When read in the sequence of their production on the stage, William Wycherley’s four plays make an interesting study of a dramatist gaining mastery of his art. The early plays display a number of structural flaws and basic problems with dramatizing a story. Through what could only be deliberate experimentation, the several elements of drama are shaped, weighed, and positioned in a variety of ways until a near-perfect formula is achieved in The Country Wife.
Love in a Wood
The highest plot line of Love in a Wood, Wycherley’s first play, concerns the adventures and trials of Valentine and Christina, idealized lovers who would seem more at home in a romance than a Restoration comedy of manners. Valentine, who had fled England for France after wounding a man in a duel, has secretly returned and is staying with his friend, Vincent. Ranger, another friend of Vincent, met Christina by chance while investigating the activities of his own mistress, Lydia. Through no fault of her own, Christina has now become the object of Ranger’s desire, and this he has hastened to tell Vincent. Valentine concludes that Christina has been untrue, and five acts of the expected misunderstandings and confusions are needed to convince him that his jealousy is unfounded and to unite the pair in matrimony. A second level of the play concerns the adventures of Vincent and Ranger that do not directly involve Valentine. The fop, Dapperwit, also moves on this level, and together these three gallants generate the witty dialogue and bawdy action expected by a Restoration audience. The lowest level is occupied by an array of rogues and whores. Central are the efforts of the procuress, Mrs. Joyner, to match a mistress, a husband, and a particular suitor with the old usurer (Alderman Gripe), his sister, and his daughter, respectively.
Love in a Wood is much more complex than this simplified summary suggests. Minor characters and story lines clutter the action to such an extent that all but the most attentive viewers must, like the characters, find themselves lost in a wood. The play is obviously the work of a new playwright, one who is still learning the craft. Wycherley knew well all the things that might go into a drama. He knew Ben Jonson and the humors, and he understood his age’s fondness for wit and was himself at least witty enough to satisfy that appetite. He was aware that ideal, romantic love could always find an audience, and he understood the importance of effective dialogue and could write it forcefully and naturally, if not elegantly. Unity, too, he was certain, was one of the several ingredients that a playwright should add to the pot.
Conscious attention to all of these elements can be seen in this first play, but also apparent is Wycherley’s failure to understand that a cook need not empty his entire pantry to prepare one dish. Love in a Wood simply tries to do too much. There are too many characters, too many plots. Unity, which should be the natural effect of careful plotting and characterization, is lost in the stew. The rather artificial attempts to build in a kind of unity are obvious. For example, the play begins on the level of the low plot, with Mrs. Joyner being berated by Gripe’s sister, Lady Flippant, for not finding her a rich husband. More low characters are added before the action shifts to the level of the wits, as Ranger and Vincent prepare to seek new love in St. James’s Park. Ranger encounters Christina, and the audience is introduced to the high plot. In only two acts, Wycherley, in sequence from low to high, introduces his principals and plots, but there the neat if obvious organization ends as the action shifts among characters and levels quickly and too often without clear purpose.
Another and again only partially successful unifying device is the use of certain key characters as links between the three major plot levels. Both Vincent and Ranger serve to tie the world of Valentine and Christina to that of the wits; Ranger is actually the catalyst for the action involving the ideal lovers. Dapperwit exists in a limbo between the wits and the low characters. He does keep company with Vincent and Ranger but is clearly more fop than wit, and unlike them, his existence affects but little the world of Valentine and Christina. Dapperwit is much more at home with Mrs. Joyner and Lady Flippant, and on this level he does help to move the action. Thus, the low is directly linked to the middle and the middle to the high. There is still, however, a quite obvious gap between the high and the low; no single character links the extremes.
Construction and theme cannot be separated, and Wycherley’s failure to achieve effective unity of design is reflected in his ambiguous message. Happy marriage based on ideal love appears possible. Valentine and Christina exist in the real world of Restoration London, and their love survives nicely in that world, but there, too, live Gripe, Flippant, and Dapperwit, and their message must leave the audience quite confused as to what ideal love is really all about.
