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Comedy of Manners  
 
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Comedy of Manners formally pertains to a style of theater that flourished under William Wycherley, George Etherege, and William Congreve in late seventeenth-century England, that was reinvented by Oscar Wilde in the 1890s, and that was radicalized in the 1960s by Joe Orton. More broadly understood, comedy of manners is a literary mode that exploits for comic effect the distance between society's excessive concern with mannerly behavior and communal respectability, on the one hand, and, on the other, the self-interested motives that drive individuals' actions.

Fully understanding the falseness of decorum and the emptiness of social form, the hero of manners comedy manipulates social conventions to his own financial or sexual advantage. As a satiric mode, especially as practiced in gay circles, comedy of manners partakes of the artificiality and brilliant linguistic veneer of camp.

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Why Comedy of Manners is Particularly Associated with Gay Male Writers

David Hirst notes that manners comedy "has often been the province of homosexual writers: Wilde, Coward, Maugham and Orton all translated their life-style into their plays, whilst the nature of homosexual relationships features repeatedly in the work of Pinter and Osborne." Unfortunately, he fails to speculate as to why comedy of manners is particularly associated with the gay male literary heritage. Three possible reasons may account for this association.

Identifying and Undercutting Heterosexual Hypocrisy

First, since the majority of social ceremonies surround marriage and the family, gays--relegated to the margins of such rituals--are nicely positioned to observe and in their writing to undercut the hypocrisies of the heterosexual majority. "Manners before morals," Mrs. Erlynne observes in Wilde's Lady Windemere's Fan (1892). John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester's "Ramble in St. James's Park" (1680), like Byron's Don Juan (1819-1824), exposes heterosexual morality that powders, perfumes, and literally masks the frequently violent pursuit of physical sensation.

Noël Coward's Private Lives (1930) and Design for Living (1932) challenge the social construction of marriage while exploiting the comedy inherent in Freudian sexual psychology. Similarly, Stephen Sondheim's Company (1970) shrewdly assesses the compromises in marriage that leave one "always sorry, always grateful."

The artificiality of society's construction of masculinity is rendered ridiculous as Georges attempts to teach his drag-queen lover, Albin, to talk, walk, and butter his toast like John Wayne in Jerry Herman and Harvey Fierstein's musical, La Cage aux Folles (1983).

More gentle but nonetheless cutting are the delicious social comedies of E. F. Benson (1920-1939, collected in 1977 as Make Way for Lucia), which, like those of Edward Swift (Splendora, 1978; Principia Martindale, 1983), examine the "confrontational good manners" (Kiernan) that spread a thin veneer of cordiality over small-town resentments and petty jealousies.

Marcel Proust's wry, unblinking observations of the highest levels of French social life highlight the ridiculous affectations of social-climbing Mme Verdurin, the absurdity of two elderly sisters thanking a neighbor for a gift in language so refined that he has no idea as to what they are referring, and the horrible haste with which the Duchesse de Guermantes must change her shoes lest she and her husband be prevented from departing for a ball by the arrival of the formal notification of a relative's death of which they are already aware.

Wilde skewers Edwardian society's concern with the appearance of moral earnestness in The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), and Orton exposes with devilish accuracy the social pretensions and presumptive morality of the English middle class, creating amorally bisexual heroes in Entertaining Mr. Sloane (1964), Loot (1965), and What the Butler Saw (1969). The heroes' openness to sexual opportunity make them brilliant foils to bourgeois sexual hypocrisy. Orton's plays are characterized by what John Russell Taylor astutely describes as "the almost surrealistic dislocation between the most extraordinary and improper happenings and the unruffled propriety of the characters' conversation" (quoted in Hirst).

Identifying and Mocking Trends that Sacrifice Morality to Taste

A second possible reason for homosexual mastery of comedy of manners is that because gays are often prominent in fields such as couture, theater, design, and hotel and restaurant management, they often function as arbiters of fashion and are thus in a position to mock trends that sacrifice morality to the vicissitudes of taste.

Petronius, surnamed "arbiter" because his refined tastes established the protocols at Nero's court, parodied the excesses of the Roman Empire's nouveaux riches in the "Dinner at Trimalchio's" scene in his Satyricon, and subsequent gay writers have delighted in creating characters who exert, or aspire to exert, similar authority.

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Comedy of Manners flourished in seventeenth century England under William Wycherley (top), George Etherege (not pictured), and William Congreve (above).
  
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