Politics and circumstance have conspired, it seems, to land us squarely in the No Generation: Sex is dangerous, private freedoms are public business, personal flamboyance is suspect. Small wonder that we’re nostalgic for the profligate past–for a time when the sensualist was ascendent, when the flouting of conventional wisdom earned one a place, paradoxically, in the wisest of coteries; when the real social danger seemed to be in not exercising freedom. If it weren’t too close for clear-eyed perspective, the 1970s–the so-called Me Generation–might serve as an antidote to the censorious present. But theatre companies are gazing further back: to the rich and complex allurements of the Restoration.
In today’s pleasure-negative atmosphere, the Restoration comedies of 300 years ago might seem on the surface to be pretty museum pieces, distant and enticing. But recent attention paid them by Actors Theatre of Louisville and Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage attest to their affinities with our present age. ATL’s Classics in Context Festival, culminating in a visitors’ weekend last Oct. 9-11, addressed the social, aesthetic and political influences surrounding the plays of Etherege, Wycherley, Behn, Congreve and Farquhar. Three days of lectures and colloquia were accompanied by productions of John Aubrey’s Brief Lives and Farquhar’s The Beaux’ Stratagem. The following week, Arena opened Congreve’s The Way of the World.
An explosion of licenseOrder now
No mere exercise in theatre history, the Louisville conference was illuminated throughout by sparks of contemporary recognition. To quote Wycherley’s Lady Fidget, “Comparisons are odious.” But who could miss the analogy to the age of AIDS when it was pointed out that the London Plague of 1665 was thought by some at the time to be divine retribution against a licentious era? Without explicitly evoking modern corollaries, Albert Wertheim of Indiana University implied that the cycle of expression and repression of artistic freedom that whirled through the Restoration is one that is spinning around even today. The period’s explosion of theatrical license was the result of Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan rule over England from 1642 to 1660; Wertheim raised hopes that perhaps, after an analogous 12-year Republican reign, we are today preparing for another explosion.
As Columbia University’s Julie Stone Peters detailed the inextricable relationship between art, sex and politics in the hyper-eroticized court of Charles II, one couldn’t help but ponder what a queasy mixture those ingredients make today. Just as sex has become increasingly politicized in the 1990s, profanity and moral turpitude were utilized as a political cudgel at the end of the 17th century. A reading from Jeremy Collier’s 1698 diatribe A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage, peppered with words like “smuttiness,” “debauchery,” “indecency” and “rankness,” evoked the Rev. Donald Wildmon and his American Family Association’s attacks on “blasphemous and obscene” art. A discussion on the necessity of embracing the controversial became so volatile that several Louisville audience members got up and left the auditorium during the weekend’s concluding colloquium on theatre censorship.
Practicing safer theatre
The voluptuous pleasures of watching a play are ideally selfless, and therefore moral. An examination of the “immorality” of the Restoration stage and its period reveals a surprisingly moral landscape. In selecting Restoration plays for production, both ATL and Arena took a self-consciously restricted modern perspective: Despite the promising lure of outrage and delight, the two companies ultimately practiced safer theatre, deflating the impassioned plea voiced in Louisville by Ben Cameron, formerly of the National Endowment of the Arts, that theatre reclaim “the issues of principle rather than taste, of the long-term investment in the creative spirit rather than the issues of momentary comfort.”
Satire, by its very nature, has a moral purpose. Although leaning toward the good-natured, sentimental plays of Steele and the later “laughing comedies” of Sheridan and Goldsmith, Farquhar’s Beaux’ Stratagem–the centerpiece of the Classics in Context weekend–builds from this morally satiric base. ATL’s literary manager Michael Bigelow Dixon asserts that this most frequently produced comedy of the 18th century “presents a portrait of necessity–the necessary actions that men and women must take in a society that discriminates and limits the rights of women, younger sons and the lower classes.” When he wrote the play in 1707, Farquhar was poor, ill and wretchedly married, and so his actual intention may not have been to repair widespread societal wrongs so much as to paint a portrait of freedom from individual pain. Yet the two things are really the same. His last line, though in reference to England’s as yet unestablished divorce laws, is a vestige of the lubricousness that ruled Charles II’s court some 40 years earlier: “Consent is law enough to set you free.” As an anthem from the 1960s put it: If it feels good, do it.
