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.