Comedy of Manners

Table of Contents
1. Introduction
2. Restoration Comedy
3. Characteristics/Traits
4. Playwrights
4.1 George Etherege
4.2 William Congreve
4.3 Richard Brinsley Sheridan
4.4 Oscar Wilde
5. Comedy of Manners Used Today
5.1 Television
5.2 Movies
6. Works Cited

1. Introduction

Comedy of manners is a type of comedy used in plays that focuses on satire of society’s manners. Comedy of manners generally pokes fun at the upper class society’s values and life, in a way that is basically true to its tradition and philosophy (Crawford 1). Comedy of manners is a verbal based comedy; with heavily witty dialogue and less physical action.
Comedy of manners was first derived from the Greek playwright, Menander, who developed the new comedy in Ancient Greece. The Roman playwrights, Plautus and Terence, used Menander’s style, eventually being copied from playwrights during the Renaissance. Comedy of manners then hit its peak in England in the Restoration period, with playwrights like George Etherege, William Congreve and Richard Brinsley Sheridan, writing popular plays during that time, like Sir Fopling Flutter, The Way of the World and The School for Scandal (Palmer 83). In 1895, Oscar Wilde would write one of the most popular comedy of manners plays, The Importance of Being Earnest. The concept of comedy of manners is still applied today in movies and TV shows over the years.

2. Restoration Comedy

Comedy of manners thrived during the Restoration period; starting in the early 1600s. It can be said that the English comedy of manners began with George Etherege, followed by William Congreve (Palmer 2). Their plays highlighted the behavior of people in certain society and the artificial values concerning the people (“Comedy of Manners” 1). These men put forth realism in their plays; putting the comedy being presented on stage as close to real life as possible, “to show general life of time, its movements, its amusements, its general conceptions, were mirrored upon stage” (Dobree 26-29). They used their observations from their own life to depict setting, events, and personalities in their comedies. For example, the reason for Etherege’s success of Sir Fopling Flutter was that many of the characters were taken as portraits. Dean Lockier, a chaplain, said that “Sir George Etherege was exactly his own Sir Fopling Flutter” basing himself upon the character (Dobree 27). Comedy of manners was seen as ‘critical’ because it focused on the follies of individuals of the upper class. Restoration comedy also exposes love and marriage. Issues of adultery and marrying for wealth were sometimes shown in comedy of manners plays and the characters did not take love/marriage seriously, but more as a playful venture (“Comedy of Manners” 1). As seen in The School for Scandal, Peter Teazle marries Lady Teazle because she’s young and pretty and just to show her off, not because of love whatsoever.

3. Characteristics/Traits of Comedy of Manners

  • Comedy built on a satire of a specific time and place.
  • Must have an understanding of a specific society or place being satirized.
  • Wit and dialogue was valued over physical comedy.
  • Dominantly verbal-based comedy.
  • Often built around a love story.
  • Characters can be shown to be immoral.
  • Dialogue is short and precise. The language depicts the values of the people in the play (“Comedy of Manners” 1).
  • Characters are defined by one single trait and are driven by a single emotion.
  • Sexual innuendos are used and rakish behavior is shown (Crawford 1).
  • Faithfulness in love was boring.
  • Sex should be tempting.
  • Genuine sexual feelings had no place on stage.
  • Country life was also considered boring.
  • Characters often fought with each other in situations of conflicting love triangles and intrigues (Crawford 1).

4. Comedy of Manners Playwrights and Their Plays

4.1 Geoerge Etherege (1636-1692)

Etherege has been called the actual founder of English comedy of manners (Palmer 31). Etherege described himself as being “lazy” and “too careless to be ambitious,” writing plays for his own leisure and to entertain people (Dobree 60). Etherege wrote Sir Fopling Flutter (1676), which is about a young aristocrat in Restoration London who tries to win the affection of a young heiress, while trying to get away from a previous affair. Sir Fopling Flutter was one of Etherege’s most successful plays; the play was praised for its dialogue and how the characters were well drawn in life as presented on stage. It shows how Etherege viewed Restoration society and captures the spirit of that time. This play shows that men and women of the Restoration period saw nothing romantic in the act of sex, and implies that friendship and bonds on honor did not exist among these particular characters (Palmer 42).
George Etherege
Sir Fopling Flutter