The Gentleman Dancing-Master
Wycherley’s second play, The Gentleman Dancing-Master, adapted from Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s El maestro de danzar (wr. 1651), suggests that he was aware of the problems with Love in a Wood, but that he was unsure as to how to resolve them, for The Gentleman Dancing-Master is the pendulum at its opposite extreme. While Love in a Wood has three major plot levels and a host of minor intrigues and adventures, The Gentleman Dancing-Master has only one story to tell, and this it does with a cast of major characters only half the size of that of the first play. Hippolita, the fourteen-year-old daughter of Mr. Formal, is unhappily engaged to Mr. Paris, her cousin and an absurd Gallophile. Mr. Formal, almost as absurd in his devotion to Spanish manners and fashion, would do all in his power to preserve his daughter’s virtue, and with the help of his widowed sister, Mrs. Caution, keeps her under careful watch. Hippolita, however, is smarter than the lot of them, and, with the unwitting help of Paris, she manages to conduct an affair with a young gallant, Mr. Gerrard, who at her suggestion poses as a dance instructor. The lovers plan an elopement, but Hippolita’s doubts about Gerrard’s motive—love or her money—and assorted other diversions postpone the nuptials until the end.
In his first play, Wycherley had aimed at too many targets. The Gentleman Dancing-Master aims at only one, a broad, comedic effect assisted by a large dose of farce. Wycherley himself was less than proud of this work as an indicator of his real literary skill, and critics have generally agreed that it has little to admire. First, there is the problem of the genre itself. Farce, while very popular with Restoration audiences, was held in low esteem by scholars. Truth to life was the principal criterion by which a play should be judged; so said most of the great English critics, including John Dryden, the leading dramatist, poet, and critic of the age. Believability is the least concern of a farce, for everything that contributes to a believable effect—fine characterization, realistic dialogue, tight plot development—must yield to the hilarity of the episode. Moreover, as farces go, The Gentleman Dancing-Master has been judged by many modern critics as especially uninventive.
To be sure, Wycherley’s second play would never be studied as an example of Restoration comedy at its finest. Still, it is not without merit, and a brisk stage rendition reveals strengths that are lost in a reading. For example, the single plot line tends to hold together the broadly comic episodes, achieving a sense of unity that is most often lacking in farce. The play is about Hippolita’s efforts to find a suitable husband, and a Hippolita well acted can keep that design always before the audience. Hippolita, certainly one of Wycherley’s more interesting characters, is responsible for adding a rather larger dash of satire than is commonly found in farce, not so large a dash as to make the flavor noticeably bitter—after all, she does get her man—but still enough that the reader of Wycherley’s later, darker comedies can look back to The Gentleman Dancing-Master and notice a hint of what was to come.
In this glimpse of Restoration society, a fourteen-year-old girl only recently returned home from boarding school is complete master of the revels. She rejects her father’s choice of a husband, engineers her own courtship, and marries the man she wants, all under her father’s roof and her aunt’s close guard, and neither is aware of what has happened until the closing lines of the play. It is she who invents the dancing-master fiction and transforms a shallow young man, who is more interested in a dowry than a good marriage, into acceptable husband material. She displays the naïveté and frankness of a child and the insight and cleverness of a mature adult and can move between these extremes in a matter of a few lines. Yet all of this talent and effort is needed to obtain what ideally should be taken for granted: an assurance that the words of the wedding vow will be sincere, that her marriage will be based on mutual love, honesty, and respect. In Wycherley’s world, however, such assurances are difficult to find. Even a child must be devious to accomplish what is right, when her own father and intended husband are themselves prime examples of misrepresentation.
Mr. Paris, who would be known as Monsieur de Paris, and Mr. Formal, who prefers to be called Don Diego, are as contemptible as they are absurd. Wycherley created the roles for James Nokes and Edward Angel, two of the most famous comic actors of the day. Indeed, Paris’s part is the largest in the play, for it was doubtless Nokes as a French fool that the audience came to see. Both Formal and Paris have rejected what they are, Englishmen, to ape foreign manners: It is small wonder that they are so unaware of Hippolita’s machinations. They have their own lies to live and would rather...
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