The audience of the early Restoration period was not exclusively courtly, as has sometimes been supposed, but it was quite small and could barely support two companies. There was no untapped reserve of occasional playgoers. Ten consecutive performances constituted a smash hit. This closed system forced playwrights to be extremely responsive to popular taste. Fashions in the drama would change almost week by week rather than season by season, as each company responded to the offerings of the other, and new plays were urgently sought. The King's Company and the Duke's Company vied with one another for audience favour, for popular actors, and for new plays, and in this hectic climate the new genres of heroic drama, pathetic drama, and Restoration comedy were born and flourished.
The actors gained a Royal "licence to perform", thus bypassing Rich's ownership of both the original Duke's and King's Company patents from 1660, and formed their own cooperative company. This unique venture was set up with detailed rules for avoiding arbitrary managerial authority, regulating the ten actors' shares, the conditions of salaried employees, and the sickness and retirement benefits of both categories. The cooperative had the good luck to open in 1695 with the première of William Congreve's famous Love For Love and the skill to make it a huge box-office success.
London again had two competing companies. Their dash to attract audiences briefly revitalized Restoration drama, but also set it on a fatal downhill slope to the lowest common denominator of public taste. Rich's company notoriously offered Bartholomew Fair-type attractions — high kickers, jugglers, ropedancers, performing animals — while the cooperating actors, even as they appealed to snobbery by setting themselves up as the only legitimate theatre company in London, were not above retaliating with "prologues recited by boys of five, and epilogues declaimed by ladies on horseback" (Dobrée, xxi). The demand for new plays stimulated William Congreve and John Vanbrugh into writing some of their best comedies, but also gave birth to the new genre of sentimental comedy, which was soon to replace Restoration comedy in the public favour.
Restoration comedy was strongly influenced by the introduction of the first professional actresses. Before the closing of the theatres, all female roles had been played by boys, and the predominantly male audiences of the 1660s and 1670s were both curious, censorious, and delighted at the novelty of seeing real women engage in risqué repartee and take part in physical seduction scenes. Samuel Pepys refers many times in his famous diary to visiting the playhouse in order to watch or re-watch the performance of some particular actress, and to how much he enjoys these experiences.
Daringly suggestive comedy scenes involving women became especially common, although of course Restoration actresses were, just like male actors, expected to do justice to all kinds and moods of plays. (Their role in the development of Restoration tragedy is also important, compare She-tragedy.)
A new speciality introduced almost as early as the actresses was the breeches role, which called for an actress to appear in male clothes (breeches being tight-fitting knee-length pants, the standard male garment of the time), for instance in order to play a witty heroine who disguises herself as a boy to hide, or to engage in escapades disallowed to girls. A quarter of the plays produced on the London stage between 1660 and 1700 contained breeches roles. Playing these cross-dressing roles, women behaved with the freedom society allowed to men, and some feminist critics, such as Jacqueline Pearson, regard them as subversive of conventional gender roles and empowering for female members of the audience. Elizabeth Howe has objected that the male disguise, when studied in relation to playtexts, prologues, and epilogues, comes out as "little more than yet another means of displaying the actress as a sexual object" to male patrons, by showing off her body, normally hidden by a skirt, outlined by the male outfit.
Successful Restoration actresses include Charles II's mistress Nell Gwyn, the tragedienne Elizabeth Barry who was famous for her ability to "move the passions" and make whole audiences cry, the 1690s comedienne Anne Bracegirdle, and Susanna Mountfort (a.k.a. Susanna Verbruggen), who had many breeches roles written especially for her in the 1680s and 90s. Letters and memoirs of the period show that both men and women in the audience greatly relished Mountfort's swaggering, roistering impersonations of young women wearing breeches and thereby enjoying the social and sexual freedom of the male Restoration rake.
During the Restoration period, both male and female actors on the London stage became for the first time public personalities and celebrities. Documents of the period show audiences being attracted to performances by the talents of particular actors as much as by particular plays, and more than by authors (who seem to have been the least important draw, no performance being advertised by author until 1699). Although the playhouses were built for large audiences—the second Drury Lane theatre from 1674 held 2000 patrons — they were of compact design, and an actor's charisma could be intimately projected from the thrust stage.
With two companies competing for their services from 1660 to 1682, star actors were able to negotiate star deals, comprising company shares and benefit nights as well as salaries. This advantageous situation changed when the two companies were amalgamated in 1682, but the way the actors rebelled and took command of a new company in 1695 is in itself an illustration of how far their status and power had developed since 1660.
The greatest fixed stars among Restoration actors were Elizabeth Barry ("Famous Mrs Barry" who "forc 'd Tears from the Eyes of her Auditory") and Thomas Betterton, both of them active in organising the actors' revolt in 1695 and both original patent-holders in the resulting actors' cooperative.
Betterton played every great male part there was from 1660 into the 18th century. After watching Hamlet in 1661, Samuel Pepys reports in his diary that the young beginner Betterton "did the prince's part beyond imagination." Betterton's expressive performances seem to have attracted playgoers as magnetically as did the novelty of seeing women on the stage. He was soon established as the leading man of the Duke's Company, and played Dorimant, the seminal irresistible Restoration rake, at the première of George Etherege's Man of Mode (1676). Betterton's position remained unassailable through the 1680s, both as the leading man of the United Company and as its stage manager and de facto day-to-day leader. He remained loyal to Rich longer than many of his coworkers, but eventually it was he who headed the actors' walkout in 1695, and who became the acting manager of the new company.
