The Country Wife by William Wycherley (1675)

“It is a good representation of the age in which that Comedy was written, at which time love and wenching were the business of life, and the gallant manner of pursuing women was the best recommendation at Court.”
(Richard Steele commenting on a revival of The Country Wife in 1709)

Coming fresh from reading George Etherege’s The Man of Mode, The Country Wife immediately struck me as more wordy and less funny. I liked Dorimant and Medley in The Man of Mode, they had quick, funny repartee.  Horner, the lead character in The Country Wife, and his two aristocratic sidekicks, Harcourt and Dorilant, don’t have dialogue so much as speeches which try to outdo each other in their studied cynicism, which I found rather wearing:

HARCOURT: Mistresses are like books. If you pore upon them too much, they doze you, and make you unfit for company; but if used discreetly, you are the fitter for conversation by ’em.
DORILANT: A mistress should be like a little country retreat near the town; not to dwell in constantly, but only for a night and away, to taste the town the better when a man returns.

At moments like this the play feels almost like sitting through a corporate presentation where successive members of the Board line up to bombard you with repetitive endorsements of the company’s achievements, except in this case each character is trying to outdo the previous one’s cynicism about women or marriage.

Maybe each actor took it in turns to make his cynical speech, did a little bow to indicate when it ended then waited for the audience to applaud his breath-taking cynicism, before the next actor stepped forward to cap it.

HARCOURT: Most men are the contraries to that they would seem. Your bully, you see, is a coward with a long sword; the little humbly-fawning physician, with his ebony cane, is he that destroys men.
DORILANT: The usurer, a poor rogue, possessed of mouldy bonds and mortgages; and we they call spendthrifts, are only wealthy, who lay out his money upon daily new purchases of pleasure.
HORNER: Ay, your arrantest cheat is your trustee or executor; your jealous man, the greatest cuckold; your churchman the greatest atheist; and your noisy pert rogue of a wit, the greatest fop, dullest ass, and worst company.

Pause, applause.

The plot

Brief plot summary

Harry Horner pretends to be impotent so as to sleep with more women. His friends Harcourt and Dorilant ridicule the idiotic fop, Sparkish, and Harcourt falls in love with Sparkish‘s intelligent and honourable fiancée, Alithea. Meanwhile, quick-tempered, miserly Pinchwife has married a simple country woman and brings her up to London where he hopes to keep her away from all corrupting influences by locking her up in her bedroom whenever he goes out. But nonetheless she quickly catches the corrupt manners of the times, and also falls in love with Horner.

More detailed plot summary

Three plotlines are entwined. Libertine Harry Horner has paid a doctor to declare he’s had an operation which has made him impotent, a eunuch, and to publicise the fact. When respectable women visit he abuses them in a misanthropic way, indicating he is past ‘the chase’.

And so he uses the cover of impotence to chat up aristocratic women, well, one aristocratic woman, Lady Fidget, whose husband – Sir Jasper Fidget – is cheerfully convinced Horner presents no threat. Horner progresses from this first conquest, by steady steps, to being admitted into the personal chambers and changing rooms of a number of posh women. In Act 4 Sir Jasper even encourages his wife to go into a locked room with Horner – from which they emerge laden with double entendres about him taking her from behind – and thinks none the worse of it. Horner‘s doctor looks onto this scene from a hiding place in disbelief.

Horner has a gang of two libertine friends, Frank Harcourt and Dick Dorilant. They enjoy mocking a fourth man, a would-be libertine who is incredibly dim and slow, Sparkish. Sparkish is scheduled to marry his lady love, Alithea, the next day, but Harcourt falls in love with her and proceeds to woo her in a series of different contexts and scenes.

The running gag is that Sparkish is so convinced that his friends (Horner, Harcourt and Dorilant) love and respect him as ‘one of them’ that he lets Harcourt say all kinds of things to Alithea right in front of him, convinced it is all just harmless rakeish joshing – a level of idiocy which convinces Alithea that Sparkish is too stupid to marry.

