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Tricksters and Estates

Tricksters and Estates: On the Ideology of Restoration Comedy

Copyright Date: 1997
Pages: 328
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  • Book Info
    Tricksters and Estates
    Book Description:

    If the Renaissance was the Golden Age of English comedy, the Restoration was the Silver. These comedies are full of tricksters attempting to gain estates, the emblem and the reality of power in late feudal England. The tricksters appear in a number of guises, such as heroines landing their men, younger brothers seeking estates, or Cavaliers threatened with dispossession. The hybrid nature of these plays has long posed problems for critics, and few studies have attempted to deal with their diversity in a comprehensive way. Now one of the leading scholars of Restoration drama offers a cultural history of the period's comedy that puts the plays in perspective and reveals the ideological function they performed in England during the latter half of the seventeenth century.

    To explain this function, J. Douglas Canfield groups the plays into three categories: social comedy, which underwrites Stuart ideology; subversive comedy, which undercuts it; and comical satire, which challenges it as fundamentally immoral or amoral. Through play-by-play analysis, he demonstrates how most of the comedies support the ideology of the Stuart monarchs and the aristocracy, upholding what they regarded as their natural right to rule because of an innate superiority over all other classes. A significant minority of comedies, however, reveal cracks in class solidarity, portray witty heroines who inhabit the margins of society, or give voice to folk tricksters who embody a democratic force nearly capable of overwhelming class hierarchy. A smaller yet but still significant minority end in no resolution, no restoration, but, at their most radical, playfully portray Stuart ideology as empty rhetoric.

    Tricksters and Estatesis a truly comprehensive work, offering serious critical readings of many plays that have never before received close attention and fresh insights into more familiar works. By juxtaposing the comedies of such lesser-known playwrights as Orrery, Lacy, and Rawlins with those of more familiar figures like Behn, Wycherley, and Dryden, the author invites a greater appreciation than has previously been possible of the meaning and function of Restoration comedy. This intelligent and wide-ranging study promises is a standard work in its field.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-5752-8
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xi)
  4. A Note on Texts
    (pp. xii-xii)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-30)

    This is a book about the ideology of Restoration comedy. By ideology I mean the set of cultural ideas, values, and especially power relations it propounds as if they were natural but are, in reality, socially constructed to serve the interests of the hegemonic class.¹ By Restoration I mean the period of the Stuart monarchy’s last attempt at absolutism, from the Restoration of Charles II to the defeat of James II’s forces at the Battle of the Boyne. Absolutism is, of course, too strong a term, but I am thinking of the arrogance of these Stuarts in their repeated attempts...

  6. Part 1: Social Comedy

    • 1 Nubile Tricksters Land Their Men
      (pp. 33-44)

      In Restoration social comedy at its most familiar the threat to established order takes the form of promiscuous rakes and rebellious young women resisting—marriage itself, in the case of the libertine rakes, or enforced marriage, in the case of the witty women. At the end of these comedies, the centrifugal energy of rakes who insist on freedom to change and women who insist on freedom to choose is normally centripetalized in a marriage that finally presents no threat to status hierarchy and that guarantees the continuation of an aristocratic order in which power and property continue to be safely...

    • 2 Mature Women Tricksters Man Their Land
      (pp. 45-52)

      Another group of Restoration social comedies features experienced women who either have estates or regain them in order to share them with men of their choice.¹ In James Howard’sThe English Mounsieur(1663), Lady Wealthy, a rich widow, is courted by Welbred, a wild younger brother whose vice is not promiscuity but gambling. When he proposes to her early in the play, she responds with composure and control:

      LadyW: Indeed it seems ’tis for my money then you would have me.

      Welbred: For that and something else you have.

      LadyW: Well, I’le lay a wager thou hast lost...

    • 3 Eligible Male Tricksters Get into the Deed
      (pp. 53-65)

      From Sir Thomas St. Serfe’sTarugo’s Wiles; or, The Coffee-House(1667) to John Crowne’s Sir Courtly Nice; or, It Cannot Be (1685), both adapted from the same Spanish source (Augustin Moreto’sNo puede ser), male tricksters are, of course, a staple of Restoration comedy. Identified as a younger brother in the dramatis personae, Tarugo is described as “one whose greatest subsistence depends upon his wit” (I.ii,5). The ubiquity of this character type in Restoration comedy has an economic cause: “The legal device of the ‘strict settlement’, evolved in the fifties in order to prevent heirs breaking up estates, enabled families...

    • 4 Some Tricksters Get Tricked
      (pp. 66-74)

      The trickster tricked is a leitmotif of trickster literature worldwide. In Restoration social comedy, the trickster who is so tricked may be simply an inept upstart. He or she may, however, be quite adept and must be defeated for the necessary purposes of this comedy to be obtained. The funniest of the inept tricksters is perhaps the title character of Dryden’sSir Martin Mar-all; or, The Feigned Innocence(1668), who, as his name implies, is a marplot figure. Every time his servant Warner has the situation ready to be exploited for Sir Martin’s marriage to the heiress Millisent, Sir Martin...

    • 5 Town Tricksters Tup Their Rivals’ Women
      (pp. 75-96)

      Depictions of war by conquerors and conquered alike—from the mythical past of the Trojan War to today’s all-too-real postcolonial conflicts—have attempted to demonstrate dominance over their rivals by not just fancied but real tupping of their women, a verb I choose not only because of its Renaissance and Restoration reverberations, especially germane to my topic, but because of its connotations of animal behavior, of the brutal sexual dominance implied bytopping,or climbing on top. Drakulic’s poignant description of systematic rape in Bosnia-Herzogovina gets to the heart of the psychology: an attempt to destroy the cultural integrity of...

