Comedy of Manners

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Plays

She Stoops to Conquer

Oliver Goldsmith
Acts: 5. Scenes: 5. Roles: Male (6), Female (4), Neutral (0).

Populated by a sweep of brilliant comic characters, She Stoops to Conquer is a spirited comedy of mischief and misunderstanding, as the gallant Marlow mistakes his intended well-born bride for a barmaid.

Young Marlow is petrified in the presence of women of his own class, but rampantly flirtatious with the serving classes. To his alarm, he has been sent, accompanied by his friend Hastings who has his own agenda, to meet the bride his father has chosen for him: the daughter of a respected gentleman, Mr Hardcastle. They have got lost in the dark country roads, and unfortunately – or perhaps fortunately – the mischievous Tony Lumpkin convinces them that the old country house is an inn, Mr Hardcastle its eccentric innkeeper, and Kate Hardcastle its barmaid.

Kate, enjoying as a consequence Marlow’s palpable ardour, chooses not to undeceive him, until a delightful flurry of trifling confusions and eavesdroppings have made way for a pleasingly neat happy ending.

Goldsmith’s play was first performed in 1773 at the Covent Garden theatre, London, and its well-meaning comic exuberance has made it a favourite on the stage from Goldsmith’s day to ours.

The Vortex

Noël Coward
Acts: 3. Scenes: 0. Roles: Male (6), Female (4), Neutral (0).

The Vortex shot Coward to fame in 1924 as both a playwright and a performer, its depiction of sex and drugs in the Jazz Age stunning the critics and causing a sensation.

Florence Lancaster is an ageing social beauty and a serial adulteress, who openly takes beautiful young lovers half her age. Her son Nicky returns from Paris with both his fiancée Bunty, and a serious drug addiction. As both mother and son show increasing instability and are abandoned by their lovers, the play moves toward darker territory. Beginning as an apparently frothy comedy, the facades of mother and son eventually collapse, and a raw, anguished drama is unleashed.

Copyright © by NC Aventales AG, successors in title to the Estate of Noël Coward

We Were Dancing

Noël Coward
Acts: 0. Scenes: 2. Roles: Male (5), Female (3), Neutral (0).

We Were Dancing is set at a dinner-dance on a South Sea island, where two married people fall suddenly in love when they are dancing – unfortunately they are not married to each other. They spend a blissful night planning their future and trying to shrug off Louise’s husband, but as the next day dawns and the music has stopped, little of the last night’s enchantment remains.

We Were Dancing is a short play from Tonight at 8.30, originally starring Gertrude Lawrence and Coward himself, conceived by Coward as an antidote to the boredom of a long run of the same script. It is a sequence of ten plays to be performed by the same cast in sets of three, alternating matinées and evenings, ranging from farce to melodrama to romantic comedy.

After touring, Tonight at 8.30 was produced at the Phoenix Theatre in London in 1936.

A Woman of No Importance

Oscar Wilde
Acts: 4. Scenes: 0. Roles: Male (8), Female (7), Neutral (0).

A Woman of No Importance fuses comedy of manners with high melodrama, a serious protest against Victorian gender inequality ornately framed with perfect witticisms.

At Lady Hunstanton’s country house party, the quips are dazzling and the company is impeccably sophisticated – but beneath the laconic wit of society’s elite is brewing a turbulent drama of social double standards and sexual hypocrisy.

Gerald Arbuthnot is a young gentleman on the make, with an American heiress and the post of secretary to the brilliant but dissolute Lord Illingworth within his reach. But it is discovered that Lord Illingworth is Gerald's father, who seduced and abandoned his mother twenty years earlier. Horrified to find her son singing the praises of her seducer, Mrs Arbuthnot refuses to allow Gerald to continue in his service, and Gerald must choose between his wronged mother and a glittering career.

Wilde’s society comedy was first staged at the Haymarket theatre in London in 1893.

A comedy of manners is a form of sophisticated comedy, usually set among the fashionable upper classes, in which the characters’ machinations are veiled by their elegant manners and elaborate repartee. The genre can be traced back to the Greek New Comedy but in its modern form was essentially created by Molière in such plays as Les Précieuses ridicules (1658) and Le Médecin malgré lui (1666). In England the genre flowered after the Restoration, following the success of George Etherege’s The Comical Revenge; or, Love in a Tub (1664). English-language examples include Wycherley’s The Gentleman Dancingmaster (1671), Vanbrugh’s The Provok’d Wife (1697), Congreve’s The Way of the World (1700), Farquhar’s The Beaux’ Stratagem (1707), Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer (1773), and Sheridan’s The School for Scandal (1777). The elegant wit of the comedy of manners was revived in the late 19th century by Oscar Wilde in such plays as Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892) and The Importance of Being Earnest (1895). In the 20th century some of the plays of Noël Coward, such as Private Lives (1930), belong to this genre.

from Jonathan Law ed., The Methuen Drama Dictionary of the Theatre (London, 2011)