This play is the epitome of the spirit of the reign of Charles II. The plot is presented with Restoration boldness, depending as it does on the supposition of Horner’s impotence and his amorous adventures with various wives who have been gulled into believing that he is incapable of feelings for the opposite sex. While the main device of the play is frankly indecent, the handling of the theme, particularly in the dialogue, is brilliant. Clever dialogue and the whimsicality of Mrs. Pinchwife’s naïveté save the drama from approaching pornography and raise the play to the realm of art. As a result of the play’s deftness, readers usually find themselves laughing, along with the characters, at the duplicity of the women and their lover.
William Wycherley’s comedies were his contribution to English dramatic literature and in one of them, The Country Wife, the Restoration comedy reached its height. Wycherley’s first play, Love in a Wood, was performed in the spring of 1671 and occasioned the start of a relationship between Wycherley and the duchess of Cleveland, who was mistress to the king. Wycherley was, as a result, brought into the court circle and into the favor of the king. The Gentleman Dancing-Master, his second play, apparently opened at Dorset Garden in the fall of 1672. It was not well received by the Restoration audience, perhaps because of its simplicity and lack of vulgarity. The Plain-Dealer, first produced in December, 1676, has the distinction of being Wycherley’s last play, his most morally ambiguous, and thus the most discussed of the Restoration comedies, with the exception perhaps of William Congreve’s The Way of the World (1700). It is from a character in this play that Wycherley received his nickname of Manly from John Dryden.
Wycherley’s third play, The Country Wife, is considered by most critics to be the best of the Restoration comedies. The Country Wife was apparently first produced by the King’s Company at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane on January 12, 1675, and was obviously well received by the audiences of the time, for it immediately became a part of the repertory at the Theatre Royal. Its popularity is still apparent in the fact that it is one of the most often revived of the comedies from its period.
The ethos of the Restoration period presumably had its effect on The Country Wife. The theater was being promoted by a libertine, Charles II, who surrounded himself with an equally profligate court. Many aristocrats of the period viewed humanity as depraved and affected a contempt for morality, especially in the form of Puritanism or Republicanism. The bawdiness of The Country Wife seems suited to the temper of its times.
The licentious nature of the play, however, brought it criticism during the Restoration, though perhaps it was that some people did not like their mirrored image. As Richard Steele wrote of Horner in The Tatler of April 16, 1709, after seeing a production on April 14: He “is a good representation of the age in which that comedy was written; at which time, love and wenching were the business of life, and the gallant manner of pursuing women was the best recommendation at court.” Steele also criticized Pinchwife, but again as a representative of the age, “one of those debauchees who run through the vices of the town and believe when they think fit, they can marry and settle at their ease.” Steele in his criticism was contributing to the general criticism of the theater that occurred from about 1695 to 1745 and had reached a high point in 1698 with Jeremy Collier’s A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage. Collier, unlike Steele, was not generous to Wycherley or his characters, calling Horner “horridly Smutty” and accusing Mrs. Pinchwife, Horner, and Lady Fidget of a “Rankness and Indecency of their Language.” Criticism of the play continued into the Victorian period, when perhaps it met its strongest criticism under the pen of Thomas Babington Macaulay in an 1841 essay “The Comic Dramatists of the Restoration.” He said of Wycherley’s comedies: “In truth Wycherley’s indecency is protected against the critic as a skunk is protected against the hunters. It is safe because it is too filthy to handle and too noisome to approach.”
Despite the adverse criticism of the play, it was following, perhaps more strongly than some, the satiric method employed by Restoration comedy, which was to present on the stage characterizations that were true to...
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