In Act 3 Harcourt dresses up as a chaplain to perform the marriage of Alithea and Sparkish during which he plans to steal Alithea away. Alithea spots the deception but dim Sparkish believes Harcourt‘s absurd story that he is his own twin brother.

The third plotline concerns another semi-rake, Pinchwife (who is Sparkish‘s brother) who has been away to the country and there married a wonderfully beautiful wife – Margery – who is utterly ignorant of the cynical worldly ways of the big city. Pinchwife brings Margery up to London but makes a whole series of classic errors, for example introducing her to Horner, Harcourt and Dorilant, letting her go to the theatre and so on, so that she slowly catches on to Big City ways and, by Act 4, has fallen in love with Horner who saw her at the theatre (despite Pinchwife‘s best efforts to keep her hid, in fact despite the numerous times he locks her into her bedroom whenever he goes out).

In Act 5 there is quite a funny scene where three aristocratic ladies ask Horner to make up a four for cards, and proceed to reveal their feminine secrets, before it finally emerges that Horner is sleeping with all three of them! They vow to form a sisterhood to keep it secret, but then Mrs Pinchwife arrives and threatens to reveal everything.

At which point Sir Jasper arrives and there is a mini crisis. For the first time, Jasper dimly begins to suspect that Horner has been faking impotence all this time – before Alithea and Harcourt and Sparkish arrive and convince him that, yes, Horner really is incapable of love.

Eventually everything is sorted out. With the help of the doctor, Horner maintains his reputation for impotence – and his three noble lovers. Sparkish realises he has been done out of Alithea who, realising he is an imbecile, has married Harcourt. And Mrs Pinchwife is reluctantly persuaded to abandon her schoolgirl crush on Horner, go back to Pinchwife and both of them go and rusticate in the country.

That’s the end of the plot which is signalled by the arrival of the maskers and singing and dancing.

Abuse

There are some fine comic moments – the scenes where:

  • Harcourt woos Alithea right in front of Sparkish who insists it’s all just harmless joshing is so preposterous, it’s funny
  • So convinced is he of Horner’s impotence, that Lord Jasper virtually forces his wife to go into a locked chamber with Horner to ostensibly discuss ‘china’. It becomes clear from the context that they have made this not only an ad hoc code word for sex, but, apparently, for semen, for the ‘load’ which a woman receives during sex. They emerge from the locked room to find another of Horner’s mistresses has just arrived who, when she hears what has been going on, also demands to be taken into the locked room to discuss ‘china’, while Horner humorously pleads that he has used up his current supply but will be full again by the evening. I can’t see any way this refers to anything other than his semen, and this explains why the ‘china’ scene became the most notorious of any restoration comedy, and was seized on by religious critics of these plays as the ultimate in sordid smut.
  • It is a broad comic revelation moment when the three women playing cards – Lady Fidget, Mrs Fidget and Mrs Squeamish – all realise Horner has been sleeping with them. Even funnier when they go on, in a sisterly way, to say ‘Oh well, such is life, but we’d better make  pact to hide it from the world’. At moments like this you realise the plays revel in upturning all ‘moral standards’ about sex, and showing people as hypocrites who are only interested in keeping up appearances.

These are some of the more striking, extreme and funny situations. But nonetheless, I still felt the overall style was very wordy – that Wycherley’s characters made short speeches at each other rather than engaging in dialogue.

And, apart from feeling lectured and harangued throughout, I also felt the text sometimes descended into sheer abuse.

Bullying For a start when the three caballeros, Horner, Harcourt and Dorilant gang up on the idiot fop, Sparkish, it really does feel like ganging up. It reminds me of bullying at school. They insult him to his face, at length, and Harcourt makes a joke of making love (i.e. chatting up) Sparkish’s wife, Alithea, right in front of him, but which poor Sparkish insists is just ordinary banter between such such gallants, such beaux as him and his best friends – an attitude Alithea justly describes as ‘invincible stupidity’.

But my point is, the audience is encouraged to laugh at Sparkish’s stupidity and gullibility as much as the characters on stage. I found all the scenes with Sparkish in, too close to bullying and/or taking the mickey out of a rather slow person to be truly funny.

