Restoration dramatists include William Wycherley, George Etherege, Thomas Otway, William Congreve, and George Farquhar. A group of women writers known as The Female Wits produced many works for the stage. They included Mary Pix, Catherine Trotter and the prolific Susannah Centlivre who wrote 19 plays including A Bold Stroke for a Wife.
Wax figurine by Agatha Walker of Edith Evans as Mistress Page from The Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare, moulded plaster coated in wax and coloured, 1924, Eddison Collection. Museum no. S.1043-1996
Photograph of a scene from Tyrone Guthrie's production of The Country Wife with Ernest Thesiger, Ursual Jeans and Freda Jackson (the maid), Old Vic Theatre, London, 1936
Horner, the central character in William Wycherley's comedy, The Country Wife, is a sexually voracious man about London who pretends he is impotent. Mrs Squaeamish, Lady Fidget and Margery Pinchwife are three of his conquests, though it is Margery who is the 'Country Wife' of the title. Gallants (men about town), fops (foolishly effete gentlemen) and cuckolds (men whose wives have cheated on them) were nothing new to English comedy at the Restoration it was probably a combination of the character of Horner, and Margery's country ways introduced into London society, that made the play different. Here are Ernest Thesiger, Ursula Jeans and Freda Jackson (the maid) from Tyrone Guthrie's 1936 Old Vic production of the play. It was a huge success, starring Michael Redgrave (who was at that time new to the London stage) as Horner, and Edith Evans as Lady Fidget.
Portrait of George Farquhar, engraved print, 1794
The Irish playwright, George Farquhar, began his career as an actor. He accidentally wounded another player during a stage fight by using a real sword instead of a stage prop and decided that acting was not for him. Instead he tried his luck as a playwright in London. His first major success was The Constant Couple or a Trip to the Jubilee, performed at Drury Lane in 1699. Farquhar's next plays were not so popular and he tried to solve his money problems by marrying a rich woman. To his surprise, his chosen bride turned out to be penniless. He joined the army, which provided a regular income, and was sent to the Midlands to recruit soldiers.
Farquhar used his army experience in a play, The Recruiting Officer, written in 1706. This was a great hit with the public and Farquhar followed it with another, The Beaux' Stratagem, in 1707. Both plays are frequently staged today. Sadly, Farquhar did not live to enjoy his successes. He died soon after the first performances of The Beaux Stratagem, aged 29.
Portrait of Susanna Centlivre (c. 1667-1723), engraved print by Peter Pelham, 1720
The playwright Susannah Centlivre was a contemporary of the female wits and wrote her first play in 1700. She was successful during her lifetime and her works were regularly performed for the next two centuries.
Centlivre is best known for her comedies, many of which were adapted from French and Spanish works. Her plays were in the style of Restoration comedy, with immoral characters and risqué jokes. Often, however, it is the resourceful woman who comes out on top, rather than the leading man. Her prologues often express an active feminism and challenge male prejudice against women writers. Little is known about her personal life. Rumour has it that she came from a puritan family, but joined a troupe of strolling players after her parents’ death. She apparently lived for some months disguised as a man. This was not as uncommon as it sounds, a woman alone was at risk, and this was a means to protect oneself. She was married three times, first to an actor, then to an army officer and lastly to a cook in the royal household.
Portrait of Aphra Behn (1640-1689), engraved print, late 17th century
Aphra Behn was the first English woman to earn her living by writing. She was born in 1640 and brought up in the West Indies but returned to England aged 18. She married a Dutch merchant, but after his death, she found herself in a debtors' prison and was forced to look for means to support herself. Her first employment was as a spy, but she was not paid and turned to writing. Her first play The Forced Marriage was a tragi-comedy and was produced at one of London's two main theatres, Lincoln's Inn Fields Theatre, with the famous Thomas Betterton playing the lead. She went on to write many more comedies in the Restoration style (full of bawdy jokes and immoral characters). These were considered perfectly acceptable if written by a man, but not from the pen of a woman. She also wrote a novel set in the West Indies called Oroonoko which was made into a play shortly after Behn's death in 1689.
Portrait of Thomas Otway, engraved print, by M Beal, engraver Jacobus Houbraken, publisher John & Paul Knapton, London, 1742, Harry Beard Collection. Museum no. 1208-2009
Thomas Otway began his career as an actor, but only made one stage appearance. He suffered so badly from stage fright that he gave up acting and turned to playwriting instead. In 1675 his first play Alcibiades, a tragedy, was staged at the Duke's Theatre. One of the minor roles was taken by Elizabeth Barry, who went on to become the greatest actress of her day. Otway fell passionately in love with Mrs Barry, but she did not return his feelings. He wrote two more plays containing leading roles for Barry, then abandoned the theatre for a while and joined the army. But he soon returned to writing and had great success with The Orphan or The Unhappy Marriage and Venice Preserved, both of which again gave starring roles to Mrs Barry. Her successes do not appear to have made her any fonder of the playwright, however. Venice Preserved, a tragedy of politics and personal honour, was enormously popular and is still revived today.
Photograph of a scene from The Beaux' Stratagem, John Clements and Kay Hammond, Phoenix Theatre, London, 1949, Houston Rogers Collection
The Beaux' Stratagem, a comedy by George Farquhar, was first performed at the Haymarket Theatre, London in 1707.
Archer, one of the beaux of the title, is wooing Mrs Sullen, the discontented wife of a country squire. In this photograph, Archer is played by John Clements and his wife, Kay Hammond, plays Mrs Sullen. Clements and Hammond were a popular husband-and-wife acting partnership of the mid 20th century and appeared together in a number of 18th century comedies. The Beaux' Stratagem, produced and directed by Clements, was extremely popular and ran for over 500 performances.
The beaux are two fashionable London gentlemen, who, like their creator hope to marry wealthy women. Arriving in Lichfield, where they are not known, they pass themselves off as a lord and his servant. Aimwell, the 'lord', woos Dorinda, sister of Squire Sullen, but Archer prefers the Squire's wife. All ends happily when Dorinda falls in love with Aimwell and, radically for the time, the Squire grants his wife a divorce on the grounds of incompatibility.