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W h o’s Holding the M irror? Irving Kreutz Why, one makes lovers as fast as one pleases, and they live as long as one pleases, and they die as soon as one pleases; and then, if one pleases, one makes more. Millamant in The Way of the World (II.2) No one woman is worth the loss of a cut in a caper. Sir Fopling Flutter in The Man of Mode (V.2) Anyone who looks for even a moment at comment upon Restor­ ation comedy, by either its contemporary critics or those of our own day, can hardly avoid that term which is used so often to describe it; comedy of manners. And as the night the day, a certain collection of adjectives will invariably precede or follow this phrase: sparkling, shallow, affected, unnatural, superficial, artificial, casual, brilliant. If one has managed to survive in this world to a stage of some rationality he will realize immediately that such epithets are not descriptive of anything in life that really is, and that if they are consistently applied to a certain kind of drama then that drama surely must reflect an illusory, unreal world. Circuitously perhaps, we arrive then at a work­ ing definition; comedy of manners presents the world not as it is but as it appears to be. If one agrees with the Augustan age that the difference between this appearance and the real truth must be apparent to anyone rea­ sonably intelligent, then such comedy may also, broadly speaking, be thought of as “ critical”— that is, the observer, seeing this difference, recognizes that the author is criticizing either the appearance or the reality— or both. But, we may ask, did even the Augustans, without being told, always know which? In 1698 Jeremy Collier said of the Restoration dramatists that “ they are fortified in Smut, and almost impregnable in Stench, so that where they deserve most, there’s no coming at them.” l Richard Steele in 1711 said of Etherege’s Man of M ode: “This whole celebrated piece is a perfect contradiction to good manners, good sense, and common honesty; and . . . there is nothing in it but what is built upon the ruin of virtue and innocence. . . .” (iSpectator 65) But Alexander Pope dedicated his Iliad to William Congreve, and named the heroine of The Rape of the Lock after one 79 80 Comparative Drama of the “ruined” ladies in Man of Mode. And Fielding bestowed upon the glittering troupe the final accolade, that sincerest form of flattery— imitation. It is unnecessary to review the kaleidoscope of opinion in the rest of the eighteenth century, the nineteenth, or in our own— from Charles Lamb’s assertion that the plays represented neither the appearance nor the reality, to that of modern critics like Norman Holland, who find the point of view in them no more difficult of discovering than that, say, in Everyman. Perhaps never before nor since have critics worked so hard to corner such a greasy pig. For the fact of the matter is that most critical comedy does not offer such difficulties. In a good deal of it characters are introduced who themselves represent reality rather than appearance, who by their very presence show us the depths to which we may possibly sink— or for that matter the heights to which we might rise. Thus Tartuffe in Moliere’s play and Celia Coplestone in Eliot’s The Cocktail Party. Orgon’s obsession about Tartuffe, which bids fair to wreck their lives, forces his family to recognize and cut out the spreading cancer of the man’s influence upon him; the action of the comedy becomes their concerted efforts, once they have seen the truth, to force Orgon him­ self to see the reality behind the appearance: that Tartuffe is not a man of God, but a lecherous hypocrite. Celia Coplestone finds her truth in martyrdom. For her this is apparently the truth, the reality; but both we and several of the characters in the play greet the news of her death with solemn awe— and a nagging conscience. “As for Miss Coplestone, because you think her death was waste,” says Harcourt -Reilly, “You blame...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 79-88
Launched on MUSE
2018-07-11
Open Access
No
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