Critical Overview

William Wycherley’s The Country Wife was a great box office success when it first premiered in London in 1675. Thereafter, the play was praised by important Restoration critics, particularly John Dryden, who was also the literary giant of his day. However, toward the end of the century—in 1696—a clergyman named Jeremy Collier published a scathing criticism of Restoration comedies, declaring them to be obscene, lewd, and morally offensive. He was especially perturbed by Restoration comedy’s cavalier and callous attitude toward marriage. The Country Wife was singled out as a prime example.

Collier’s attack was decisive. It changed English comedies from being robust and witty, if often salacious and lewd, to morally sentimental. All through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Collierian attitude dominated, though during the Victorian era (the last couple of decades of the nineteenth century), there was some recognition of Wycherley’s brilliant wit.

Criticism of Restoration comedy began to turn favorable again from about the 1920s when literary figures like T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound began to take a fresh interest in Restoration poetry and prose style. Concurrently, with the hold of religion slackening in public life, Restoration comedy once again began to be appreciated by American and British academia. Professors such as Mark Van Doren and James L. Clifford wrote tirelessly praising Restoration and early-eighteenth-century literature. Wycherley was among the primary beneficiaries.

From the 1950s onward, Wycherley and the rest of the Restoration playwrights were definitely “in” with English and American audiences and critics. The Country Wife, banished from the stage since the nineteenth century, enjoyed critical approval and revivals in both countries. Scholars like Norman Holland wrote about the middle road in morality taken by The...

(The entire section is 646 words.)