Restoration Theatre

 Student guest page by Kristy Ferreira and Shanna O’Berry, University of Massachusetts Boston

Restoration Plays

Restoration theatre was truly a unique era of plays and play writing. When Charles Stuart was restored to the throne in 1660, theatres were reopened after an eighteen-year ban. Restoration theatre became a way to celebrate the end of Puritan rule, with its strict moral codes. To celebrate the opening of the theatres Restoration plays were lavish, often immoral by Puritan standards, and poked fun at both royalists and roundheads. The lightheartedness of the plays reflected a society recovering from years of division and unrest. Although the audience enjoyed tragedies, comedies were the hallmark of Restoration plays. Classics such as Romeo and Juliet were rewritten and given a happy ending!

Restoration Comedy

Restoration comedies involved quick wit and comedic situations. George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer (1706) had the most performances during the Restoration era. Other successful comedic playwrights were George Etherege, William Wycherly, and William Congreve. These playwrights wrote Comedies of Manners, which satirized the behaviors of society before and during the restoration period. Comedic plays relied on situational humor: disguises, mistaken identity, and misunderstandings which stems from chicanery and leads to confusion. The audience is aware of the trickery; whereas other characters are left in the dark, only to have all revealed in the end.

Restoration comedies also differed from their predecessors by using prose instead of the traditional heroic couplets. Restoration comedies became social commentaries; they were not a mirror of society, but rather exaggerations of society that the audience would recognize and appreciate. The typical audience was upper class, and one had to pay to see the plays since the playhouses were intimate.

There were elements of Restoration comedy that were repeated for over 40 years; common themes suggest several social anxieties of the time. Cuckolding is a recurring theme that suggests men were concerned with their reputation and the possibility of being made a fool by their wives. Shaming rituals were common and a form of public humiliation. Another theme presented in multiple plays was seduction; with women on the stage and influences in Charles’s court, sexuality could not be ignored. Another interesting theme that is a sign of the times is the inversion of class, wealth, property, and gender; with constant political turmoil, power switched hands and those in power would find themselves powerless. In Elizabethan theatre, boys played the role of women; in Restoration plays, women played the role of men as a form of situation comedy.

Plays also reflected new stock characters that were present in society such as the rake and the fop. Not only were these types seen on the stage, but they were also the topic of pamphlets and social writings. Rakes were men who catered to their vices and were very witty, often at the expense of the fop. Fops were men overly concerned with their appearance and aspired to be witty but often unknowingly failed. A famous fop was George Etherege’s Sir Fopling Flutter in Man of the Mode.

Success of Restoration Theatre

One major factor in the success of Restoration theatre was the support of Charles II, “Grasping the ideological value of the stage, Charles took an active interest in Restoration theatre from the start” (Sutherland 251). During his exile, he enjoyed French theatre and upon his return to England granted patents to Thomas Killigrew and Sir William Davenant, allowing the creation of their own playhouses and acting companies. With Charles II’s patronage, Davenant opened the Duke’s Theatre in the Lincoln Field’s Inn. Killigrew opened the Theatre Royal on Drury Lane in 1663. Additionally, the King loaned productions Chapel Royal singers and funded extravagant productions in the summer of 1683.

Restoration audiences enjoyed new characters and timeless plays revamped to celebrate the shifting of power from Puritan rule back to monarchial rule. Restoration theatre itself underwent changes as well. New technologies changed how the plays were put on and how the audience watched them.


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