Restoration comedy peaked twice. The genre came to spectacular maturity in the mid-1670s with an extravaganza of aristocratic comedies. Twenty lean years followed this short golden age, although the achievement of Aphra Behn in the 1680s is to be noted. In the mid-1690s a brief second Restoration comedy renaissance arose, aimed at a wider audience. The comedies of the golden 1670s and 1690s peak times are extremely different from each other. An attempt is made below to illustrate the generational taste shift by describing The Country Wife (1675) and The Provoked Wife (1697) in some detail. These two plays differ from each other in some typical ways, just as a Hollywood movie of the 1950s differs from one of the 1970s. The plays are not, however, offered as being "typical" of their decades. Indeed, there exist no typical comedies of the 1670s or the 1690s; even within these two short peak-times, comedy types kept mutating and multiplying.
The unsentimental or "hard" comedies of John Dryden, William Wycherley, and George Etherege reflected the atmosphere at Court, and celebrated with frankness an aristocratic macho lifestyle of unremitting sexual intrigue and conquest. The Earl of Rochester, real-life Restoration rake, courtier and poet, is flatteringly portrayed in Etherege's The Man of Mode (1676) as a riotous, witty, intellectual, and sexually irresistible aristocrat, a template for posterity's idea of the glamorous Restoration rake (actually never a very common character in Restoration comedy). Wycherley's The Plain Dealer (1676), a variation on the theme of Molière's Le misanthrope, was highly regarded for its uncompromising satire and earned Wycherley the appellation "Plain Dealer" Wycherley or "Manly" Wycherley, after the play's main character Manly. The single play that does most to support the charge of obscenity levelled then and now at Restoration comedy is probably Wycherley's The Country Wife (1675).
The Country Wife has three interlinked but distinct plots, which each project sharply different moods:
1. Horner's impotence trick provides the main plot and the play's organizing principle. The upper-class town rake Horner mounts a campaign for seducing as many respectable ladies as possible, first spreading a false rumour of his own impotence, in order to be allowed where no complete man may go. The trick is a great success and Horner has sex with many married ladies of virtuous reputation, whose husbands are happy to leave him alone with them. In one famously outrageous scene, the "China scene", sexual intercourse is assumed to take place repeatedly just off stage, where Horner and his mistresses carry on a sustained double entendre dialogue purportedly about Horner's china collection. The Country Wife is driven by a succession of near-discoveries of the truth about Horner's sexual prowess (and thus the truth about the respectable ladies), from which he extricates himself by quick thinking and good luck. Horner never becomes a reformed character, but keeps his secret to the end and is assumed to go on merrily reaping the fruits of his planted misinformation, past the last act and beyond.
2. The married life of Pinchwife and Margery is based on Molière's School For Wives. Pinchwife is a middle-aged man who has married an ignorant young country girl in the hope that she will not know to cuckold him. However, Horner teaches her, and Margery cuts a swathe through the sophistications of London marriage without even noticing them. She is enthusiastic about the virile handsomeness of town gallants, rakes, and especially theatre actors (such self-referential stage jokes were nourished by the new higher status of actors), and keeps Pinchwife in a state of continual horror with her plain-spokenness and her interest in sex. A running joke is the way Pinchwife's pathological jealousy always leads him into supplying Margery with the very type of information he wishes her not to have.
3. The courtship of Harcourt and Alithea is a comparatively uplifting love story in which the witty Harcourt wins the hand of Pinchwife's sister Alithea.
In Congreve's Love for Love (1695) and The Way of the World (1700), the "wit duels" between lovers typical of 1670s comedy are underplayed. The give-and-take set pieces of couples still testing their attraction for each other have mutated into witty prenuptial debates on the eve of marriage, as in the famous "Proviso" scene in The Way of the World (1700). Vanbrugh's The Provoked Wife (1697) follows in the footsteps of Southerne's Wives' Excuse, with a lighter touch and more humanly recognizable characters.
The Provoked Wife is something of a Restoration problem play in its attention to the subordinate legal position of married women and the complexities of "divorce" and separation, issues that had been highlighted in the mid-1690s by some notorious cases before the House of Lords (see Stone).
Sir John Brute in The Provoked Wife is tired of matrimony. He comes home drunk every night and is continually rude and insulting to his wife. She is meanwhile being tempted to embark upon an affair with the witty and faithful Constant. Divorce is not an option for either of the Brutes at this time, but forms of legal separation have recently come into existence, and would entail a separate maintenance to the wife. Such an arrangement would not allow remarriage. Still, muses Lady Brute, in one of many discussions with her niece Bellinda, "These are good times. A woman may have a gallant and a separate maintenance too."
Bellinda is at the same time being grumpily courted by Constant's friend Heartfree, who is surprised and dismayed to find himself in love with her. The bad example of the Brutes is a constant warning to Heartfree to not marry.
The Provoked Wife is a talk play, with the focus less on love scenes and more on discussions between female friends (Lady Brute and Bellinda) and male friends (Constant and Heartfree). These exchanges, full of jokes though they are, are thoughtful and have a dimension of melancholy and frustration.
After a forged-letter complication, the play ends with marriage between Heartfree and Bellinda and stalemate between the Brutes. Constant continues to pay court to Lady Brute, and she continues to shilly-shally.
"Critics remain astonishingly defensive about the masterpieces of this period", wrote Robert D. Hume as late as 1976. It is only over the last few decades that that statement has become untrue, as Restoration comedy has been acknowledged a rewarding subject for high theory analysis and Wycherley's The Country Wife, long branded the most obscene play in the English language, has become something of an academic favourite. "Minor" comic writers are getting a fair share of attention, especially the post-Aphra Behn generation of women playwrights which appeared just around the turn of the 18th century: Delarivier Manley, Mary Pix, Catharine Trotter, and Susannah Centlivre. A broad study of the majority of never-reprinted Restoration comedies has been made possible by Internet access (by subscription only) to the first editions at the British Library.