The seventeenth century wit and fop : a study of Restoration comedy in its relation to the life of fashion




Ferguson, Thomas Ewing, 1885-1959

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There are two classes of critics of Restoration comedy, those who see it from the point of view of ethics, and those who see it from the point of view of art. The first of these asks, How bad or how immoral is the society reflected in the comedy? The other inquires, How faithfully and with what power has the dramatist drawn the picture of society? Widely divergent traditions of criticism, as indicated in my introduction, have grown out of these apparently conflicting points of view. Having found no satisfactory history of the social life of the period, I have examined a great part of the available contemporary and secondary material that pertains to the fashionable life of London in the latter half of the seventeenth century. From numerous memoirs and diaries, essays, sketches, books of travel, and histories I have gathered material in an attempt to reconstruct the view of the fashionable life of the period. From these fragmentary sources, I have given a new emphasis to social conditions, and I here present a new sketch of the life of London, especially in the reign of Charles II, as an essential setting for the clear understanding of my thesis, that the antagonism between the wit and the fop, types prominent in actual life, is the main theme of the comedy of the Restoration. I have tried to present this sketch from the point of view of the late seventeenth century, and therefore of the dramatists themselves, rather than from the point of view of the twentieth century. Until recently not a great many works have been produced on the drama of the Restoration. Leigh Hunt, Macaulay, and Dr. Johnson have written notable monographs on the period. Hazlitt and Lamb are discerning critics of the theater. W. C. Ward, Edmund Gosse, G. S. Street, and A. W. Verity have produced valuable historical and critical works pertaining to certain individuals, particularly Etherege, Wycherley, Congreve, and Vanbrugh. The more notable general works of recent date are those of Palmer, Nettleton, Nicoll, and Dobree. In the field of scholarship particularly the work of Professor Bernbaum is well-known, and more recent are the studies of Krutch, Perry, and Lynch. In the present study, taking the point of view that drama is a literature of contrasts, and that the dramatist seeks such contrasts as will reveal human life as it is lived, or as he thinks or fancies it is lived, in his generation, I have in mind, as stated later, to write a unified social history of the fashionable life on which Restoration comedy was founded, and to show how the emergence of the wit and the fop from their places in society onto the stage was natural and inevitable