Love in a Wood: Or, St. James’s Park, pr. 1671
The Gentleman Dancing-Master, pr. 1672 (adaptation of Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s play El maestro de danzar)
The Country Wife, pr., pb. 1675
The Plain-Dealer, pr. 1676
Complete Plays, pb. 1967
Miscellany Poems: As Satyrs, Epistles, Love-Verses, Songs, Sonnets, Etc., 1704
William Wycherley (WIHCH-ur-lee) was born of an old family near Shrewsbury, Shropshire, probably in 1641. When he was about fifteen years of age, he was sent to France, where he frequented refined circles, notably the salon of the duchess de Montausier. Also while in France, Wycherley became a Catholic. Returning to England in 1660, just prior to the Restoration of King Charles II to the throne, he spent a short time at Queen’s College, Oxford, from which he went to the Inner Temple in London. In London he soon found a place in the pleasure-loving society of the town, rejoicing after eighteen years of enforced Puritan virtue, and he gravitated toward the theater, the most notable social entertainment of the day.
In 1671 his first play, Love in a Wood, gained him the intimacy of one of the king’s mistresses, the duchess of Cleveland, through whose influence he secured in 1672 a commission in a foot regiment. His acquaintance with the duchess brought him into favor with the king, which favor, however, he lost in 1679 due to a brief and unfortunate marriage to the countess of Drogheda. The marriage led to Wycherley’s banishment from the court and temporary retirement from the theater. He shortly found himself in debt and, consequently, in Fleet Prison. He was released in 1686 by the proceeds of a benefit performance of his last play, The Plain-Dealer.
After 1704 he formed a friendship with young Alexander Pope, who revised many of Wycherley’s later verses. Eleven days before his death, Wycherley married a young woman named Elizabeth Jackson–for the purpose, it is said, of keeping a nephew he despised from receiving any inheritance.
Wycherley, with four plays to his credit, stands next after Sir George Etherege, with three plays, as the innovator of modern English comedy. Etherege transcribed life, but he lacked philosophy; life was to him a frivolous game, and to become emotionally engrossed in it was perhaps slightly vulgar. Wycherley, on the other hand, while he partook of Etherege’s cynicism, felt not aloof amusement but more than a little resentment. There is bitterness, even malice, in Wycherley’s satire.
In typical Restoration fashion, to Wycherley the greatest sin is foolishness. For instance, in Love in a Wood, Alderman Gripe, a hypocritical Puritan, ultimately marries a wench; Dapperwit, a fop, gets Gripe’s daughter for his wife but does not get her fortune, which he was really after. Wycherley’s third play, The Country Wife, is an extremely realistic picture of cuckold-gulling, the great aristocratic pastime of the day. Horner, recently returned from France, pretends impotence in order better to practice his formidable art of despoiling chastity. His chief success is to win the favor of Margery, the country wife of the superannuated sensualist, Pinchwife. Without subtlety, but certainly with power, Wycherley makes his spectators partisans in condemning selfishness, pretentiousness, and hypocrisy.
The Country Wife is nowadays considered Wycherley’s best play, but in his own day The Plain-Dealer was considered his finest achievement; it is still more commonly included in anthologies. The same theme of exposing pretension and hypocrisy is present in this play as in The Country Wife. Manly, the plain dealer, has been robbed and wronged by his mistress, Olivia, and his closest friend, Vernish. Wycherley’s attack on selfishness and treachery in the persons of Vernish and Olivia is open and savage. Indeed, the play is not at all typical of the Restoration, being hardly funny, hardly even amusing.