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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

§ 24. The Plain Dealer

But, not until we reach The Plain Dealer, Wycherley’s last and best comedy, do we recognise that this savage blasphemer in the halls of beauty and of art is, after all, at heart a moralist, indignantly flagellating vice as well as gloating over her deformities. The Plain Dealer was first acted, with acclamation and success, in 1674, and printed three years later. While certain scenes of it were suggested by Molière’s famous Le Misanthrope, Wycherley’s masterpiece cannot but be regarded as an admirably bold, effective and original piece of dramatic satire. Here, the satirist is no less plain-spoken than in The Country Wife, but, in the faithful Fidelia (perilous reincarnation of the Viola of a cleaner age), in the clear-sighted running commentary of Eliza and in the integrity of Freeman, the author has set before us his own rough but honest standard of life and conduct, by means of which we may judge the justice and effect of his satiric strokes. Manly, “the plain dealer,” is a brute; but it is the wickedness and hypocrisy of the age that has made him such. An infatuation for straightforward conduct and plain dealing has made him blind to the real qualities of men and women; and, while he sees through superficial pretence and affectation, he is like a child in the hands of those who humour his whims. The Plain Dealer seems unpleasantly true to life. But for the normal restoration taint it might have approached tragedy in the completeness of Fidelia’s passionate devotion and in the gravity of Manly’s disillusionment. As it is, The Plain Dealer is a notable work, compactly written, carefully planned and effectively executed, and, in its honest purpose to castigate vice, not unworthy of the ideals of Ben Jonson himself. The man who thus mercilessly exposed the vice, social chicanery and hypocrisy of his age, who thus laughed to scorn its follies and petty subterfuges, was no mere wanton. In the tonic of Wycherley’s Plain Dealer, English comedy recovered momentarily a sense of the actual relations of contemporary social conditions to better standards. But it was easier to follow Etherege than Wycherley. The frivolous always shun the ferule of the moralist; and, hence, “the artificial comedy” continued its primrose path, until called to account by the trumpeted warnings of Jeremy Collier and the honest endeavours of Steele to redeem the fallen stage, which had now, like a broken but unrepentant profligate, been brought to a reckoning with the past.