Quintessential English Restoration sex comedy
by William Wycherley (1675)
adapted by David Nicholson ©
[7 men; 5 women]
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Warning: The Country Wife is almost entirely concerned with sex. Sex and wit. Well, sex, wit and scathing social satire. I blame the Puritans.
With the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the near-immediate removal of two decades of repressive puritanical regulation had a predictable result – the English theatre became more sensual that it had ever been or would be again for over two centuries. Enter The Country Wife by William Wycherley (1640-1716).
Three main plot threads weave in and out of Wycherley’s The Country Wife. The play starts with Horner, a London rake and wit, discussing the story he has asked Quack (his doctor, of course), to spread around the town: that a Paris strumpet has infected and rendered him impotent. This strategy meets with success by lulling the suspicions of such husbands as Sir Jaspar Fidget and lets Horner know, by their reactions, which society wife is interested in a man only for his sexual abilities. Lady Fidget and her friend Mrs. Squeamish fall into that category. The second plot thread involves a husband who has not heard Horner’s rumour: Pinchwife does what he can to keep Horner away from his innocent (till now) country wife Margery. The final plot element involves Horner’s friend Harcourt who falls in love with Pinchwife’s sister Alithea, in spite of the fact she is engaged to be married to witless fop Sparkish. A third “wit”, Dorilant, and Alithea’s maid Lucy round out the cast.
The Country Wife remained hugely popular for years after its 1675 debut, until prudery once again gained the upper hand. It was not until the Jazz Age of the 1920s and 1930s that The Country Wife started being played once more in London and New York.
. . . differs from the original in two respects: it’s shorter and it’s easier to understand. In its original form, The Country Wife runs three hours or more; I have shortened it to run slightly less than two. All of the plot elements have been retained and almost all the named characters. Reductions were brought about mainly through eliminating repetition. I have also changed archaic language and grammar. Other 17th century phrasings have been retained but made clearer to a modern audience. It has not been my intention, however (and I hope it is not the result) to “modernize” Wycherley’s language. The Country Wife continues to be and sound like a Restoration comedy.
In the words of Lady Fidget: “It’s a wicked censorious world, Mr. Horner…”
[image: Mrs. Pinchwife, by Aubrey Beardsley, 1896]
Excerpt from ACT I
Lady Fidget (to Horner) But, poor gentleman, can you truly be so generous as, for the sake of conversation with us women of honour, to cause yourself to be thought of as not a man at all? All the while being as perfectly, perfectly, the same man as before your stay in France, sir . . . as perfectly, perfectly, sir.
Horner As perfectly, perfectly, madam. But don’t trust my bare word. I have, with the report I caused to be known around the town, given you security to save you harmless.
Lady Fidget But if upon any future falling out, you yourself should betray that trust . . . I mean, if I may speak bluntly – you might tell, dear sir.
Horner Who would believe me? The reputation of impotence is as rarely recovered from as that of cowardice, dear madam.
Lady Fidget Then, as one may say, you may do your worst, dear, dear, sir.
Sir Jaspar Fidget Are you reconciled, your Ladyship? I must be gone to Whitehall.
Lady Fidget I am, indeed, Sir Jaspar – Mr Horner is a thousand, thousand times a better man than I had thought him. Yes, Mrs. Squeamish, not long ago, as you know, I had thought the very name of Horner an obscenity, and would as soon have lain with him as uttered it.
Mrs. Squeamish And now . . .?
Sir Jaspar Fidget Well, well . . . I know your ladyship’s virtue and I know Mr. Horner’s . . . in short, I know what all the town knows . . . heh, he, he. Therefore now – go, go, to your pleasure together, which is your business, while I go to my business, which is my pleasure.
Lady Fidget Come, dear gallant.
Horner My dearest madam. . . .
Sir Jaspar Fidget (smiling) Just as I’d have it. (exits)
Lady Fidget And as I’d have it, too. (all exit)