The scandalous trick and the frank language have for much of the play's history kept it off the stage and out of print. Between 1753 and 1924, The Country Wife was considered too outrageous to be performed at all and was replaced on the stage by David Garrick's cleaned-up and bland version The Country Girl, now a forgotten curiosity. The original play is again a stage favourite today, and is also acclaimed by academic critics, who praise its linguistic energy, sharp social satire, and openness to different interpretations.
After the 18-year Puritan stage ban was lifted at the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the theatrical life of London recreated itself quickly and abundantly. During the reign of Charles II (1660–1685), playwrights such as John Dryden, George Etherege, Aphra Behn, and William Wycherley wrote comedies that triumphantly reassert aristocratic dominance and prestige after the years of middle class power during Oliver Cromwell's Commonwealth. Reflecting the atmosphere of the Court, these plays celebrate a lifestyle of sexual intrigue and conquest, especially conquest that served to humiliate the husbands of the London middle classes and to avenge, in the sexual arena, the marginalization and exile suffered by royalists under Cromwell. Charles' personal interest in the stage nourished Restoration drama, and his most favoured courtiers were poets, playwrights, and men of wit, such as John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, Charles Sackville, Earl of Dorset, and William Wycherley. Wycherley had no title or wealth, but had by 1675 already recommended himself by two well-received comedies and had been admitted to the inner circle, sharing the conversation and sometimes the mistresses of Charles, who "was extremely fond of him upon account of his wit". In 1675, at age 35 (at the time the portrait top right was painted), he created a sensation with The Country Wife, greeted as the bawdiest and wittiest play yet seen on the English stage.
Like Charles II, Wycherley had spent some Commonwealth years in France and become interested in French drama, and throughout his short playwriting career (1671–1676) he would borrow plotlines and techniques from French plays, particularly Molière. However, in contrast to the French, English audiences of the 1670s had no enthusiasm for structurally simple comedies or for the neoclassical unities of time, place, and action, but demanded fast pace, lots of complications, and above all "variety." To achieve the much denser texture and more complex plotting that pleased in London, Wycherley would combine several source plays to produce bustling action and clashing moods, ranging from farce through paradox to satire.
A Restoration novelty of which Wycherley took advantage was the readiness of public opinion to accept women on stage, for the first time in British history. Audiences were fascinated to see real women reverse the cross-dressing of the Elizabethan boy actors and appear in tight-fitting male outfits in the popular breeches roles, and to hear them match or even outdo the rake heroes in repartee and double entendre. Charles' choice of actresses as mistresses, notably Nell Gwyn, helped keep the interest fresh, and Wycherley plays on this interest in The Country Wife by having Mr. Pinchwife disguise his wife (the eponymous 'country wife') in a boy's outfit. It has also been suggested that he uses the allure of women on display to emphasize in an almost voyeuristic way Margery's provocative innocence, as well as the immodest knowingness of "town" wives like Lady Fidget.
The Country Wife is more neatly constructed than most Restoration comedies, but is typical of its time and place in having three sources and three plots. The separate plots are interlinked but distinct, each projecting a sharply different mood. They may be schematized as Horner's impotence trick, the married life of Pinchwife and Margery, and the courtship of Harcourt and Alithea.
1. Horner's impotence trick provides the play's organizing principle and the turning-points of the action. The trick, to pretend impotence in order to be allowed where no complete man may go, is (distantly) based on the classic Roman comedy Eunuchus by Terence. The upper-class town rake Harry Horner mounts a campaign for seducing as many respectable ladies as possible and thus cuckolding or "putting horns on" their husbands: Horner's name serves to alert the audience to what is going on. He spreads a false rumour of his own impotence, in order to convince married men that he can safely be allowed to socialize with their wives. The rumour is also meant to assist his mass seduction campaign by helping him identify women who are secretly eager for extramarital sex, because those women will react to a supposedly impotent man with tell-tale horror and disgust. This diagnostic trick, which invariably works perfectly, is one of The Country Wife's many running jokes at the expense of hypocritical upper-class women who are rakes at heart.
