, Ab Fab. From the US notable shows include The Odd Couple and Frasier.


Costume, Voice and Movement in Restoration Comedy.

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. (Crawford 1976)

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. (Crawford)

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. (Crawford, p.230)

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.

Snuff (a mixture of tobacco, herbs and spices and occasionally drugs) was often used by both men and women on stage.

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.


Characterisation in Restoration Comedy

One-dimensional often caricatured by their very name and were driven usually by a single emotional drive such as seduction, lust, greed, lust.

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. (Crawford, p.234)

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.

Reference: Crawford, J. 1984. Acting in Person and in Style. Dubuque, IA: Wm. C. Brown Publishers)




© Copyright Dr Tracey Sanders 2006