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 does, against society. Fidelia is true to Manly, even though he mistreats her when she is disguised as a man. She is a stock theatrical figure, quite wooden and lacking in human responses, except when Vernish threatens to rape her. A more convincing character is Freeman, a “complier with the age,” who is nevertheless a friend to Manly, outspoken but not candid to the extent of injuring his own fortunes or humiliating fools. Although he cheats the Widow Blackacre out of three hundred pounds a year, he shows her some slight generosity when he has power over her in settling for money instead of marriage. For a widow with property, as she says, “Matrimony . . . is worse than excommunication, in depriving her of the benefit of the laws.” Freeman is not perfect, as Manly wishes to be, and prefers to live with people, despite their faults, rather than condemn them as rascals.
The chief model for tempered wit in the play is Eliza,...
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a minor character so far as the action is concerned yet always an example of good judgment. Eliza is cozened neither by Olivia’s fine speeches nor by her actions: She judges clearly, with wit, honesty, and amused detachment. A good test of her mettle is her conversation with Olivia concerningThe Country Wife (1675), a cuckolding comedy and Wycherley’s third and most vigorous play. To Olivia, the play is a “hideous obscenity,” although she remembers perfectly its ribald scenes. To Eliza, however, the play is not obscene but amusing; with admirable tact, she says that she can “think of a goat, a bull, or satyr, without any hurt.” In another scene of the play, she expresses her contempt for the ill-tempered conventions of the age: “railing now is so common, that ’tis no more malice, but the fashion”; Eliza’s integrity is secure, so she responds to life naturally and rejects the artificial fashions that mark the failure of wit.
Some characters of the play lack wit and are satirized as fools, coxcombs, and mean-spirited materialists. The “petulant” Widow Blackacre belongs to the last group. She is by no means a fool, but because her energy is expended in litigation she is an object of censure. The subplot involving the widow, Freeman, and Major Oldfox, an old fop who imagines himself a poet, is coarse but not offensive. With sharp realism, Wycherley satirizes the creatures of the law courts, schemers, and cheats. Yet his satire cuts more at the form than the substance of their corruption. Similarly, the author reduces to a single facile dimension the coxcombs who surround Olivia. Novel, as his name suggests, pretends to be a wit by copying the latest fashions of decorum, but he lacks originality. Lord Plausible, a “ceremonious,” flattering coxcomb, employs the old-fashioned courtesies of the previous age; he, too, is unoriginal. As for Jerry, the widow’s son, and with the sailors from Manly’s ship and assorted minor characters, they are all blockheads too simple even to imitate the manners of their betters or to understand the spirit of wit.
Manly understands most of the conventions governing true wit, although he exaggerates railing as necessary for plain dealing. Yet the coxcomb Novel disproves the need for railing when he says, “railing is satire, you know; and roaring and making a noise, humor.” Novel is wrong; so is Manly, whose misanthropy drives him to excess. Unlike Novel, Manly is, however, capable of reformation, and Wycherley’s point is precisely that the imperfect hero may improve himself by learning the truth about his nature. From Fidelia, Manly learns that not all women are treacherous; from Freeman, he learns to be tolerant of the imperfections of others; from his own experiences, he learns the most valuable lessons—that revenge is mean-spirited and that true wit must come from true judgment. By the end of the play, having learned both wit and judgment, Manly is able to satirize his previous folly: “I will believe there are now in the world/ Good-natured friends, who are not prostitutes,/ And handsome women worth to be friends.”