Personal happiness seems an unexalted goal, but not if it is embraced with bravura and gusto. In the ATL production of Beaux’ Stratagem, unfortunately, the lovers, the schemers, the thieves, the intoxicants all seemed to go through their paces for reasons other than sensual fulfillment, emphasizing stratagem over desire. Ray Fry’s production of John Aubrey’s Brief Lives, adapted by Patrick Garland, gave a truer taste and feel of Restoration life. In Paul Owen’s outstanding scenic design, the smell of rotting fruit, chamber pots and scalded milk was almost palpable. William McNulty as Aubrey addressed the audience directly, implicating us in his web of gossip and delineating a character who would desiccate and perish without these tales to tell. Ultimately, Aubrey’s own life is a sad one because it is virtually non-existent; he defines himself by others’ deeds and thoughts, by the mandates of the status quo, by the necessities of appearance in a beau monde.
Rather than exposing the rank underbelly of society, Congreve’s 1770 Way of the World with its perukes, powders, chiffon and convolutions of plot that detract from harsher sexual-political realities takes a safer route than, say, Etherege’s Man of Mode or Vanbrugh’s The Relapse or Wycherley’s The Plain Dealer, which skewer uptight, upright moralists. Writing under more-or-less self-imposed censorship, Congreve was responding to both a shifting popular taste and the very public temper tantrum of the Rev. Jeremy Collier. (Collier reserved especially damning censure for Congreve’s earlier plays, particularly Love for Love.) Although reluctant to enter into the fray, Congreve published his own pamphlet in 1698, “Amendments of Mr. Collier’s False and Imperfect Citations,” in which he defends his own dramaturgy. “I will not justify any of my…errors; I am sensible of many,” he wrote later, admitting that “there are crimes too daring and too horrid for comedy.” What starts out as apologia ends up reading like apology. Disheartened, perhaps, by self-censorship, Congreve was to make Way of the World his last play.
Artifice twice removed
Congreve superimposes on his characters the suppression he himself was experiencing. The way of his world is the way of self-negation; nowhere in the play is there any of the freewheeling, free-spirited hedonism (except the love for money) that propelled his earlier works. Even the romantic relationships are reduced to purely mercenary levels; the courtship of Millamont and Mirabell, for example, culminates in the famous proviso scene an uncannily prophetic version of today’s prenuptial agreement. The modern parallels of Way of the World have more to do with the events surrounding the writing of the play than with the experience of watching it; though purporting to show us the way of the Restoration world, it merely tells us what it looked and felt like, and even that representation is artifice twice removed because Congreve was writing under pressure the pressure of a changing society.
But if Arena’s production of Way of the World was unsanguine, it was no fault of the director, designers or actors. This visually stunning production unfolded in a series of artificial tableaux, pretty and arch, against a painted floor by Loy Arcenas depicting secret missives and watchful eyes, and with sumptuous costumes by Paul Tazewell. A clever new prologue written by production dramaturg Laurence Maslon helped explain the nearly inexplicable relationships between the characters. The direction by Kyle Donnelly was taut, rooted in time and personality. She transplanted the opening scene–originally set in a chocolate house to a steaming room. The sight of Mirabell, Fainall and Witwoud draped in nothing but towels was thematically bold; stripped of their waistcoats, breeches and wigs, the characters could have been our contemporaries.
Juicier figs of the Restoration are ripe for picking. If a modern-day renaissance of Restoration studies and theatre is indeed underway, let us make our choices as brazen and as combative as the early Restoration, but with the full understanding that, inevitably, the cycle will come around again, and a New Puritanism will resurface. As it always has. Perhaps it is the spinning of the wheel that determines from time to time our freedom.