The restoration period, referring to the restoration of Charles the II as the king of England, brought about a change whose mannerism in essence was outrageous and provocative to say the least. The traditional English monarchy was restored from a state of various republican governments, which had been set in place after the beheading of Charles I in 1649. (An Introduction to William Wycherley) The Restoration was characterized by the shift from the ruling of the republican governments, which were stricter than the traditional catholic monarchy. This restoration resulted in numerous political and literary changes, which took advantage of their newfound freedom to shock and enterntain.
Prior to the restoration period the English theater was closed for 18 years. The reason the republican governments closed the theaters in the first place was because many religious and political leaders believed theater was inherently evil. On the other hand, Charles the II loved theater and was enormously lenient in regards to what he allowed to be performed. Most of these plays approved by Charles the II, naturally, did not conform to the more traditional religious morality causing controversial reactions and interpretation of aristocratic London Society.
One of the most influential writers of this period was William Wycherley (1640-1715.) Noted as one of the foremost dramatists of the restoration period, he was master at combining irreverent social satire and complex verbal wit to create comedies of lasting appeal. Wycherley’s candid treatment of moral attitudes and behavior have attracted controversy over the years into present day. The subjects attracting nature are particularly those of sexual nature. During his own time, he was first denounced as a purveyor of moral indecency as his plays were highly suggestive. The play The Country Wife written in 1675 was one of his most provocative plays among his other three Love in a Wood, The Gentleman Dancing Master, and The Plain Dealer. These plays all dealt in their own way with poking fun and casting judgment on the hedonistic cynicism of Aristocratic London society. Whether or not his play’s are satirical or a farce is often debatable as the true intent is lost with the author.
Wycherley’s plays, frequently deemed the most thematically serious works of restoration comedies of manners, were generally construed as clever and amusing but of negligible importance. Literary critic Robert d. Hume says his plays are closer to a farce than a satire because they were “delightfully bawdy and funny… profound it is not and only a prude, a hypocrite, or a stuffy academician would have it otherwise.” (An Introduction to William Wycherley) Although candidly dealing with sexual topics to the point where their bawdiness became nearly legendary, his plays also give off an air of sophisticated urbanity and licentious wit, seemingly digging a bit deeper at the society Wycherley was surrounded by. He blatantly targets hypocrisy and pretense and his most sever condemnation is reserved for those who purport to be what they are not. His plays often conformed to conventions of the restoration comedy of manors with emphasis on sexual intrigue and mistaken identity. Wycherley also utilized traditional restoration stock characters such as the roguish wit; the deceived cuckold; the conceited, ineffectual fop; and the falsely pious hypocrite displaying stereotypes most often seen in the aristocratic London Society.
Besides witty banter and sexual innuendo are themes of individual in conflict with society as shown in the Country Wife as characters struggle for personal and sexual freedom. Mrs. Pinchwide is a great example of this as she is trapped and condemned by her protective husband, wishing only to escape the confines society (her husband) has placed her into as a result of sexual disgrace and jealousy. Mr. Pinchwife is afraid to have his wife cheat because he does not want to be seen as a cuckold. Mrs. Pinchwife craves what she cannot have and is forced to deceive to finally become sexually satisfied. The cheating is taken lightly as it being brought to light would cause more social issues for Pinchwife to leave her as apposed to keeping it quiet and hiding her from society in general. Through the technique of forming witty double entandras humor and irony take a backseat to the recognized relationship presented between dissimilar things expressed in extravagant similes. The drama and comedies were an important part of society at this time as they provided a window into the revolutionary eye of geniuses such as Wycherley who saw society for what it real was; smoke and mirrors.
I think Wycherley’s plays were largely dismissed as morally indecent, drawing more attention to the censorship, so that London’s society would not be too heavily scrutinized and recognized for its faults and hypocrisies. The constant attention drawn to sexually explicit material evident in the play seems to aim to draw attention from the issues presented in the plot where, according to critic Louis Kronenberger, presents “a society almost wholly lacking in either conscience or heart.” This speaks enormously of the aristocratic society who devotes little to discovering and acting upon their true virtue in exchange for acting in terms of social conformity. The characters in The Country Wife base their decisions off how they will be perceived by others, trading both their morality and personal wishes to preserve their image in their social circle. For this reason, the potential didactic nature of the play, which presents many social issues, may be ignored and denied in exchange for scrutiny of the offensive nature.
Although licentious, The Country Wife was not considered widely offensive until the latter part of the eighteenth century, when changing social and sexual mores rendered it unacceptable to the public. David Garrick produced an adaptation called the country girl, a considerably tamer version that deleted any mention of adultery, which was the version widely performed into the 19th century. Ridding the play of the sexual implications seems, though, to render Wycherley’s apparent intention of scandal evident in the original version, the element making it so celebrated. The sexual implications are important to the play as it helps speak of the character of these societal stereotypes and their aversion to socially taboo topics and action. Removing these elements almost reiterates Wycherley’s ridicule of society as they are so worried about image, rather than intent.
“An Introduction to William Wycherley.” Literature Criticism from 1400 to 1800 8 (1993): 339-42. Web.