When the monarchy was restored in 1660 and the London theatres were reopened, people were eager for merriment, and the theatre offered plays which were alive, witty and full of subtleties. For the first time women were allowed on the stage, giving the dramatists an opportunity that had been denied to Shakespeare, who had had to limit the number of his women characters because their parts had to be played by boy actors.
The king asked Sir Christopher Wren, the architect of St Paul’s Cathedral, to design two new playhouses. The two new theatres were indoors. They were much smaller than Elizabethan theatres, and the stage, in particular, was similar to the type we see today, not the projecting stage of Elizabethans: in the new theatres the stage and the audience were separate. The plays could be performed at night thanks to artificial lightning, and scenery began to be used on the stage.
They key authors were George Etherege, William Wycherley, George Farquhar, and William Congreve (1670-1729), the greatest of them all. Congreve’s plays are characterized by the very witty dislogues and perfect language; the best of them is The Way of the World (1700), which set very high standards for the elegance and refinement with which he handled the characters.