An excerpt of The Way of the World, showing the theme of love:
Mirabell: You are no longer handsome when you’ve lost your lover; your beauty dies upon the instant: for beauty is the lover’s gift; ‘tis he bestows your charms—your glass is all a cheat…
Millamant: O the vanity of these men! Beauty the lover’s gift! Lord! What is a lover that it can give? Why, one makes lovers as fast as lone pleases, and they live as long as one pleases, and they die as soon as one pleases; and then, if one pleases, one makes more (Dobree 143).

4.2 William Congreve (1670-1729)

Congreve’s plays were first produced on stage in January 1693, and five of his plays were produced within the years 1693 to 1700. Congreve’s comedies were seen as a little bit more crude, but were known to have great wit about high society. One comedy Congreve wrote, The Double Dealer, was not well received, and was especially resented by women because of the cruel satire of their sex, making the female characters portrayed as vicious and self-absorbed (Palmer 156). Another play written by Congreve was The Way of the World. The play did reach success because of Congreve’s wit and how it was greatly written. The Way of the World is about two lovers who are trying to get married, but there are complications of reaching that goal. The play follows the comedy of manners traits with a complex plot, the characters are dubious, and the manners are the main theme (Palmer 189).
William Congreve

An excerpt of The Way of the World, showing the theme of love:
Mirabell: You are no longer handsome when you’ve lost your lover; your beauty dies upon the instant: for beauty is the lover’s gift; ‘tis he bestows your charms—your glass is all a cheatMillamant: O the vanity of these men! Beauty the lover’s gift! Lord! What is a lover that it can give? Why, one makes lovers as fast as lone pleases, and they live as long as one pleases, and they die as soon as one pleases; and then, if one pleases, one makes more (Dobree 143).

4.3 Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751-1816)

Sheridan’s theatrical career first started at the Convent Garden Theater in London in 1775, with his play The Rivals. The play wasn’t a huge success, but it did showcase Sheridan’s strong wit and satire of society and characters. Soon after, Sheridan was handpicked by David Garrick to succeed him as manager of Drury Lane Theater. Sheridan was responsible for the revived appreciation of Restoration comedy that followed the renewal of the plays of William Congreve at Drury Lane. Sheridan’s most praised work, The School for Scandal (1777), made him earn the title of the “modern Congreve.” The play is considered one of the greatest works of comedy of manners for its complicated plot, sharp and witty dialogue, and the mockery of gossipy and sophisticated characters.
Richard Sheridan

An excerpt from The School for Scandal:
Joseph: The fact is, sir, that Lady Teazle, knowing my pretensions to your ward Maria—I say, sir—Lady Teazle being apprehensive of the jealousy of your temper—and knowing my friendship to the family—she, sir, I say—called here—in order that—I might explain these pretensions—but on your coming—being apprehensive—as I said—of your jealousy—she withdrew—and this, you may depend on it, is the whole truth of the matter.Lady Teazle: For not one word of it, Sir Peter!Sir Peter: How! Don’t you think it worthwhile to agree to the lie?Lady Teazle: There is not one syllable of truth in what that gentleman has told you.Sir Peter: I believe you, upon my soul, ma’am!Joseph: ‘Sdeath, madam, will you betray me?Lady Teazle: Goodbye Mr. Hypocrite, by your leave I’ll speak for myself (Sheridan 56).

4.4 Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)

Wilde was an Irish playwright who wrote one of the most popular comeies of manners plays, The Importance of Being Earnest, in 1895. The Importance of Being Earnest is an example of comedy of manners by making fun of Victorian society; it specifically exposes the hypocrisy, superficiality, and greedy nature of that society. Wilde’s main purpose to write the play was to expose the values of the Victorian aristocrat society; the play centers on the ideas of identity, love, marriage, and money (“Comedy of Manners” 1). Wilde uses language that is satirical, funny, and witty to emphasize values of the Victorian upper class and how they judged everything by appearance.
Oscar Wilde

An excerpt from The Importance of Being Earnest:

