The Country Wife by William Wycherley was published in 1675 and premiered the same year at the Theatre Royal in London. It is classified in English literature as a Restoration comedy.
The term “restoration” refers to a historical period in England from 1660 to 1700, marking the era when monarchy was restored to England after ten years of rule by Parliament. The term “comedy,” as a subgenre of drama, refers to a play in which the protagonist vanquishes, morally and financially, his opponents. The opponents are "bad guys" and represent the previous generation's decrepit values and hypocrisy. By contrast, the new generation is younger and more progressive. The happy ending of these plays is also supposed to be a restoration of order from the chaos and confusion fostered by the older generation’s dishonesty and greed.
It would, however, be wrong to claim that The Country Wife realizes all of the above characteristics of a Restoration comedy. Immensely popular as a stage production, the play itself does not aim for any moral high ground: the bad guys remain bad; the protagonist does not appear to change a bit. The play's only resolution is that the Fidgets end badly, leaving an unrepentant Mr. Horner triumphant over his foes: he has seduced Margery Pinchwife, the simple country wife; mission accomplished.
The Country Wife’s place in English literature is more relevant to the history of drama than to the literary canon itself. Full of banter and repartee, it is fun to read, but the play is most remembered for a particular kind of influence it has over present-day British and American comedies.
The Country Wife makes fun of people’s manners as they behave in public. According to Wycherley, people from urban societies were “naturally affectatious,” which means that they put on airs without even consciously trying to do so. Wycherley commented on such traits with one-liners that induced laughter from the audience. He then often explained the line with another witty remark, provoking more laughter.
That is what Restoration comedies ultimately gave to the dramatic comedies that followed them. One can follow the genealogy of one-liners all the way from Restoration comedies to the works of Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, and Neil Simon. Brilliantly started by Wycherley and fellow Restoration playwright William Congreve, one-liners even continue to this day on late-night talk shows by hosts such as David Letterman and Jay Leno.
Mr. Horner, a gallant with a bad reputation for seduction, pretends that he was made impotent through disease and causes word of his misfortune to be spread throughout the town by his quack doctor. Immediately, men who were afraid to let him meet their wives for fear of seduction hasten to assure him that he can visit their homes and escort their women anywhere. Horner’s old companions among the town gallants tease him unmercifully, and at first, the women will have nothing to do with him. Among his friends is Jack Pinchwife, who is vastly afraid of being made a cuckold. He does not even let it be known that he is married. His wife is a woman from the country; she, he thinks, does not know enough about fashionable city life to think of taking a lover.
Pinchwife makes the mistake, however, of escorting his wife to a play, where she is seen by Horner and some of his friends. When Pinchwife returns to his lodgings, his wife, tired of being kept locked in the house, asks her husband to let her go walking. A relative, a woman from the town, speaks for her as well. Pinchwife becomes angry with both: at his wife for wanting to go out and at his relative who is, he claims, corrupting her morals. Pinchwife foolishly tells his wife what she is missing in town life—plays, dinners, parties, and dances—and so arouses her interest in all that he is attempting to keep from her for the sake of his honor.
When a party of women come to take his wife to the latest play, Pinchwife refuses to let her go or even to see the visitors. He gives out the excuse that she has smallpox. The excuse fails. At the same time Horner and some other gallants come to call.
The women are urged by their husbands to let Horner take them to the theater, but they, in disgust, refuse, until Horner himself whispers to one of them that the rumor spread about his impotency is untrue. Mrs. Pinchwife is forgotten and left behind.
After some time Mrs. Pinchwife becomes melancholy because she wishes to enjoy the gaiety her husband tells her about but refuses to let her see. At last Pinchwife agrees to take her to a play if she will dress as a man. On the way to the play, accompanied by Pinchwife’s sister Alithea, they meet the sister’s fiancé, a simpleton who lets his friend, Harcourt, pay court to Alithea. She, realizing that her fiancé is a fool, tries to treat Harcourt coolly, even though her fiancé...
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