William Wycherley`s “The Country Wife” is a typical Restoration comedy; its main agenda is sex and how to find it. Not only sex, but STD`s, bed-swopping, adultery and whoring. The ancient critic William Archer once described it as “the most bestial play in all literature”. This did not frighten Laurence Boswell (director), his production of Wycherley`s debauched farce animated and enhanced the rife innuendo.
The tale itself is not unusual in its interlacing of complicated plots and sub-plots. Horner (Patrick Robinson), notorious libertine, begins rumours that he has returned from France a eunuch. As the story spreads he is allowed unreserved access to all the wives of `honour` in London with the full consent of their unknowing husbands. Meanwhile the old fornicator Pinchwife ( Karl Johnson) has acquired a country wife (Sara Crowe) and unable to suppress his jealousy, he endeavours to keep her away from fashionable society. He does not have such control over his sister, Alithea (Jaye Griffiths), who intents to slight her genuine admirer and marry the foolish `wit`, Sparkish. Despite the variety of under-currents, Horner himself is at the centre of disruption and will stop at nothing in his devious quest for women, particularly the country wife.Order now
Though initially difficult to follow, the cast literally grabbed the play round the throat and mastered it uniquely. Set in modern London with fabulously outrageous costumes and stage, Boswell brought the hilarity of the Restoration to the context of the present day. The set, white and mobile, presented a canvas for the brightly attired actors and made the performance practically addictive. It sped along with such swiftness that it didn`t betray its length, a rather sore three hours. The characters themselves were a gaggle of camp, hammed up imbeciles, the portrayal of which created the hilarity of the performance. Sparkish (Crispin Redman), in particular, tickled the audience with his foppish stupidity and tin tin hairstyle. The big names Robinson and Crowe tackled the comedy effortlessly, transporting the sexual innuendo across the centuries as if the Restoration had been last week.
“The Country Wife” is a shriek of genius, though much of its success is probably due to the quality of the actors appearing in it. The play only runs in Sheffield until Saturday 15th of November, but catch it sweeping the pox far and wide on a tour of Britain. Top tip: it`s probably best to leave Gran at home. Deception and disguise, classic elements of comedy, are found in both William Wycherly’s The Country Wife and Richard Steele’s The Conscious Lovers. These devices rely on gaps of knowledge between different characters, or between characters and the audience, of a person’s true identity, but the true natures of the two plays’ characters are very different.
The Country Wife is a typical stage comedy; most of the characters, including the protagonist, are humorous, flawed people who wish to hide their faults from others. The Conscious Lovers is a sentimental comedy, in which, according to Oliver Goldsmith, “the virtues of private life are exhibited, rather than the vices exposed” (491). The good guys have no vices either to expose or hide; they are without flaw or stain, exemplars of virtue for the audience, and distance themselves from deception, all of which aims to have the right couples marry. Each play treats disguise in a manner consistent with the moral atmosphere; in The Country Wife, it is accepted as yet another human foible, whereas The Conscious Lovers seeks to eliminate and condemn it.
Deception is prevalent in The Country Wife. Lady Fidget, Dainty Fidget, and Mrs. Squeamish value their reputations as respectable women, but only because reputation keeps them from being suspected. While they sleep with Horner, they maintain their appearances as virtuous women to their husbands and the rest of the world. In public, they act as their names would imply, but in private they carouse with Horner and even use “honor” as a euphemism for “sex.” They trick even the audience; the first time we see these women, they are sniffish and refined, saying things like, “No, no, no! Foh, foh, foh!” (1.1, 7) in the face of incivility. Only a few scenes later do we find them conceding that “the crime ’s the less when not known” (2.1, 25). As the play progresses, they seem ever fouler, not caring that Horner is carrying on with all three of them at once. These pretenders to honor turn out to be the most vulgar characters in the play.
Their opposite in pretense, oddly enough, is Horner, who, in order to have access to women without suspicion, starts a rumor that he is a eunuch. He endures the mockery of Sir Jasper Fidget, but receives the praise and favors of Lady Fidget for his willingness to, “suffer self the greatest shame that could fall upon a man, that none might fall upon us” (2.1, 28) which is true, even if it makes him appear more selfless than he is. Horner even risks his life later on to protect Mrs. Pinchwife, who loves him, from the wrath of her husband; he “must save mistress…come what will on’t” (5.4, 80). Horner not only deceives husbands in appearing impotent, but is in some respects morally ambiguous, a more decent person than he first seems to us.
Horner and his mistresses conceal themselves throughout the play, but other characters wear literal disguises. Mr. Pinchwife, for example, makes his wife sit with the prostitutes in the theatre, so that nobody will think her married to him, and that is precisely when Horner first sees her. Pinchwife next has Margery dress as a man when she goes out, to keep men from seducing her, but Horner sees through the disguise at once and uses it as an opportunity to kiss her without her husband’s being able to protest. This pretense soon leads to another, in which Pinchwife leads his wife, whom he takes to be his sister, to an assignation with Horner. All of Margery Pinchwife’s disguises bring her closer to an affair, and the audience cannot help but cheer her on and smile each time the tyrannical Mr. Pinchwife draws her closer to Horner.
Not all such tricks lead to illicit affairs. Harcourt, hoping to wed Alithea, dresses up as a priest in order to marry her to Sparkish, her fianc. He speaks to Alithea in ostensibly religious but obviously amorous addresses, such as “With all my soul, divine, heavenly creature, when you please” (4.1, 48) and in departure from an ancient convention of stage disguise, she sees through the costume but cannot persuade Sparkish that Harcourt is the priest. Sparkish’s obtuseness helps Alithea later, when he tells her he married her for money. The upright Alithea is shocked at his pretense, and the marriage’s invalidity allows her to wed Harcourt. The deception leads to a happy ending, but although we know Sparkish to be cowardly and stupid, we could not be sure until now that he did not love Alithea. Harcourt’s trick works because he is in a comedy, not because he knew (although he says so to Alithea) that he is saving her from a loveless marriage.