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RESTORATION COMEDY—A PENDULUM SWING OF CROMWELL’S PROTECTORATE

HISTORY HAS a way of oscillating between extremes. One example is the English Restoration as a response to the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell following the 1649 regicide of Britain’s King Charles I. Cromwell tidbits appeared recently at SimanaitisSays.

One of the Protectorate’s actions was shutting down all of Britain’s theaters. To put this soul-saving Puritan practice in perspective, it occurred less than 50 years after the glorious era of Shakespeare and other Elizabethans.

The Restoration ended this Puritan nonsense with a 1660 equivalent of switching the TV directly from Pat Robertson to SNL.

Here are some tidbits about Restoration comedy, gleaned from one place and another.

The Merry Monarch. King Charles II was 30 when he was invited back from exile. A good-time royal, he is described by Wikipedia as “one of the most popular and beloved kings of England, known as the Merry Monarch, in reference to both the liveliness and hedonism of his court and the general relief at the return to normality after over a decade of rule by Cromwell and the Puritans.”

You may recall that, in 1661, Cromwell’s body was dig up, hanged in chains, and beheaded. See also Schadenfreude.

Charles II, 1630–1685, King of Scotland, later King of England, Scotland, and Ireland.

In contrast to some leaders who come to mind, Charles II was not above being teased. John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester and one of the Merry Gang of courtiers and libertines, composed the following: “We have a pretty witty king,/Whose word no man relies on./He never said a foolish thing,/And never did a wise one.”

John Wilmot, 1647–1680, English poet and courtier of King Charles II.

Charles II had a good repost: “That’s true, for my words are my own, but my actions are those of my ministers.”

Charles II Liked Actresses. Not only did Charles II like theater-going, he also liked watching ladies on stage, hitherto prohibited in English theater. In 1662, he issued a royal warrant requiring that all female roles be portrayed by women.

In Fact, Charles II loved an Actress. Nell Gwyn was a famous actress in Restoration comedy. Called “pretty, witty Nell” by diarist Samuel Pepys, she also became a long-time mistress of Charles II. As such, Nell is considered an English folk heroine in a Cinderella tale of rags-to-royalty.

Eleanor Gwyn, 1650–1687, English actress, mistress of Charles II, mother of Charles and James Beauclerk. Charles Beauclerk (pronounced boh-clair) was later named Earl of Burford and 1st Duke of St. Albans.

The First English Actress. Margaret Hughes is credited with being the first professional actress on the English stage. She was also known as the mistress of Prince Rupert of the Rhine, Duke of Cumberland. He was a German who had served as a Cavalier cavalry commander during the English Civil War that preceded the Cromwell years.

Margaret Hughes, c. 1630–1719, England’s first professional actress.

Somehow, put in historical perspective, Margaret and Nell make soft-core porno modeling no big deal.

Breeches Roles. Restoration theater also originated what today we call “trouser roles,” roles in which women portray men. This might be part of a disguise routine in the plot. It’s also a feature in opera, with mezzo-sopranos portraying young men.

An Actress At Her Toilet, or Miss Brazen Just Breecht, a playbill by John Collet, 1779. Image from Life Takes Lemons.

Back in Restoration days, they were appropriately called “breeches roles.” The first known use of the word “trouser” came during this period, in 1681.

The Country Wife. William Wycherley’s The Country Wife is a classic of Restoration comedy. As such, it’s bawdy, full of double entendres, and apparently quite a hoot in the theater.

Front cover of the first edition of William Wycherley’s The Country-Wife, 1675.

Briefly (this is a G-Rated website, after all), an upper-class rake Harry Horner pretends to be impotent, using this ploy to have his way with the town’s wives and daughters. The women have names like Lady Fidget, her sister-in-law Mrs. Dainty Fidget, and her tag-along friend Mrs. Squeamish. From time to time, Horner just barely escapes getting caught.

Then Margery Pinchwell, a good-hearted country wife, comes to “poor dear Mr. Horner’s” defense: She’s ready to tell everyone that, as she well knows, he’s really in fine fettle.

It all ends happily, with everyone more or less satisfied, if not virtuous. But then Charles II wouldn’t have had it any other way. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2018

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