Comedy of manners
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The comedy of manners is an entertainment form which satirizes the manners and affectations of a social class or of multiple classes, often represented by stereotypical stock characters. For example, the miles gloriosus ("boastful soldier") in ancient times, the fop and the rake during the Restoration, or an old person pretending to be young. Restoration comedy is used as a synonym for "comedy of manners". The plot of the comedy, often concerned with scandal, is generally less important than its witty dialogue. A great writer of comedies of manners was Oscar Wilde, his most famous play being The Importance of Being Earnest.
The comedy of manners was first developed in the new comedy of the Ancient Greek playwright Menander. His style, elaborate plots, and stock characters were imitated by the Roman playwrights Plautus and Terence, whose comedies were widely known and copied during the Renaissance. The best-known comedies of manners, however, may well be those of the French playwright Molière, who satirized the hypocrisy and pretension of the ancien régime in such plays as L'École des femmes (The School for Wives, 1662), Le Misanthrope (The Misanthrope, 1666), and most famously Tartuffe (1664).
The comedy of manners has been employed by Roman satirists since as early as the first century BC. Horace's Satire 1.9 is a prominent example, in which the persona is unable to express his wish for his companion to leave, but instead subtly implies so through wit.
William Shakespeare's Much Ado about Nothing might be considered the first comedy of manners In England, but the genre really flourished during the Restoration period. Restoration comedy, which was influenced by Ben Jonson's comedy of humours, made fun of affected wit and acquired follies of the time. The masterpieces of the genre were the plays of William Wycherley (The Country Wife, 1675) and William Congreve (The Way of the World, 1700). In the late 18th century Oliver Goldsmith (She Stoops to Conquer, 1773) and Richard Brinsley Sheridan (The Rivals, 1775; The School for Scandal, 1777) revived the form.
The tradition of elaborate, artificial plotting and epigrammatic dialogue was carried on by the Irish playwright Oscar Wilde in Lady Windermere's Fan (1892) and The Importance of Being Earnest (1895). In the 20th century, the comedy of manners reappeared in the plays of the British dramatists Noël Coward (Hay Fever, 1925) and Somerset Maugham and the novels of P.G. Wodehouse, as well as various British sitcoms. The Carry On films are a direct descendant of the comedy of manners style.
The term comedy of menace, which British drama critic Irving Wardle based on the subtitle of The Lunatic View: A Comedy of Menace (1958), by David Campton, is a jocular play-on-words derived from the "comedy of manners" (menace being manners pronounced with a somewhat Judeo-English accent). Pinter's play The Homecoming has been described as a mid-twentieth-century "comedy of manners".
In Boston Marriage (1999), David Mamet chronicles a sexual relationship between two women, one of whom has her eye on yet another young woman (who never appears, but who is the target of a seduction scheme). Periodically, the two women make their serving woman the butt of haughty jokes, serving to point up the satire on class. Though displaying the verbal dexterity one associates with both the playwright and the genre, the patina of wit occasionally erupts into shocking crudity.
- George Henry Nettleton, Arthur British dramatists from Dryden to Sheridan p.149
- Susan Hollis Merritt, Pinter in Play: Critical Strategies and the Plays of Harold Pinter (Durham & London, 1990: Duke UP, 1995) 5, 9–10, 225–28, 240.
- David Campton, Samuel French London.