Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Rococo (pt. 6)

Restoration literature featured a high influx of humor and wit doubtless attributable to the widespread sense of higher cognition characteristic of the Age of Enlightenment.  The poet John Dryden was the foremost champion of early Restoration literature, to be followed later by the genius of writers such as Jonathan Swift, Daniel Defoe, and Alexander Pope.  Named the country's Poet Laureate in 1668, Dryden was, among other things, a gifted playwright.  He wrote in the style that was becoming increasingly popular at that time and which would continue to develop for another century.
The style of Restoration Theater was one which centered on comedy as the top genre.  Stage plays at the time had turned very much to take after the French style and had given up the prior Shakespearean glory of swashbuckling action and drama, replacing it with what was known as "sentimental comedy."  Again, the cleverness of witty intellectual writing was held as the better trend during this period, and satire was largely prevalent.  A classic example of Restoration comedy can be seen in William Congreve's play The Way of the World, which makes use of satiric witticisms and clever puns to mock the finer aspects of aristocratic living.  As things progressed, Restoration writers became increasingly liberal with their content, flashing satire at every institution and doing it through virtually every method.  One popular subject for critical humor at this time was women, and one need only read Swift's poem "The Lady's Dressing Room" to get an idea of how sexually explicit and downright squalid the comical tastes of the time had become.  Secular though the subject matters were, through satire writers became popular as political spokesmen and the propagators of new social philosophies contributing to the Enlightenment development.
Dryden paved the way for all of this.  Among his most famous plays, he wrote one entitled Marriage à la mode (or "Fashionable Marriage" in French).  The play later inspired artist and social critic William Hogarth to produce a series of paintings under the same name in 1743-1745.
Hogarth took more interest in painting common people in London streets and taverns than he did in painting portraits.  He enjoyed exposing immorality and foolish customs, and Marriage à la mode is no exception.  In the first painting, or Scene I of the series, entitled The Marriage Contract, Hogarth makes fun of arranged marriages, which was then still the predominant practice among the aristocracy.  We see the bride and groom sitting next to each other on the far left, but neither is facing the other.  In fact, they hardly seem to notice each other—not a very promising start to the marriage, no doubt.  The groom looks bored and is holding a small box of tobacco.  The bride looks depressed.  (Women at this time tended to lose far more in marriage than what they gained from it).  A lawyer at her side flirts with her (as indicated by his coy smile and gesture of the arm).  The scene is starkly opposite to the idealization of marriage which we are naturally inclined to imagine when considering that happiest of unions.  Through his sarcasm and ridicule Hogarth makes the event far more dismal and absurd in effort to comment on the silliness of the aristocracy's observance of marriage and phony love on the surface level but also, in a deeper level, the aristocracy's broader ludicrousness in general among all aspects of society.  To the right of the painting we see the father of the bride looking over the marriage certificate as if it was a business contract, mocking the upper-class preoccupation with wealth, economics, and power.  Also, the artist pokes fun at the aristocracy's pompous fixation with titles of nobility.  The father of the groom (on the far right) proudly points to his family tree to proclaim the superiority of his lineage and status, but Hogarth has ironically painted him as suffering from gout, a disease which was at that time believed to be caused by gluttony and alcoholism, making him clearly not a specimen of noble worth.  Even the two dogs in the far left corner, the symbols of fidelity from Baroque art, only add sarcastic humor to the scene.  Hardly loyal by devotion, the two are literally leashed and tied together in a dark joke on what Hogarth observes as the true nature of marriage, the male standing tall and the bitch, collapsed, despondent on the ground.  Satire like the kind used in Hogarth's painting was popular during this time as a clever way to denounce vice or folly.

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