24 Nov 2015
Precis: Jeremy Collier on Restoration Comedy Plays
In an excerpt of Jeremy Collier’s pamphlet, “A Short View of the Immorality, and Profaneness of the English Stage”, he argues that the immorality of the English stage stems from Restoration comedy’s lack of poetic justice. He criticizes the playwrights for failing to punish their rake main characters and also accuses the playwrights of diseasing their plays with profanity. In turn, The Rover by Aphra Behn and The Country Wife by William Wycherley present a critical analysis of the role and threat of the rake main character. They use the rake to show that in the real world, high society functions on such immoral grounds that aristocrats might as well be rogues and rapists.
Collier claims, “The danger of [immoral] entertainment…in effect degrade[s] human nature, sinks reason into appetite, and breaks down the distinctions between man and beasts” (1). He believes that the playwrights solely create this culture to entertain the audience. However, the playwrights are actually driven to expose this threat before the rogue becomes the leading man in society. In Act 3 of The Rover, the main character, Wilmor, mis-recognizes Florinda as a prostitute and he attacks and threatens to rape her. Unlike Collier’s claim, this act of violence is not supposed to be in the slightest comedic, in fact showing the real risk of men becoming beasts because of their desire for pleasure.
Furthermore, Collier thinks that when the restraints of innocence caused by fear and appetite kept under by shame are taken off, only the stage knows what can be expected. “To put lewdness into a thriving condition, to give it an equipage of quality, and to treat it with ceremony and respect, is the way to confound the understanding, to fortify the charm, and to make the mischief invincible.” (2) These aren’t the playwrights’ aims, however, even though Collier thinks it is. The playwrights’ intentions were to reflect life’s virtues: uncover violence, injustice, the uncertainty of human greatness, and to ultimately expose the way of the world.
By the end, Collier was obligated to somewhat discredit himself because of the strong accusations he made against the Restoration comedy plays. He said, “And after all the jest on it is, these men would make us believe their design is virtue and reformation. In good time! They are likely to combat vice with success, who destroy the principles of good and evil!” (3). In The Country Wife, Horner is represented as the ‘virtuous’ rake character because he doesn’t care about his reputation. However, that’s because he gains his supremacy over men by becoming a secret threat to their wives, disguised as a eunuch. Horner’s trying to make us believe he’s the ideal figure within society because he doesn’t torture himself over what others think of him, but he’s really the danger that Wycherley is warning us about because he represents the entire world once we take our masks off.
Comparing Collier with the playwrights, the ironic thing is that the playwrights use comedy to expose the very serious underlying threat, whereas Collier thinks he’s exposing the threat but in the end has to make himself sound kind of unreasonable. Even though Collier was right about the risk rogue men impose against women and society, he misunderstood that it was the underlying issue that is meant to be uncovered through the comedy.