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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VIII. The Age of Dryden.

V. The Restoration Drama

§ 23. Wycherley

William Wycherley was born in 1640 of a substantial Shropshire family. He was educated, at first, in France, where he frequented good society; but, with the coming back of the king, entered at Queen’s college, Oxford, which, however, he left without a degree. Later, at the Inner Temple, Wycherley led the gay and frivolous life of a man about town and made those observations of the conversation and manners of his time that he, later, reproduced successfully in his plays. When a very old man, Wycherley told Pope that he had written his first comedy, Love in a Wood, when he was but nineteen, that is, in 1659–60. This seems an error, as all the evidence points to the first performance of this play in 1671, and to its inspiration in the earlier work of Etherege and Sedley. Indeed, the dramatic activity of Wycherley was comprised within a period of less than five years, as The Plain Dealer, the fourth and last of his comedies, was on the stage not later than the spring of 1674. It was the success of Love in a Wood, added to a handsome person, that brought Wycherley to the notice and favour of the king’s mistress, the duchess of Cleveland. To her, he dedicated his comedy on its publication, and, by her, he was drawn into the shameless circle which she ruled. But neither wealth nor honours accrued to Wycherley from this intimacy. And, some years later, meeting lady Drogheda, a young widow of fortune, Wycherley married her, losing thereby the favour of the king and a post of tutor to one of the royal children. His wife proved imperious, jealous and ill-tempered and, when she died, years later, left the unfortunate poet very little besides an expensive lawsuit. It was not until James had come to the throne that the author of The Plain Dealer was remembered, his debts paid and a pension of £200 a year settled upon him. Wycherley outlived all the companions of his youth and middle age, dying in December, 1715. His strange literary friendship with Pope, who was nearly fifty years his junior, and his later halting and abortive verses, may be passed by here. It is not to be denied that Wycherley was much esteemed by his friends, among whom, it must be remembered, were Dryden, Pope and Dennis. The old roué was credited with fairness of spirit and an outspoken contempt of deceit, qualities of his own “plain dealer,” as well as with a “tenderness of temper” and a tendency to do justice to others for which we should not be altogether disposed to look in his own Manly.

Love in a Wood, or St. James’s Park, Wycherley’s earliest venture in comedy, was suggested in subject, as in title, by the recent success of Sedley’s Mulberry Garden which it parallels in its scenes in the park, as The Mulberry Garden parallels Etherege’s earlier The Comical Revenge. To draw up serious indictments of plagiarism in cases such as these is a sheer waste of ingenuity. The novelty of a locality admirably fitted for the masquing and intrigue that delighted the age was a sufficient inspiration for all three comedies. The construction of Love in a Wood is somewhat better than that of Etherege’s plays; it is, however, not nearly so well written as any one of them, although the dialogue is direct, witty and idiomatic and, doubtless, closer to the colloquial speech of the day than Etherege’s brilliant repartees. The characters, while presenting nothing beyond the usual “young gentlemen of the town,” the coxcomb, the usurer, the matchmaker, the affected widow, are well defined and drawn with strokes as vigorous and, at times, as coarse as are their actions and their language. The Gentleman Dancing-master was first staged towards the close of the year 1671, and we are surprised to hear that “it was not much liked, and was acted only six times.” This really diverting comedy presents a marked improvement in the way of simplicity and unity on Wycherley’s previous effort. The Frenchified gull, the Englishman turned Spaniard, and the device of a foolish suitor employed by a clever maiden to further her flirtation with his rival—all are time honoured properties of the earlier stage. The incident, too, on which the whole plot turns, that of a lover forced, under fear of discovery, to pretend himself a dancing-master, is borrowed from Calderon’s comedy, El Maestro de Danzar, which, in turn, goes back to Lope de Vega. But there remains much that is inventive and original in the English comedy, and the dialogue has developed in wit, and especially in a certain quality of daring and suggestive innuendo and double meaning of which this dramatist is peculiarly master.

The Country Wife was, doubtless, on the stage before the end of the year 1673. It is one of the coarsest plays in the English language, nor can it be said that this quality is referable to either of the comedies of Molière, L’École des Femmes and L’École des Maris, which furnished hints to the English playwright. And yet, despite the idea on which the whole action turns, The Country Wife is not only skilfully planned and exceedingly well written, but it is not devoid of the gravity of true satire. Indeed, it is in this play, the dramatis personae of which include not a single truly virtuous personage, that we perceive Wycherley to have passed beyond the careless art of Etherege, which contents itself with merely picturing the age in its wantonness and folly, and to have entered the more sombre regions of satire, in which these things are referred for contrast and reprobation (even if unconsciously) to the normal standards of men of decent life.