A Comedy of Manners is a play concerned with satirising society’s manners. A manner is the method in which everyday duties are performed, conditions of society, or a way of speaking. It implies a polite and well-bred behaviour.
Comedy of Manners is known as high comedy because it involves a sophisticated wit and talent in the writing of the script. In this sense it is both intellectual and very much the opposite of slapstick, which requires little skill with the script and is largely a physical form of comedy. In a Comedy of Manners however, there is often minimal physical action and the play may involve heavy use of dialogue.
A Comedy of Manners usually employs an equal amount of both satire and farce resulting in a hilarious send-up of a particular social group. Most plays of the genre were carefully constructed to satirise the very people watching them. This was usually the middle to upper classes in society, who were normally the only people wealthy enough to afford going to the theatre to see a comedy of manners in the first place. The playwrights knew this in advance and fully intended to create characters that were sending up the daily customs of those in the audience watching the play. The satire tended to focus on their materialistic nature, never-ending desire to gossip and hypocritical existence.
Comedy of Manners has spread itself over several periods in theatre history. A theatrical genre can begin in a certain era but span many periods if the works of later playwrights successfully revive it. The most valuable material of this genre occurred during the Restoration. English theatres were officially closed between 1642 and 1660 when Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans ruled England and there was no aristocracy. In 1660 King Charles II restored the English throne and one of his first actions was to grant several key theatrical figures licences to produce plays and breathe life into the theatre once more.
Technically, the Restoration period ended with the death of Charles II in 1685, but theatre historians usually extend the period to about 1700. Along with this revival was a type of performance that became known as Comedy of Manners. Major contributors to the genre in England at the time were William Wycherley with his play The Country Wife (1675) and William Congreve with The Way of the World (1700). During this period in France, Moliere was also writing Comedy of Manners plays. Three of his most famous works include The School for Wives (1662), Tartuffe (1664) and The Misanthrope (1666) where Moliere satirised aspects of 17th century French society.
A hundred years later, Irish playwright Richard Sheridan and Englishman Oliver Goldsmith revived the Comedy of Manners genre. The best examples of their work include Sheridan’s The School for Scandal (1777) and Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer (1773).
Again, a little over a century from this date, Comedy of Manner plays were being perfected in England by famous Irish playwright Oscar Wilde, with wonderful works like Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892) and The Importance of Being Earnest (1895).