Comedy of Manners

A Comedy of Manners is a play concerned with satirising society’s manners. A manner is the method in which everyday duties are performed, conditions of society, or a way of speaking. It implies a polite and well-bred behaviour.

Comedy of Manners is known as high comedy because it involves a sophisticated wit and talent in the writing of the script. In this sense it is both intellectual and very much the opposite of slapstick, which requires little skill with the script and is largely a physical form of comedy. In a Comedy of Manners however, there is often minimal physical action and the play may involve heavy use of dialogue.

A Comedy of Manners usually employs an equal amount of both satire and farce resulting in a hilarious send-up of a particular social group. Most plays of the genre were carefully constructed to satirise the very people watching them. This was usually the middle to upper classes in society, who were normally the only people wealthy enough to afford going to the theatre to see a comedy of manners in the first place. The playwrights knew this in advance and fully intended to create characters that were sending up the daily customs of those in the audience watching the play. The satire tended to focus on their materialistic nature, never-ending desire to gossip and hypocritical existence.

Comedy of Manners has spread itself over several periods in theatre history. A theatrical genre can begin in a certain era but span many periods if the works of later playwrights successfully revive it. The most valuable material of this genre occurred during the Restoration. English theatres were officially closed between 1642 and 1660 when Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans ruled England and there was no aristocracy. In 1660 King Charles II restored the English throne and one of his first actions was to grant several key theatrical figures licences to produce plays and breathe life into the theatre once more.

Technically, the Restoration period ended with the death of Charles II in 1685, but theatre historians usually extend the period to about 1700. Along with this revival was a type of performance that became known as Comedy of Manners. Major contributors to the genre in England at the time were William Wycherley with his play The Country Wife (1675) and William Congreve with The Way of the World (1700). During this period in France, Moliere was also writing Comedy of Manners plays. Three of his most famous works include The School for Wives (1662), Tartuffe (1664) and The Misanthrope (1666) where Moliere satirised aspects of 17th century French society.

A hundred years later, Irish playwright Richard Sheridan and Englishman Oliver Goldsmith revived the Comedy of Manners genre. The best examples of their work include Sheridan’s The School for Scandal (1777) and Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer (1773).

Again, a little over a century from this date, Comedy of Manner plays were being perfected in England by famous Irish playwright Oscar Wilde, with wonderful works like Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892) and The Importance of Being Earnest (1895).

20 comments on “Comedy of Manners

  1. I’m reading this website for my theatre presentation, and it’s nice for a good start!

  2. is there any examples of comedy of manners in our new generation right now? The modern one.

    • Shenna, although in history a comedy of manners play satirised the upper class, anything that sends up the social norms and behaviour of one or more classes or groups of people in society would be considered a modern comedy of manners. This is because it is mocking the everyday customs of those people, sometimes subtly, at other times very obviously. There would be numerous film examples from contemporary culture, but television examples could include Seinfeld, Modern Family, Friends, Absolutely Fabulous etc. – Justin

  3. Thank you,for the helping on my drama PRESENTATION!!!!!!!!!!

  4. Thank you, very helpful. One question, how did The Comedy of Manners impact society?

  5. thank you for the help on my drama presentation!!

  6. It is satisfactory….. N very helpful.

  7. Nice info…hope its enough for the exams

  8. not satisfactory information….:(

  9. it’s bad comedy

  10. thanks a bundle

  11. Technically it is only in England in the 1660s that people should refer to Restoration Comedy and Comedy of Manners as one and the same.

    Primarily, this is because Restoration Comedy only applies to the dominant style of comedy in England during the reign of King Charles II – mainly in the 1660s – but extending to about 1700 (whereby this monarch’s “restoring” of the English throne resulted in this brief period being known as the Restoration).

    More loosely, people often associate the term Restoration Comedy with Comedy of Manners in general. But in other countries and/or at other times, one should only refer to them as Comedy of Manners works.

    Hence, where my article refers to some of the works of Moliere in France during the 1660s, Sheridan in Ireland and Goldsmith in England in the 1770s, or Wilde in England in the 1890s, one should only refer to these works as being in the Comedy of Manners style.

    In terms of content and form, all of the above are generally the same. Whatever period or name we wish to give them, these plays written in different periods and countries all serve the same purpose – to satirise the daily customs of the upper classes in society – historically, the very people in the theatre watching them.

    As to whether Comedy of Manners is actually a theatrical “genre” or a “style” is another post altogether! For me, Comedy of Manners is a sub-genre of Comedy, but one will often see it referred to as a theatrical style. It’s all semantics.

    Justin

  12. I am confused can anybody tell me is this the same as restoration comedy because in the syllabus they are different styles.

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