No works that are part of the history of art or literature stand unencumbered by their past. We do not look at Homer or Shakespeare as if they were written yesterday; their histories are a part of them for the reader. The history of opinion concerning Restoration drama is of special interest; its "immortality" has been a subject for debate to a point where it has overshadowed all esthetic considerations.
The attack on Restoration drama was, to start with, part of the general attack on the theater. The solid citizenry of England always disapproved. Although Shakespeare's theater was "universal" in the sense that the audience came from all economic groups, it was still an iniquitous institution for many Englishmen. Gosson's School of Abuse, written in 1579, was primarily an attack on plays; Bishop Prynne (mentioned in Act III of The Way of the World) abused the theater in the 1630s and lost his ears for his pains. The grounds of these attacks were many: the playhouses were dens of iniquity; the players were immoral; the hangers-on were profligate; and apprentices were encouraged to play truant. Playwrights attacked religion, or morality, or portrayed indecent events, or used profanity. Clergy were portrayed unsympathetically: vice was approved. Sometimes the plays were attacked on the more philosophical grounds that the entire pretense involved in acting was evil. The Puritans closed the theaters as one of their first acts in office; Charles reopened them as one of his first acts in office.
By 1700, the attack was once again in full cry, this time in Jeremy Collier's A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage (also mentioned in Act III of The Way of the World). The first edition appeared in 1698; others, enlarged and presumably improved, followed. The controversy continued for about thirty years. The point is, however, that the controversy about the morality of Restoration drama never ended, for the matter is still debated. Since the critics and moralists do not always talk of the same thing when they use the term "immorality," it is worthwhile to consider some of its different meanings in relation to the drama.
A play may be considered immoral because it contains immoral language or behavior; because the wicked characters are not punished; or because the attitude of the dramatist is felt to be immoral — he may not sufficiently disapprove what is presumably wicked, or sufficiently approve the good; he may make the evil cause more attractive.
The first two accusations may be answered by the statement that the author may be denouncing that which he describes: He may be disapproving strongly of immoral language or behavior, and the fact that the wicked are not always punished may be his point — and precisely that which he deplores. Such plays are then immoral in one sense, but moral in another. As for the third accusation, one must consider artistic integrity. A work that may seem immoral by any standard may still be what this particular artist should write. On the other hand, an author may write a book where no immoral activities are described, where the wicked are punished, where no approval of vice is shown, and yet the book may be a complete lie. A deliberate falsification of the writer's own view of the world can be considered highly immoral.
The nineteenth century wrote about Restoration comedy with some difficulty. Charles Lamb thought that the world described was a fairyland and that, therefore, the behavior described should offend no one, for it was not the behavior of real people. His essay is itself interesting literature, but his case does not stand up under examination. Macaulay attacked the Restoration dramatists, especially Wycherley, for "making vice attractive." But surely Wycherley's The Plain Dealer does not make vice attractive. Frequently the attitude of the admirer of Restoration comedy is that he loves the plays despite their immorality, or, partly following Lamb, feels they are amoral; that is, considerations of morality do not apply to them.
It can be argued that the writer in a society cannot be amoral. And it would further appear that the term "morality" can involve so many distinctions that it cannot be usefully discussed. One might say: Let the reader enjoy the plays, examine the artistry and artisanship, and ignore morality. Or better, let him try to read carefully and to achieve some empathy with the artist in the milieu in which he lived, perhaps thrived, at once an active member and artistic observer. The reader may then begin to have some feeling for the ambiguous and overlapping connotations of a title such as The Way of the World.