January 4 – April 7, 2013

Harry Horner has a plan. To bed as many of London’s finest lasses as possible, Harry spreads the rumor that he is…unable to perform. Readily gaining entrance to their chambers, Harry’s plan is brilliantly discharged. Meanwhile, the charming, naive, beautiful, but ever-so-lusty country wife, Margery Pinchwife, comes to the city to seek her own pleasures. William Wycherley’s rollicking sex comedy is one of the supreme delights of the Restoration. Deemed too dirty for 18th- and 19th-century audiences, The Country Wife will have Blackfriars audiences revelling in the joys of this deliciously filthy farce.

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Stuff that Happens
Stuff that happens in the play
  • Harry Horner plots to gain access to and seduce the ladies of London by spreading a rumor that he is “as bad as an Eunuch.”
  • Sir Jasper Fidget, aware of the rumor of Horner’s impotence, arrives with his wife and sister. Horner’s behavior toward the women convinces Fidget that the rumor is true, and he invites Horner to spend time with his wife “to provide and innocent diversion.”
  • Horner’s friends, Harcourt and Dorilant, know of his “condition” and attempt to cheer him up by inviting him to the theatre.
  • Horner, Harcourt, and Dorilant mock the approaching Mr. Sparkish, who arrives, teases Horner about his impotence, and leaves to have dinner with his fiancée.
  • Jack Pinchwife arrives and Horner immediately recognizes that he as been recently married. Pinchwife claims that he has married a rich (and, according to him, “ugly” and “silly”) country wife so that he does not need to worry about her cuckolding him.
  • Horner reveals that he saw Pinchwife with his bride at the theatre the previous day and that he found her “exceedingly pretty; I was in love with her.” Pinchwife leaves in a huff.
  • Pinchwife has confined his wife, Margery, to their home, but she convinces Alithea (Pinchwife’s sister and Sparkish’s fiancée) to ask him for permission to leave the house.
  • Pinchwife refuses and locks Margery away when Sparkish and Harcourt arrive to meet Alithea.
  • Sparkish allows Harcourt to admire Alithea and to talk privately with her, much to Pinchwife’s consternation.
  • Harcourt insults Sparkish, causing Sparkish to call on Pinchwife to assist him in killing Harcourt. Alithea intervenes, claiming that Sparkish did so to test her virtue. Mollified, Sparkish departs for the theatre with Harcourt and Alithea.
  • Sir Jasper Fidget again invites Horner to visit his wife at their home, an offer which Horner accepts with feigned reluctance.
  • Horner reveals to Lady Fidget that the rumor of his impotence is a ruse to protect the reputations of his high-born lovers.
  • Pinchwife finally agrees to allow Margery out of the house, but only if she is disguised as a boy to thwart and would-be seducers.
  • Harcourt confesses to Horner that he is in love with Alithea and asks Horner to help him steal her from Sparkish. Horner advises Harcourt to use Sparkish’s friendship as his cover to get close to her.
  • Horner sees through Margery’s disguise and uses it to his advantage, removing her from Pinchwife’s supervision.
  • Sham marriages, house arrest, disguises, interrogations, suspicions, and letter swaps ensue.
Dr. Ralph's Brief

1. When was the play first performed?

2. Where was the play first performed?
At the rebuilt Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. The first Theatre Royal (1663) burned down and famed architect Christopher Wren replaced it (1674) with a 2000-seat theatre that was demolished in favor of an even larger fourth (1794), which burned down in 1809 to be replaced in 1812 by the one that is there today (as I write this, showing Shrek, the Musical).

3. Who wrote it?
William Wycherley (1640-1731), who studied in France and, shortly before the Restoration of the monarchy, returned to England with a love of French drama and strong anti-Puritan sentiments to match. Both these dangerous dispositions are on display in The Country Wife and The Plain Dealer, Wycherley’s other big success.

4. How is this playwright like Shakespeare?
Every good playwright shares with Shakespeare a love of language, but some, like Wycherley, also enjoy creating characters who themselves like to play with language. Perhaps more obviously, Wycherley, like Shakespeare, sees sexuality as inextricable from the human.

5. How is this playwright unlike Shakespeare? 
In Wycherley’s play’s, as in most Restoration comedy, lust and greed obscure other features of humanity. This narrowed focus is appropriate to the Restoration when playwrights, influenced by the French theatre, cared about the classical rules of drama that separated comedy and tragedy, rules Shakespeare notoriously ignored.

6. What do scholars think about this play?
They think it one of the best plotted of the Restoration comedies and the one most like Molière (from whom it steals a subplot).

7. Is there any controversy surrounding the work?
Even its title (using the same bawdy pun Hamlet makes when he asks Ophelia, “do you think I meant country matters?”) makes clear the play is a sex comedy; so, it comes as no surprise that the 18th-century reformers used it as exemplar of the evils of the stage. As to the 19th century, here is what essayist Thomas Macaulay had to say: “Wycherley’s indecency is protected against the critics as a skunk is protected against the hunters. It is safe, because it is too filthy to handle and too noisome even to approach.”

8. What characters should I especially look for?
If you are an unsentimental womanizer, Harry Horner (pun intended) is the ultimate avatar.

9. What scene should I especially look for?
The “china scene” (vaguely reminiscent of the assignation scene in A Mad World, My Masters with its offstage “dialogue” and the “prunes” in Measure for Measure) is a masterpiece of sexual innuendo.

10. What is the language like?
Not far (75 years) from the witty language of Shakespeare’s Much Ado or Middleton’s A Trick to Catch the Old One, the language of the play seems closer to our own, mostly for its less infinite variety.