The Restoration theatre indicates a new phase of development in British drama, particularly in English comedy. Of the first two representatives of this English comedy, one is Sir George Etherege, a courtier, noted for several leading comedies of the time — The Comical Revenge, or Love in a Tub (1664), She Wou’d if She Cou’d (1668), and The Man of Mode or Sir Fopling Flutter (1676). These comedies may be taken as the first effective specimens of what is popularly known as the comedy of manners and the name of Etherege goes as the first true representative of the new dramatic style of the Restoration. In London, he belonged to the circle of wits that included Sir Charles Sedley and Sir John Rochester.
Etherege’s first play The Comical Revenge or Love in a Tub (performed in 1664) is a kind of tragi-comedy. This has the padding of some serious matters with farcical situations and characters. The dramatic vehicle, followed here, is both prose and rhymed couplets. The play, not a great one in the estimation of the present world, contains many glimpses of the real Restoration society with the dramatist’s deft handling of both situation and dialogue, with the delightful flashes of wit and invention in equal measures.
Etherege’s second play She Wou’d if She Cou’d (performed in 1668) is in prose and seems a much better constructed and more socially realistic comedy, with some tact in the presentation of the character-portraits of fine gentlemen and ladies, with their witty repartees.
But Etherege’s last and best comedy is The Man of Mode or Sir Fopling Flutter, in which he is found to successfully animate the spirit of Moliere in the English comedy. The dramatist exhibits here a rare sense of wit and humour, and makes his play thoroughly entertaining with ironic hits on the existing society. The hero of the play, Sir Fopling Flutter, is a grandly drawn fop, who is an amusing coxcomb.
Etherege has much significance in the history of the Restoration theatre, for he may be taken, as indicated, as the true innovator of the comedy of manners. The social representation, with the flash of wit, the sense of humour and well invented dramatic situations is found adequately achieved by him, and here he seems to be almost Congreve’s peer. Of course, there is much of vulgarity and immorality in Etherege’s comedies which lack the fineness of Congreve’s. Addison is quite critical of his plays for ‘sundry lapses into indecency’. On the other hand, Etherege’s plays display a wonderful theatrical sense and a masterly way of inventing dramatic situations and carrying on witty and diverting dialogue. He may not have the brilliance of dialogue and the rarity of fancy of Congreve, but he presents a grand variety of incidents, shows a surer touch in realistic portraiture and offers ample delight with the spontaneous flow of wit and farce.
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