An Introduction to Restoration Theatre, Its rise, Characteristics, Classification

The English theatre passed through a very critical stage under the Puritan regimentation. The theatre, which had enjoyed immense popularity, during the reign of Elizabeth and the  Stuarts, was officially closed by an ordinance of Parliament in the very same year (1642), after the deposition of Charles I. No public acting was allowed, and drama lay in a dormant state till the restoration of the royal power in 1660.

In 1660, Charles II was restored to his throne. With his return, drama, too, officially returned to England, after its official silence for long twenty years under the authority of the Puritans. The deprivation of dramatic entertainment for twenty years did not certainly impair the appetite of the English people for this. But the plays, which were presented to them, were strikingly different from those of the Elizabethan age and of the
early years of the seventeenth century. Something died out of England with the civil war. That sense of loss, profound yet intangible often, could be felt particularly in dramatic literature. The spontaneity of the Elizabethan theatre seemed to have passed away. The dramatist’s human outlook on life was no more. Drama became, to some extent, pompous, artificial and too stagey. The theatre was more closely than ever the province of the court. Court life, with all its affectations and vulgarity and vain-glories, became the chief resources of the dramatists for their dramatic materials.

That new tendency in the theatre, of course, was perceived not immediately but gradually. It became distinctly noticeable in the world of comedy through Dryden’s The Wild Gallant Etharage’s Love in a Tub. But its dominance was marked particularly in the heroic plays of Dryden.

There came also changes in the technique of the theatre. Moveable scenery began to be used and the need for stage machinery was recognised. Lastly, there came actresses to play female parts.

The nature of the Restoration audience was different from that of the Elizabethan age. The Restoration theatre became wholly a centre of vulgarity and low amusement for corrupt courtiers and rakish royalists. Consequently, there was extreme licentiousness in the dramatic works, particularly in the comedy, of the age.

The new trend of the Restoration theatre was first felt in the heroic plays which replaced serious tragic plays. The heroic plays, however, were not inspired by the classical influence. The masters of those plays imitated neither Italy nor Greece. They were rather influenced by France. But, again, the influence of France was mainly perceived in content rather than in form.

The theme of heroic plays was extraordinary-the adventures, made by certain heroic personalities. The theatre was packed with superhuman feats, melodramatic scenes and bombastic expressions.

Among heroic play-wrights may be mentioned Davenant, Sir Robert Howard, the pioneers, and John Dryden, the chief architect. There may be mentioned some more names, but they are really of poor calibre. Nevertheless, the heroic plays, along with the comedies of manners, constitute the chief glory of the
Restoration theatre.

In the history of the Restoration theatre, tragic plays, however, do not go, unrepresented, although they are much eclipsed by the heroic. The Restoration tragedy has neither the fine appeal nor the tragic grandeur of the Elizabethan age. There are different types of tragedies, such as the blank verse tragedy, the domestic tragedy and the she-tragedy. Dryden’s All for Love and Thomas Otway’s The Orphan and Venice Preserved may be mentioned as the important tragic plays of the age. Nathaniel Lee and Thomas Southerne are two other notable tragic authors.

The Restoration theatre is, however, found to express its excellence chiefly in comedies. These comedies are found to have manifold manifestations in the comedy of intrigue, the comedy of humour, the farcical comedy and the comedy of manners. Perhaps, the feeling of the people, just released from the severe restriction of the Puritans could be echoed best through the witty, diverting light-hearted comedies of the age.


Dryden, again, is found at the centre of the Restoration comedy, with his Wild Gallant, Marriage a la Mode, The Spanish Friar and The Assignation. His success is, however, nothing significant, although he displays brilliant effects in dialogue.

The Restoration comedy of humour is found to follow the fashion of the Jonsonian plays of humour. Ben Jonson’s comedy of humour seems to have inspirited the early Restoration comedy writers, like Shadwell, Crowne and a few others, whose poor attempts to imitate the great Elizabethan master reveal only their mediocre dramatic talent.

But the chief interest of the Restoration theatre is found to centre round the comedy of manners, which is a social study and an imitation of the prevalent distemper of the artificial, aristocratic English society of the time. The great architects of this new kind of comic plays are Congreve, Etherege, Wycherley, Farquhar and Vanbrugh. In their keen study of social vices and perversity as well as in their sharp sense of wit and humour, they seemed to enliven the theatre that had lost its Elizabethan sparkle under the Puritan rigours.