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Performing Libertinism in Charles II’s Court: Politics, Drama, Sexuality
Jeremy W. Webster


York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.
$ 65.00, 251 pp., ISBN 1-4039-6719-9 (hardback).

Reviewed by Jean-Philippe Heberlé

This essay by Jeremy W. Webster is based on the author’s doctoral thesis. It falls into seven chapters and includes notes, a bibliography and an index: “Chapter 1: Performing Libertinism: An Introduction,” “Chapter 2: Producing Libertine Politics: The Rehearsal,” “Chapter 3: Staging Libertine Conduct: Love in a Wood, The Gentleman Dancing-Master, and The Country Wife,” “Chapter 4: Scripting Libertine Tricksters: The Man of Mode and The Plain Dealer,” “Chapter 5: Enacting Libertine Isolation: Antony and Cleopatra and The Tragedy of Valentinian,” Chapter 6: Censuring Libertine Sexuality: Sodom,” “Chapter 7: Conclusion.

Chapter 1 serves as an introduction to Jeremy W. Webster’s interesting study of some of the most famous libertine playwrights of the Restoration whose plays are mentioned in the corresponding chapters above. Throughout this introduction, as well as throughout his study, Webster quotes other scholars, who wrote extensive studies on the subject, to back up or debunk their arguments. Yet, on the whole, the references to other books or articles are there to show what has been written so far on the issues tackled by Webster in his own book; these references contribute to better emphasize how he casts a new light on these issues and fills the gap.

To start with, Webster gives a definition of the libertine (“Throughout Charles II’s reign, the libertine was a familiar figure as a sexual adventurer and as a radical questioner of social, political and moral values" [2]) before sketching out his method as well as the different issues he will deal with in the rest of his essay: the performative nature of libertinism, that is the performance of private acts in public (in the streets or on the stage) to force the audiences to question the values of the society they live in: “Restoration libertines provoke their audiences with their performances of traditionally secretive acts in public, challenging their observers to examine critically the foundations upon which Stuart institutions were built" [9]; Webster also stresses how important and necessary it is to take into account the heterogeneity of the libertine circle as well as the artistic and ideological changes which occurred within this circle: “Another method to avoid imprecision is to acknowledge changes within the group’s artistic and ideological project" [11]. These changes will lead to “the complete disintegration of the group by 1680" [12]; He then justifies the reason why he decided to circumscribe his study to the five libertine playwrights studied in this book:

This book focuses primarily on five members of this circle—Buckingham, Rochester, Etherege, Wycherley and Sedley—for three reasons. First, these were playwrights and, therefore, not only lived a life of libertine performance but also wrote about libertinism for the stage. Second, these men were the most infamous libertines in Charles II’s court; they are the men contemporaries most talked about and the libertines whose lives and works continue to shape our understanding of Restoration history and literature. And finally, they were also the members of the libertine group who were most intimately connected to Charles II. [12]

Before giving more precisions about the ideological elements which will be strongly indicted by the libertines above mentioned, Webster aptly quotes John B. Thompson’s definition of ideology (“ideology is a system of representations which serves to sustain existing relations of class domination by orienting individuals towards the past rather than the future, or towards images and ideals which conceal class relations and detract from the collective pursuit of social change" [20]) and reminds us that drama at that time was a “‘political instrument’ closely controlled by Charles and his government" [24] to help secure his ideology about monarchical power for instance. For Webster, the libertine circle by undermining this absolutist vision of monarchical power as well as some other features of the Stuart ideology contributed to bring important changes in the English society:

By challenging Stuart ideology’s vision of marriage, the family, and government, these libertines worked to fashion a new model for English culture based on their own views of individual liberty, which included more permissive notions of sexual behaviour and individual conscience. This agenda is embodied in the libertine protagonists of their plays in the 1670s. Like their creators, these characters challenge the social order of their settings to create a new ‘political, social, religious, psychic, narrative order. [31-32]

 Finally, and most of all, since Webster’s essay clearly belongs to what our English-speaking colleagues call “Gender studies,” the author asserts the importance of libertinism in the history of sexuality:

Libertine performances were therefore crucial to England’s history of sexuality in two ways: they continued to offer Englishmen and women alternatives to normative sexual behaviour long after the libertine wits themselves had passed into history, and served as one of the activities that had to be excluded from proper sexual behaviours, allowing normative sexual desire to become in fact normative. [35]

The bulk of these issues is analyzed in the following chapters.