Horner's ruse of impotence is a great success, and he has sex with many ladies of virtuous reputation, mostly the wives and daughters of citizens or "cits", i.e. upwardly mobile businessmen and entrepreneurs of the City of London, as opposed to the Town, the aristocratic quarters where Horner and his friends live. Three such ladies appear on stage, usually together: Lady Fidget, her sister-in-law Mrs Dainty Fidget, and her tag-along friend Mrs Squeamish—names that convey both a delicate sensitivity about the jewel of reputation, and a certain fidgety physical unease or tickle—and the dialogue gives an indefinite impression of many more. The play is structured as a farce, driven by Horner's secret and by a succession of near-discoveries of the truth, from which he extricates himself by aplomb and good luck. A final hair-raising threat of exposure comes in the last scene, through the well-meaning frankness of the young country wife Margery Pinchwife. Margery is indignant at the accusations of impotence directed at "poor dear Mr. Horner", which she knows from personal experience to be untrue, and is intent on saying so at the traditional end-of-the-play public gathering of the entire cast. In a final trickster masterpiece, Horner averts the danger, joining forces with his more sophisticated lovers to persuade the jealous Pinchwife to at least pretend to believe Horner impotent and his own wife still innocent. Horner never becomes a reformed character but is assumed to go on reaping the fruits of his planted misinformation, past the last act and beyond.
2. The married life of Pinchwife and Margery is based on Molière's School For Husbands (1661) and School For Wives (1662). Pinchwife is a middle-aged man who has married an ignorant country girl in the hope that she will not know to cuckold him. However, Horner teaches her, and Margery cuts a swath through the complexities of London upper-class marriage and seduction without even noticing them. Restoration comedies often contrast town and country for humorous effect, and this is one example of it. Both Molière in the School For Wives and Wycherley in The Country Wife get a lot of comic business out of the meeting between, on the one hand, innocent but inquisitive young girls and, on the other hand, the sophisticated 17th-century culture of sexual relations which they encounter. The difference, which would later make Molière acceptable and Wycherley atrocious to 19th-century critics and theatre producers, is that Molière's Agnes is naturally pure and virtuous, while Margery is just the opposite: enthusiastic about the virile handsomeness of town gallants, rakes, and especially theatre actors, she keeps Pinchwife in a state of continual horror with her plain-spokenness and her interest in sex. A running joke is the way Pinchwife's pathological jealousy always leads him into supplying Margery with the very type of information he wishes her not to have.
3. The courtship of Harcourt and Alithea is a conventional love story without any direct source. By means of persistence and true love, Horner's friend Harcourt wins the hand of Pinchwife's sister Alithea, who is when the play opens engaged to the foppish Sparkish. The delay mechanism of this story is that the upright Alithea holds fast virtuously to her engagement to Sparkish, even while his stupid and cynical character unfolds to her. It is only after Alithea has been caught in a misleadingly compromising situation with Horner, and Sparkish has doubted her virtue while Harcourt has not, that she finally admits her love for Harcourt.
In another famous scene Lady Fidget's self-styled "virtuous gang" meet up at Horner's lodging to carouse, throw off their public virtue, and behave exactly like male rakes, singing riotous songs and drinking defiant toasts. Finally each of the ladies triumphantly declares that Horner himself is the very lover they have been toasting, and a mayhem of jealousy breaks out as they realize that their friends have also been receiving Horner's favours. But they quickly realize they have no choice but to keep the scandalous secret: "Well then, there's no remedy, sister sharers, let us not fall out, but have a care of our honour" (V.iv.169).
A scene of the Pinchwife plot that combines farce and nightmare is Pinchwife's attempt to force Mrs Pinchwife to write a haughty farewell letter to Horner, using the Freudian threat to "write whore with this penknife in your face" (IV.ii.95). Like all Pinchwife's efforts it misfires, giving Mrs Pinchwife instead an opportunity to send Horner a fan letter.