Woman-hating Loath though I am to admit it, this play began to make me see the point of the feminist critics who talk about the ‘misogyny’ of Restoration culture. You can argue a lot against it – that the characters’ attitude is often one of general misanthropy, that the women make as sweeping generalisations and criticism of men (‘Men in love be fools’) as the men do of women, that everyone takes the mickey out of the older generation (‘grave Matrons and old rigid Husbands’), of husbands (100% of husbands exist to be cuckolded and ridiculed) and wives (exist to be seduced), of their servants (exist to be insulted). Everyone despises and ridicules the country, and so on.

Nonetheless, by half-way through this play I began to feel a bit sick of the sweeping, insulting generalisations the men are continually making about women.

  • HORNER: Well, a Pox on love and wenching. Women serve but to keep a Man from better Company.
  • PINCHWIFE: Well, there is no being too hard for Women at their own weapon, lying,
  • HORNER: Indeed, Madam, the time was I only hated virtuous Women, but now I hate the other too.
  • HORNER: Ay, Women are as apt to tell before the intrigue as Men after it, and so show themselves the vainer Sex.
  • PINCHWIFE: Why should Women have more invention in love than men? It can only be because they have more desires, more soliciting passions, more lust, and more of the Devil.
  • PINCHWIFE: Come let me lock you up in your chamber till I come back. And be sure you come not within three strides of the window when I am gone. (Exit Mrs. Pinchwife. Pinchwife locks the door.) If we do not cheat women, they’ll cheat us.
  • PINCHWIFE: Our sisters and daughters, like usurers’ money, are safest when put out; but our wives, like their writings, never safe, but in our closets under lock and key.

Cutting and pasting them out like this does bring out the fact that the two most misogynist characters are singled out for that quality i.e. it is not universal across all the male characters. That Horner makes many speeches belittling women in his disguise as a eunuch, and Pinchwife is intended to be an extreme character, a miserly, paranoid fool (a ‘stingy country coxcomb’).

Whereas other characters, such as jovial Sir Jasper or affable Harcourt, have much more balanced and reasonable opinions about women, and quite a few of the female characters give as good as they get.

  • SQUEAMISH: That Men of parts should take up with and spend fortunes in keeping little Playhouse Creatures, foh!
  • LADY FIDGET: All Men of honour desire to come to the test. But indeed, generally you Men report such things of yourselves, one does not know how or whom to believe.

Still. I found the sustained atmosphere of women-denigrating negative and unpleasant.

SPARKISH: Come, she and you must go dine with me. Dinner’s ready, come. But where’s my Wife? Where is she?
PINCHWIFE: Making you a Cuckold, ’tis that they all do as soon as they can.

Threats Once or twice characters descend from insults into blunt threats of violence. These may come off onstage, they may have a kind of wild humour to them when acted – but reading them cold just felt horrible.

PINCHWIFE to his wife: Write as I bid you, or I will write “Whore” with this knife in your Face… I will stab out those eyes that cause my mischief. (Holds up the knife)

Now, Pinchwife is intended to be an angry, paranoid, foolish character in a play which is itself made out of exaggerations and stereotypes. Pinchwife’s ill-tempered threats to draw his sword at the drop of a hat, against men or women or anyone who asperses his honour are a conscious comic motif. But still…

Much more than in the Behn or the Etherege plays, I felt the characters were like robots going through cleverly constructed motions, like pieces of Swiss clockwork. Each scene is cleverly constructed, but the characters in it felt as if they had little or nothing to do with robots of the same name appearing in other scenes. There is little in the way of character no psychological depth, nothing resembling character development. Each avatar is more like a bundle of mechanical responses to mechanically assembled and highly contrived situations.

I vaguely thought I liked Restoration comedy till I came to reread these plays and realised how dry, how mechanical and contrived, how regularly unpleasant, and above all what very hard work they are to read.


Related links

Other Restoration plays

Reviews of other plays

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: