Comedy of manners is a form of dramatic comedy that depicts and often satirizes the manners and affectations of contemporary society. It is mainly a satirical comedy of the Restoration period (1660–1700) that questions and comments upon the manners and social norms of a greatly sophisticated, artificial society.
Indeed, the comedy of manners of the Restoration appears to have nothing much original in its plot or character. What has characterized it, in particular, is the atmosphere which could hardly be precisely analysed. The plot has the story of love and intrigue and characters are dominated by witty youths and old dames, and these are the least of the innovations made by the Restoration comedians and commonly found in the Jonsonian comedy of humour. Yet, there are seen certain features that have created the gay and free, witty, and satiric atmosphere of the comedy of manners.
In the first place, the comedy of manners represents social life, of course, confined to a narrow circle. The social manners, depicted in the comedy of manners, do not belong, as in the comedy of humour, to the people in masses but to the snobbish, artificial, well-to-do society of the Restoration community. In fact, the social environment, represented in this type of comedy, is wholly aristocratic, but definitely superficial. The playwriter seems to be concerned with the cultivated upper-class ethos that is amoral.
In the second place, the comedy of manners excels in the creation of dramatic situations as well as dramatic suspense. Love, treated in the play, has little to do with romance or idealism but is mainly sustained with wit, realism, and intrigue.
In the third place, the characters of the comedy of manners belong to the real life of the 18th century–to the artificial, snobbish, vulgar English society. They are realistic, although they belong to a much restricted social span. In fact, the imitation of a distinct class- aristocratic but immoral- constitutes the essence of the comedy of manners.
The comedy of manners of the restoration, again, deals with intellect and has little emotion or impulsiveness. Instead of the emotional love of youth of the romantic comedy, the Restoration comedy is packed with highly enjoyable repartees of wit and the frank display of social depravity. This, no doubt, treats love, but this treatment is from an acutely conscious intellectual angle. Love is here more a matter of intellect than of impulse, more of external consideration than of internal feelings.
In the next place, the Restoration comedies are found to have a satirical note. But that note of satire is not curative and clinical, but sardonic and cynical. This is a part of the intellectual character of the play.
The Restoration comedy of manners has, no doubt, a certain amount of immorality and vulgarity. There is certainly a good deal of dialogue or statement in the Restoration comedy of manners which oversteps all bounds of decency and of good taste. Even some scenes smack immodesty and vulgarity. But all this is found to be the inevitable effect of the close relation between comedy and society. The restoration society was licentious, and the drama, that professed to represent the same, could not but be licentious.
This comedy, based on common sense and social reality, is in plain prose, witty and diverting, and not in the high flown verses of the Elizabethan comedy. This prose has a direct, straightforward approach.
Though the root of the Restoration comedy of manners might be traced in Dryden, the famous makers of this comedy were to come much later. They included William Congreve, George Etherege, William Wycherley, John Vanbrugh, and George Farquhar.
Some of the most famous examples of comedy of manners are William Congreve’s The Way of the World, William Wycherley’s The Country Wife, R.B.Sheridan’s The Rivals, The School for Scandal, etc.