Jack: How can you sit there, calmly eating muffins when we are in this horrible trouble, I can’t make out. You seem to me to be perfectly heartless.Algernon: Well, I can’t eat muffins in an agitated manner. The butter would probably get on my cuffs. One should always eat muffins quite calmly. It is the only way to eat them.Jack: I say it’s perfectly heartless you’re eating muffins at all, under the circumstanceAlgernon: When I am in trouble, eating is the only thing that consoles me. Indeed, when I am in really great trouble, as anyone who knows me intimately will tell you, I refuse everything except food and drink. At the present moment I am eating muffins because I am unhappy. Besides, I am particularly fond of muffins (Wilde 60)

5. Comedy of Manners Used Today

5.1 Television

Seinfeld has been cited to be one of the most beloved sitcoms of our time, and described by David P. Pierson, author of The Journal of Popular Culture, as a modern comedy of manners. Seinfeld is not a traditional sitcom; by hardcore fans, the show is described as, “the show about nothing.” The four main characters, Seinfeld, George, Elaine, and Kramer, are involved in an elaborate social game of witty dialogue, false deceptions, and elusive desires in each episode (Dalton 42). Seinfeld is full of wisecracks, physical comedy (especially by Kramer) and continuity gags, with humor relying heavily on dialogue. The main characters do not develop, or really grow and change, throughout the nine seasons. Instead, they are continuously preoccupied with following, or even avoiding, the difficulty of social manners that exists both inside and outside of their own social group (Dalton 42). Some fans argue that the characters do act in an amoral behavior, only doing things that concern themselves and their interests. The characters of Seinfeld are just as self-interested and self-absorbed as the characters that inhabit the comedies of Congreve and Wilde (Dalton 42). What Seinfeld shares with comedy of manners is it exposes the basic human impulses and desires. The characters in Seinfeld desire the same things the characters in Restoration comedies desire, which is money, sex, friendship, etc. (Dalton 43). Seinfeld is basically a comedy of manners that satires the middle-class society of the 1990s.
Another example is The Beverly Hillbillies. The show is about the farming Clampett family who become suddenly rich when they discover oil in their backyard. This discovery turns this poor family to rich millionaires, and then move to Beverly Hills, California. These rustic characters clash with the people of one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in America (Dalton 37). The culture and society of Beverly Hills is satirized as obsessed and superficial, with money, social-climbing, and the latest fashions and hip trends. There is tension shown between the agrarian culture of the Clampett’s and the modern, high society of Beverly Hills. A characteristic The Beverly Hillbillies shows is that a character usually presents verbal humor, and speaks the truth no matter how harsh it may sound (Dalton 39). This character also accepts their true selves, and this reflects the Clampett family as they do not care what the rich people in their neighborhood think about them.

Other examples of modern comedy of manners TV shows:
  • Sex and the City
  • Frasier
  • Friends


5.2 Movies

Examples of modern comedy of manners movies:
  • Four Weddings and a Funeral
  • Love Actually
  • Do the Right Thing
  • Fargo
  • Annie Hall
  • The Graduate
  • Trading Places
  • My Cousin Vinny
  • Pride and Prejudice
  • Breakfast at Tiffany’s
  • Sense and Sensibility
  • Mean Girls
  • Gosford Park
  • Clueless

6. Works Cited
"Comedy of Manners." Comedy of Manners., n.d. Web. 01 Apr. 2013.
Crawford, J. "The Comedy of Manners." Tracey Sanders ACU. Dr. Tracey Sanders, 206. Web. 01 Apr. 2013.
Dalton, Mary M., and Laura R. Linder. The Sitcom Reader: America Viewed and Skewed. Albany: State University of New York, 2005. Print.
Dobrée, Bonamy. Restoration Comedy, 1660-1720,. Oxford: Clarendon, 1924. Print.
Palmer, John. The Comedy of Manners. New York: Russell & Russell, 1962. Print.
Sheridan, Richard Brinsley. The School for Scandal. Great Neck, NY: Barron's Educational
Series, 1958. Print.
Wilde, Oscar. The Importance of Being Earnest. New York: Dover Publications, 1990. Print.