For decades following the restoration of the London theater in 1660, Restoration comedy thrived. Near the turn of the century, however, critics began questioning the genre’s influence. With explicit sexual entendres, public cursing, and even contemplations of divorce as common plot elements, the Restoration comedy scene represented much of what social reformers felt was wrong with society. And due to the antics, heckling, and whoring about the theaters at this time, critics blamed playhouses for not only depicting immoral behavior but also encouraging it.
The most vocal of these critics was a clergyman, Jeremy Collier, who wrote an essay condemning Restoration comedy and promoting a new version referred to as sentimental or moral comedy. This genre would teach audiences how to behave and thereby repair the tears in the social moral fabric. Reformists and critics alike espoused Collier’s view, and soon managers of playhouses fell in line in order to evade the wrath of critics’ pens and to keep their actors out of prison for crimes like public cursing.
Though popular with critics, sentimental comedy (also known as “crying comedy”) perhaps never fully eclipsed Restoration comedies when it came to audience taste. Often throughout the 18th century, playhouses reenacted Restoration comedies simply to make money, as these bawdy plays consistently drew crowds. Despite the genre's continued presence, however, this time period represents the official end of Restoration comedy’s reign over the London theater.
The basic theater of the time divided its patrons into three general areas: the gallery, pit, and boxes. The gallery itself was divided into an upper and middle section. It was farthest from the stage and was the cheapest area where the middle class would sit, and prostitutes often frequented the middle gallery. The pit was positioned directly in front of the stage and was occupied by gallants and fops (giving rise to the term "fop corner") who would trade wits with the players and make a great deal of chaos at the expense of attentiveness. The boxes were lined along the sides of the pit, sometimes elevated, and were the most expensive seats. Patrons in the boxes were generally women and their jealously guarding husbands, though at times women came alone and were the targets of gallants who came from the pit to attempt to seduce them.
Though distraction reigned supreme within the audiences of the time, authors of plays were still careful to try to keep each section happy in order to maintain profitability. The Restoration audience enjoyed the bawdy and comedic, a quasi-representation of their own Town activities. Even as sentimental comedy became the standard, benefits for certain people were held with the especially bawdy in order to raise as much money as possible from the raunch-loving patrons.
As a primary source of revenue for the theater system, the audience was the economic determinant that managers and acting companies had to keep happy and attending.
Encouraged by the church’s “widespread anxiety about profane speech and scandalous behaviour, which included criticism of the stage for providing examples of immoral conduct,” the nonjuring bishop Jeremy Collier wrote a 268-page anti-theatre diatribe in 1698 entitled A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage, together with the Sense of Antiquity upon this Argument.
In his invective, Collier declaimed the stage as an immoral breeding ground of corruption and blasphemy and called for a return to morality and poetic justice. Though his criticism sparked much controversy among Restoration playwrights and critics, “[b]efore the end of the first decade of the eighteenth century both Richard Steele and Colley Cibber had publicly declared that they approved of Collier’s attack and both of them claimed that their own plays were influenced by Collier’s views.”
Shortly thereafter, authorities began to arrest actors and actresses for cursing on stage or engaging in other immoral conduct. To protect themselves and appease critics like Collier, stage managers and playwrights by and large adopted the genre of “sentimental” or “moral” comedy. As a result, lewd wit comedies from playwrights such as George Farquhar, though still popular among audiences, fell to the wayside.
As a critic of the theater and a playwright, Richard Steele furthered Jeremy Collier's idea that theater should provide a moral guide for the audience.
In the 65th issue of the periodical Spectator, published May 1711, Steele commented on the immorality of George Etherege's comedy, The Man of Mode, or Sir Fopling Flutter (1676). Saying that "The Application of Wit in the Theatre has ... strong an Effect upon the Manners of our Gentlemen," and that "a fine Gentleman should be honest in his Actions, and refined in his Language," Steele criticized the corrupt Hero of the play as "a direct Knave in his Designs, and a Clown in his Language."
Ten years later, Steele built on this view and created his own theory of comedy. In the preface to the sentimental comedy he authored, The Conscious Lovers (1722), Steele said that a play should have "the Effect of Example and Precept" on its audience. He specifically mentioned a scene in the fourth act, "wherein Mr. Bevil evades the Quarrel with his Friend," and said that he "hope[s] it may have some Effect upon the Goths and Vandals that frequent the Theatres."
Collier's influence on Steele and Cibber and their turning to a new moralistic genre of sentimental comedy show the reforming efforts of critics and playwrights.