    • 6 Satiric Butts Get Disciplined
      (pp. 97-120)

      In the social comedies I have just analyzed, I have treated in passing several satirical character types: the tyrannical guardian, the Cit (cuckolded or not), the superannuated lover, the parvenu, the Country bumpkin, the Country wife, the clever whore. The Town wit and the witty woman are defined against these foils so that they appear to be the right couple to inherit. Thereby the Town itself, not so much a place as a site of power relations with City, Country, and Suburbs, is portrayed as the nexus of the Nation. Cits are portrayed as parsimonious, cowardly, impotent fools; the Puritanical...

  7. Part 2: Subversive Comedy

    • 7 Town Tricksters Tup Each Other’s Women
      (pp. 123-144)

      As in the rivalry between Rains and Bevil, on the one hand, and Woodly, on the other, some—though a very few—Restoration comedies focus on intraclass sexual rivalry. The implosion that threatens in this potentially deadly rivalry symbolically hints at the uneasy truce between factions within the ruling class. For Town wits to try to cuckold one of their own brings the dynamics of sexual competition not only to the Town but, by implication, into the Court itself, where Charles II’s promiscuity can be seen, as Dryden for one portrays it in the opening ofAbsalom and Achitophel,to...

    • 8 Naughty Heroine Tricksters Get Away with It
      (pp. 145-158)

      As we have seen in Part 1, woman’s wit in Restoration comedy most often works to land men or man land, that is, to enable a freedom of choice that nevertheless socializes centrifugal male energy in service of the preservation of the estate and its transmission through genealogy. Despite the desire of feminist criticism for a more radical interpretation, woman's wit is thus a trope that is essentially conservative of aristocratic ideology even as it may modify its traditions slightly in favor of more female freedom.¹ But Otway’s Mrs. Goodvile is a different kind of woman trickster in Restoration comedy....

    • 9 Male Folk Tricksters Erupt from Below
      (pp. 159-188)

      I have already examined the punitive treatment of satirical butts who provide superb vehicles for the great comic actors of the Restoration and who infuse it with enormous comic energy. Restoration comedy of the 1660s contains sympathetic, low-class tricksters who infuse this comedy with a remarkable, boisterous folk energy that explodes on the stage and threatens to take over entire plays, as indeed, in some signal instances, it does, making them fully subversive comedies. These folk tricksters and their energy persist, although less pervasively, until 1690.¹ They leaven an essentially aristocratic form and subvert it through what Jackson Cope calls...

    • 10 Female Folk Tricksters Climb on Top
      (pp. 189-208)

      In this category of subversive comedies featuring folk tricksters, women again seem to merit their own separate treatment. I shall once more examine sympathetic folk tricksters exerting their energy in comedies they do not dominate, then examine plays they simply take over.

      James Howard, creator of the irrepressible Mirida, bequeaths to us inThe English Mounsieurthe vivacious Wiltshire Country lass, Elsba. While Lady Wealthy is taming Welbred, his libertine comrade Comely, uncharacteristically for a Town wit, determines to leave London to go down to his estate in the Country in order to breathe the country air, to hunt and...

  8. Part 3: Comical Satire

    • [Part Three Introduction]
      (pp. 209-212)

      In the lead essay in a recent collection on postmodern approaches to satire edited by lames Gill, my collaborator and friend Deborah Payne addresses the vexing problem of our seeming inability to distinguish comedies from satires in the drama of the period. Some, like Rose Zimbardo and Laura Brown, see virtually all the comedies as satires.¹ Payne sees virtually none as satires. The part of her argument I wish to focus on here is that “the very semiotic texture of theatre makes dramatic satire almost impossible to realize utterly on the stage. . . . Inevitably, dramatic satire drifts toward...

    • 11 Tricksters Scourge and Get Scourged
      (pp. 213-232)

      The most prolific writer of comical satire in the Restoration is the underrated and insufficiently studied Thomas Durfcy. Critics have recognized the moralist in Durfey’s later comedies but have not known what to do with his earlier ones. In 1916 Robert Stanley Forsythe articulated a position still maintained, at least implicitly, by Hume and Rothstcin-Kavenik: “D’Urfey seems . . . to have much difficulty in providing endings for his plays. Indeed, in several ot the earlier plays there is no real conclusion, but a mere stopping of the action at the end of five acts” (1:6). But Forsythe’s characterization of...

    • 12 Tricksters Get Blown about by the Wind
      (pp. 233-248)

      If some comical satires embody a collective corrective voice, some embody a more menippcan jumble of voices that destabilize and subvert the ground on which we might take a stance of judgment. Unlike corrective satire, which underwrites the official discourse of the prevailing ideology, absurdist satire explodes it. When such satire is comical, we are invited to simply throw up our hands and at least chuckle at the failure of our esscntializing systems. If dramatic satire is rare, this kind of comical satire is the rarest. Out of all the Restoration comedies between 1660 and 1690 I have read, and...

  9. Conclusion
    (pp. 249-254)

    In this book I have tried to demonstrate just such a “theatricalization” of aristocratic ideology in Restoration comedy—a process that attempts to affirm persistence even as it acknowledges impermanence. Restoration comedy both underwrites and undercuts the ideology of English latefeudal aristocracy. It underwrites it by socializing the great energy of its rebellious gay-couple tricksters into marriages that build estates and by disciplining its class enemies through in-your-face, often sexual aggression. It also underwrites indirectly by satirizing the decadence of its own class, its falling away from old standards, its treatment of women. Restoration comedy undercuts by trickery that reveals...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 255-283)
  11. Bibliography
    (pp. 284-294)
  12. Index
    (pp. 295-301)
  13. Index of Characters
    (pp. 302-316)