The Country Wife was first performed in January 1675, by the King's Company, at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. This luxurious playhouse, designed by Christopher Wren and with room for 2000 spectators, had opened only the year before. It was of compact design, retaining in spite of its large seating capacity much of the intimate actor/audience contact of the Elizabethan theater, still with an almost Elizabethan-size forestage or apron stage, on which actors would come forward for maximum audience contact.
The original cast was listed in the first edition of The Country Wife, as was standard practice, and modern scholars have suggested that this information throws light on Wycherley's intentions. Wycherley wrote with the original actors in mind, tailoring the roles to their strengths. Also, since the audience consisted mostly of habitual playgoers, authors and directors could use the associations of an actor's previous repertoire to enrich or undercut a character, effects familiar on television and in the cinema today.
Several of the actors were specialised comedians, notably Joseph Haines who played the false-wit character Sparkish, Alithea's original fiancé. At the outset of his high-profile career as comedian and song-and-dance man, young Haines already had a reputation for eccentricity and dominant stage presence, suggesting that Sparkish is not merely a comic butt for the truewits Horner, Harcourt, and Dorilant to mock, but also a real threat to the romance of Harcourt and Alithea.
Pinchwife was played by the elderly Michael Mohun, who was best known for playing menacing villains, such as Volpone and Iago. Mrs. Pinchwife was Elizabeth Boutell or Bowtel, a young actress who had "a childish look. Her voice was weak, tho' very mellow; she generally acted the young innocent lady whom all the heroes are mad in love with". Boutell's previous recorded roles had in fact all been unmarried as well as innocent girls, and Margery was her first married role. Matching Boutell and Mohun as a couple would emphasize "her youth and innocence against Mohun's age and violence". The other husband to be cuckolded by Horner, Sir Jaspar Fidget, was played by another elderly actor, William Cartwright, best known for comic parts such as Falstaff. This casting suggests that Sir Jaspar was played as a straightforwardly comic part, while Pinchwife would be "alarming as well as funny".
The male leads Horner and Harcourt were played by the contrasted actors Charles Hart and Edward Kynaston (or Kenaston). The forcefully masculine 45-year-old Hart "was celebrated for superman roles, notably the arrogant, bloodthirsty Almanzor in John Dryden's Conquest of Granada", and also for playing rakish comedy heroes with nonchalance and charisma. Many critics credit the personalities and skills of Hart and Nell Gwyn with creating, as much as any playwright did, the famous flirting/bantering Restoration comedy couple. The beautiful androgynous Kynaston, probably in his early thirties, was a different kind of hero. He had started his career in 1660 as the outstanding Restoration female impersonator—"the prettiest woman in the whole house—before real women entered the profession in 1662. (The 2004 movie Stage Beauty is loosely based on Kynaston's career.)
John Harold Wilson argues that the famously virile stage presence of Hart as Horner must be taken into account when interpreting the play. As personified by Hart, Horner will have won women not so much through clever trickery as "the old-fashioned way", by being "dangerously attractive", and it is only fools like Sir Jaspar Fidget who really believe him harmless. Harcourt/Kynaston, although by 1675 a well-regarded and skilful actor of male roles, would clearly have been overshadowed by Horner/Hart. The actresses associated with each hero must also have tended to make the Horner plot more striking on the stage than the true-love plot. Horner's primary mistress Lady Fidget, spokeswoman for "the virtuous gang" of secretly sex-hungry town wives, was played by the dynamic Elizabeth Knepp, who Samuel Pepys declared "the most excellent, mad-humoured thing, and sings the noblest I've ever heard", talents that the famous drinking scene in Horner's lodging seems designed to do justice to. By contrast, the choice of the bit-part actress Elizabeth James as Alithea would have de-emphasized the Harcourt-Alithea plot. Such historical considerations have made modern critics sceptical of Norman Holland's classic 1959 "right way/wrong way" interpretation of the play, which positions the true-love plot as the most important one.
