William Wycherley’s final play, The Plain-Dealer, signaled a change in late-Restoration comedy. Unlike the sophisticated, witty comedies of Sir George Etherege and his own early mannered plays, The Plain-Dealer is a sharp, mordant satire upon false wit. Wycherley’s railing, bitter, misanthropic tone greatly influenced the exaggerated style of such writers as John Crowne, Nathaniel Lee, and Thomas Otway.
Nineteenth century critics, most notably Thomas Macaulay, considered Wycherley a libertine playwright whose indecent morality, as represented by Manly’s conduct, rendered his drama repugnant for serious investigation. Among early twentieth century critics of Restoration comedy, Montague Summers regarded The Plain-Dealer as a moral satire and Manly as Wycherley’s representative, and he noted how the hero’s invective is directed at the prime evils of the age: hypocrisy, materialism, vice. The judgment of later scholars, who carefully studied seventeenth century social conventions, tended to reject Summers’s view of the comedy as a moral satire, just as it rejected the stuffy Victorian prejudices concerning the play’s supposed immorality.
For Wycherley, as for his contemporaries, the touchstone of wit was not mere cleverness, although spontaneity, freshness, and pungency were, to be sure, important signs of wit; rather, sound judgment was the practical test that separated a would-be wit from a true one, a coxcomb from a gallant. To this convention, Wycherley insists on adding the virtue of naturalness—truth to reality—as a necessary part of wit. In The Plain-Dealer, Manly is the major test for the author’s theory of wit, but he is not, as some critics have asserted, either the mouthpiece for the author or the perfect model for his type of wit. Until the conclusion of the play, Manly is deficient in judgment. He has mistaken the pretense of loving for real love, the affectation of friendship for truth. Olivia, his faithless lover, is quite correct in her cynical view of him: “He that distrusts most the world, trusts most to himself, and is but the more easily deceived, because he thinks he can’t be deceived.” Olivia puts her finger on the chief flaw in Manly—his vanity. Because he rebukes so heartily the evils of the world, he cannot believe that he himself can be guilty of the same evils. Yet Olivia is right when she says, “I knew he loved his own singular moroseness so well, as to dote upon any copy of it.” By imitating the image of moroseness in Manly, Olivia and Vernish easily deceive him.
In his satire on false wit, however, Wycherley makes the point that at least some people in the world possess integrity, even though they neglect to rail, as Manly...
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