In a comedy of manners, witticisms are the rule of the day. People are judged as being wits or being idiots, so to speak. The audience (by silent agreement) allow the wits to be in charge, and anything outside the social norms and expectations are subject to ridicule. They allow themselves the pleasure of sitting back and laughing at their own foibles. Comedies of manners have flourished when a population saw themselves as homogeneous and could accept that they are very much like the superior class displayed within the plot. These comedies are associated with the aristocracy. One can find such plays all the way back in the 17th century. James Shirley’s A Lady of Pleasure is one of the first to come to mind.
The wits in a comedy of manners are self-assured, superior beings. They love to quote poetry or famous writers. The are fine speakers, as well as being very resourceful.
The “butts of the jokes” are clumsy and ridiculously in love with themselves. They are lacking in intellect and cannot succeed in social situations due to their lack of a “swift” mind. The poor “butts” are taught a lesson within the comedy on how to be better dressed, how to be less crude, and how to have a “more fulfilling” lifestyle.
However, do not think of the comedy of manners as only about social snobs. The “snobs” are more than just fancy clothes and social manners. These people are masters of mental agility. They are skilled with the repartee and the epigrammatic phrase. They are pure geniuses when it comes to le most juste.
So, what brought on this look at a comedic form. On their Facebook pages, my former students were bemoaning their required reading of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, a play I absolutely love to watch, but abhor to read. In it, Wilde is openly satirical of the middle-class values he meets daily in and about London and Dublin. The idle rich aristocracy in this play see the folly of their ways, but they continue them in order to foist upon the lower class a false illusion. The title and much of the play’s action (or inaction) comes from the concept of being “earnest” or “honest.”
Lady Bracknell: To be born in a handbag, whether it had handles or not, seems to me to display a contempt for the ordinary decencies of family life that reminds one of the worst excesses of the French Revolution.
The scene between Lady Bracknell and Jack Worthing is one of my favorites. I used to include it in my acting classes for young people to see how to create a “stereotype” on the stage.
Lady Bracknell’s one dimensional character adds pure comic genius to the scene.
The wits in a comedy of manners mock the foibles of others with a subtlely amused self-deprecation.