During its long banishment from the stage, The Country Wife continued a shadowy existence in the form of David Garrick's cleaned-up version The Country Girl (1766), where Margery is a virgin and Horner her romantic lover. This play was very popular, going through at least twenty editions, reaching the New York stage in 1794, and surviving in both London and New York into the twentieth century. The few modern critics who have read Garrick's version typically dismiss it as "sentimental and boring, where The Country Wife is astringent and provocative". Wycherley's original is now again a stage classic, with countless professional and amateur performances, an actors' favourite because of the high number of good parts it offers. The movie Shampoo (1975), with Warren Beatty as the Horner character, is a somewhat distant version of The Country Wife after exactly 300 years, reportedly inspired by the Chichester Festival production of 1969.
"The Country Wife" was also restaged as a musical - "Lust". Written by the Heather Brothers, it was first performed at the Queens Theatre in Hornchurch, Essex in 1992. It later transferred to the Theatre Royal Haymarket in London's West End, starring Denis Lawson as Horner. The production & Lawson then moved to the John Houseman Theatre in New York in 1995.
From its creation until the mid-20th century, The Country Wife was subject to both aesthetic praise and moral outrage. Many critics through the centuries have acknowledged its linguistic energy and wit, including even Victorians such as Leigh Hunt, who praised its literary quality in a selection of Restoration plays that he published in 1840 (itself a daring undertaking, for reputedly "obscene" plays that had been long out of print). However, in an influential review of Hunt's edition, Thomas Babington Macaulay swept aside questions of literary merit, claiming with indignation that "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." Margery Pinchwife, regarded in Wycherley's own time as a purely comic character, was denounced by Macaulay as a scarlet woman who threw herself into "a licentious intrigue of the lowest and least sentimental kind".
It was Macaulay, not Hunt, who set the keynote for the 19th century. The play was impossible equally to stage and to discuss, forgotten and obscure.
Academic critics of the first half of the 20th century continued to approach The Country Wife gingerly, with frequent warnings about its "heartlessness", even as they praised its keen social observation. At this time nobody found it funny, and positive criticism tried to rescue it as satire and social criticism rather than as comedy. Macaulay's "licentious" Mrs. Pinchwife becomes in the 20th century a focus for moral concern: to critics such as Bonamy Dobrée, she is a tragic character, destined to have her naiveté cruelly taken advantage of by the "grim, nightmare figure" of Horner.
Both these types of reading have now fallen out of favour; there is little consensus about the meaning of The Country Wife, but its "notorious resistance to interpretation is having an invigorating rather than damping effect on academic interest. The play's ideological dimension has been emphasized recently. It was written by a courtier for a courtly and aristocratic audience, and Douglas Canfield has pointed to an unusual complication for a courtly play. Horner's acts of cuckolding aggression are directed not only at disrupting middle-class families of "the City", in the usual way of the aristocratic Restoration rake, but also at his own, upper, class, the inhabitants of "the Town"—the new and fashionable quarters (the future West End) that had sprung up west of the medieval City walls after the Great Fire of London in 1666. The courtier code proposed by Wycherley is of a sexual game. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has argued in Between Men that the game is played not between men and women, but between men by means of women, who are merely the "conduits" of homosocial desire between men. The hierarchy of wits meant that the wittiest and most virile man would win at the game. Thus Horner, as Canfield puts it, "represents not just class superiority, but that subset of class represented by the Town wits, a privileged minority that ... is the jet set identified with the Town and the Court as the loci of real power in the kingdom." The aggressive attack mounted in the china scene against the class and the generation by which Wycherley was patronized with the expectation that he would defend it (against Sir Jaspar Fidget and Lady Fidget), suggests Canfield, would only let an audience of that class laugh comfortably if Horner were punished by actual impotence in the end, which he is not. "When the play concludes with no poetical justice that makes Horner really impotent", writes Canfield, "leaving him instead potent and still on the make, the audience laughs at its own expense: the women of quality nervously because they have been misogynistically slandered; the men of quality nervously because at some level they recognize that class solidarity is just a pleasing fiction.