Chapter 2 is divided into two parts as clearly indicated by the subheadings and deals with Buckingham as a politician, then as a playwright. In the first subpart, Webster presents Buckingham’s political activities (his support of Parliamentary independence from the crown, his support of religious toleration and his support of pro English trade policies) to show that he is opposed to the policies implemented by the King and his government. Although he was close to Charles II, he was marginalized because of his libertine activities and his radical political views. After being marginalized he decided to turn to “playwriting as a means of lashing out against his political enemies [41].” As a playwright, Buckingham wrote The Rehearsal. This play is analyzed in the second part of this chapter. Webster reminds us that it parodies elements of Dryden’s The Conquest of Granada. The Rehearsal mocks Dryden, “the official playwright,” heroic drama and through it the values and magnificence of the court of Charles II. Its epilogue also “evokes drama’s connection to political power” [61]. On the whole, one should keep in mind that “Buckingham calls for men to follow their pleasures, to allow their senses to help them decide right from wrong: that is to become libertines” [61]. Webster argues that this play is a landmark as it led the other libertine playwrights to write plays which “offered radical revisions for Stuart ideology, emphasizing freedom of conscience, equality of marital and sexual choices for men and women, and the pursuit of sexual fulfilment” [63].

Chapter 3 focuses on Wycherley’s earlier plays Love in a Wood, The Gentleman Dancing-Master, and The Country Wife. As Buckingham failed to persuade “the nation to embrace the value of pleasure over duty and responsibility” [67], Wycherley  “adapts reports of the actual libertine performances of the court wits’ circle and attempts to make them more palatable to general audiences. He then allows his entertaining libertine protagonists to triumph over the severe and/or ridiculous critics of sexual freedom” [67]. Webster studies Wycherley’s plays in chronological order. He clearly asserts that his aim is to fill the gap “in order to better understand these plays’ responses to Stuart and progressive ideologies” [74] embodied by people like John Evelyn or Samuel Pepys. Webster borrows the phrase “progressive ideology” from Michael McKeon [70] and adds that “while progressive ideology opposed traditional notions of monarchical authority, it nevertheless maintained the husband’s/father’s authority over his wife and children” [70]. According to Webster, who disagrees with Anna Bryson: “Wycherley’s [Love in a Wood] also depicts libertines as liberators of women, giving them a choice in marriage and romantic relationships unavailable to them in traditional patriarchy” [79]. The theme of love based on choice rather than compulsion is continued in The Gentleman Dancing Master. According to Webster, The Country Wife, which shows how “progressive ideology” is doomed to failure, is the play which hinges upon diverging views concerning the integration or not of the libertines in society. Horner represents the libertines who by the pursuit of pleasure cannot comply with the rules of society, whereas Harcourt embodies the libertines who eventually accept to comply with social institutions. These irreconcilable views are analyzed by Webster in the three following chapters.

In Chapter 4, Webster deals with Etherege’s The Man of Mode and Wycherley’s The Plain Dealer. Both playwrights “argue that the libertine must be reincorporated into the social and political institutions of their day in order to have the economic means to pursue pleasure without evoking fear on the part of England’s citizenry” [99]. They also argue that the libertine trickster must transform the institutions of his society and not reject them. Webster also stresses that Etherege’s The Man of Mode, “unlike previous libertine plays, The Man of Mode clearly presents the libertine’s faults [sodomy most particularly] and allows the audience to evaluate his behaviour” [110]. As far as Wycherley’s The Plain Dealer is concerned, it presents libertinism as being connected to homosociality and heterosexuality. According to Webster, Wycherley refuses to associate his protagonist with sodomy “in order to disassociate the libertine image from same-sex sexual activities” [132]. Webster also clearly asserts what differentiates both plays in their moderation of their sexuality and of their rejection of society:

Thus, Wycherley rejects Horner’s vision of libertinism in favour of one that moderates the libertine’s aggressive masculinity and rejection of society. Unlike Etherege’s The Man of Mode, however, The Plain Dealer does not affect this moderation through the rhetoric of romantic love. [134]

Opposed to Etherege and Wycherley’s views are Sedley and Rochester’s which posit that social integration precludes the pursuit of pleasure. According to them, this unrestrained pursuit of pleasure will lead the libertine to lead a tragic life. This is what Webster lays emphasis on in chapter 5 with the analysis of Sedley’s Antony and Cleopatra and Rochester’s Valentinian. Both plays can be considered as “affective tragedies” since they reject heroic drama’s convention and/or ideology. Indeed, Sedley’s Antony and Cleopatra clearly shows that love and honour are mutually exclusive. Webster also aptly draws a comparison between Sedley’s play and Dryden’s Antony and Cleopatra. He asserts that: “Whereas Dryden’s heroes end their plays having honorably reconciled political duty with private desire—or rather, sublimated desire in favour of duty, Cleopatra and her lover valiantly attempt but ultimately fail to make this reconciliation. Thus, Sedley presents Antony and Cleopatra as victims of their love” [154]. As for Rochester’s Valentinian, it is definitively an affective play in which the playwright “dramatizes […] his belief that society will not allow the monarch to pursue a liberatory view of sexual pleasure and remain a monarch” [168].

Chapter 6, through the study of Sodom attributed to Rochester, departs from the examination of the Court Wits’ methods of self representation to analyze “the ways in which their critics dramatized their activities” [173]. Webster indicates implicitly that the attribution of the play to Rochester can be put into question because of its ambivalence “The attribution of Sodom to Rochester makes a similar elision between a work that uses obscene language to praise libertinism and one that employs this discourse to condemn it” [173]. For Webster, the critics used the same means as the libertines themselves to interest their audiences/readers, that is, pornography. Sodom illustrates this harsh criticism of the libertine activities through the use of pornography. For Webster “Sodom denigrates more than just Charles II’s policies and sexual practices; it participates in a larger cultural attack on the court’s libertine ethos, personified by Rochester, Sedley, Buckingham, Etherege, and Wycherley” [176]. Webster, who considers Sodom both as a political satire and a work whose pornographic nature cannot be denied, draws his conclusion from Rachel Weil’s analysis of “the relationship between the ‘political’ and the ‘prurient’ in Restoration verse satires” [176]. He refuses, like Richard Elias and Harold Weber, to envisage Sodom as a political satire only. Webster clearly focuses on how anti-libertine texts “could be read in ways adverse to their authors’ original intention” [191]. John Oldham’s poem, “A Satire Against Virtue” serves to illustrate Webster’s argument. Finally, Webster insists that Sodom, itself, cannot but be read as a celebration of debauchery which contributed, among many other plays, to expand the limits of sexual liberty in the English society of the late seventeenth century:

While its pornographic scenes of debauchery are meant by the writer as a critique of the libertines in Charles II’s court, the text’s language in describing the acts it purports to condemn could potentially be read as crossing the line into celebration. […]. Despite the conservative aspect of its message, Sodom confirms that libertinism espouses a liberatory view of sex, one that expanded the cultural landscape of possible sexual permutations in the1670s London. [193]

In his conclusion, Webster reminds us that the polarization of the English society exacerbated by the Exclusion crisis existed in the theatre among the playwrights and their audiences. The libertine fraternity did not survive the crisis. The author quotes Michel Foucault to contextualize this period of shift from absolutist monarchy to parliamentary monarchy. Foucault is also quoted to emphasize the irrepressible connection of the libertines with representation. Finally, Webster insists that if the libertine at Charles II’s court did not succeed in having any political influence they nonetheless contributed in the long run to change people’s views regarding sexuality by the public performance in their plays of their actual way of life. Webster and many critics see in the continuous revival of their play elements of great interest for contemporary scholars: “In a society marked by continuing debates on feminism, homosexuality, and pornography, it is not surprising that the wits’ discussions of politics, gender roles, and sexuality have elicited a consistent scholarly interest” [204].

To round off this review, I would say that Webster’s book is a fascinating essay which clearly presents the relationships existing between the life of the libertines and the work they produced as playwrights. Webster helps us better understand how the libertines at Charles II’s court between 1660 and 1685 rebelled against the Stuart and the progressive ideologies. The key role they played in the history of sexuality is also clearly considered. Finally, I strongly recommend this thoroughly researched book to the readers, whether scholars in the field or beginners, who are interested in the history and literature of the Restoration as it no doubt enlightens our views and thoughts on this period.


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