William Wycherley

William WycherleyWilliam Wycherley, the typical Restoration dramatist, and one of the greatest masters of the comedy of repartee, was born about 1640 at Clive, near Shrewsbury, where for several generations his family had been settled on an estate yielding about £600 a year. His youth was chiefly spent in France, whither, at the age of fifteen, he was sent to be educated amid the charmed circle of the précieuses. His friend, Major Pack, tells us that his hero "improved, with the greatest refinements, the extraordinary talents for which he was obliged to nature." Although the harmless affectations of the Rambouillets and Montausiers, among whom he was thrown, are certainly not chargeable with the "refinements" of Wycherley's comedies--they seem to have been much more potent in regard to the refinements of his religion.

Though a man of strong intellectual power, Wycherley was a fine gentleman first, a responsible being afterward. Hence, it required no great persuasion to turn him from the Protestantism of his fathers to Romanism, as afterward, at Oxford, with the same easy alacrity, he turned back to Protestantism, under the manipulations of such an accomplished master in the art of conversion as Bishop Barlow. And if, as Macaulay hints, Wycherley's turning back to Romanism once more had something to do with the patronage and liberality of James II, this merely proves that the deity he worshipped was the deity of the polite world of his time--gentility. Moreover, as a professional fine gentleman, at a period when, as the genial Major Pack says, "the amours of Britain would furnish as diverting memoirs, if well related, as those of Nero's court writ by Petronius," Wycherley was obliged to be a loose liver. But, for all that, Wycherley's sobriquet, of "Manly Wycherley," seems to have been fairly earned by that frank and straightforward way of confronting life which, according to Pope and Swift, characterized also his brilliant successor, Vanbrugh.

The effort of Wycherley's to bring to Buckingham's notice the case of Samuel Butler, so shamefully neglected by the court which he had served, shows that even the writer of such heartless plays as The Country Wife was familiar with generous impulses, while his uncompromising lines in defense of Buckingham, when the duke in his turn fell into trouble, show that the inventor of so shameless a fraud as that which forms the pivot of The Plain Dealer may in actual life possess the passion for fair-play which is believed to be a specially English quality. But among the ninety-nine religions with which Voltaire accredited England there is one whose permanency has never been shaken--the worship of gentility. To this Wycherley remained faithful to the day of his death; and if his relations to "that other world beyond," which the Puritans had adopted, were liable to change with his environment, it was because that other world was altogether out of fashion.

Wycherley's university career seems also to have been influenced by the same causes. Although Puritanism had certainly not contaminated the universities, yet English "quality and politeness"--to use Major Pack's words--had always, since the Revolution, been rather ashamed of possessing too much learning. As a fellow-commoner of Queen's college, Oxford, therefore he was entered only as a "student of philosophy," which meant a student of nothing in particular; and he does not seem to have matriculated or to have taken a degree. Nor when, on quitting Oxford, he entered himself at the Middle Temple, did he give any more attention to the dry study of the law than was proper to one so warmly caressed "by the persons most eminent for their quality and politeness."

Wycherley's highest delights were in pleasure and the stage, and in 1672 he produced at Drury Lane theatre his Love in a Wood. With regard to this comedy he told Pope, and repeated his statement until Pope believed him--at least until they quarrelled--that he wrote it the year before he went to Oxford. But we need not believe him; for the worst witness against a man is often himself. To pose as the wicked boy of genius has been the foolish ambition of many writers, but on inquiry it will generally be found that these ink-born Lotharios are not nearly so wicked as they would have us suppose. When Wycherley charges himself with having written, as a boy of nineteen, scenes so callous and so depraved that even Barbara Palmer's appetite for profligacy was satisfied, there is no need to believe him. Indeed, there is every reason to discredit him; for the whole air and spirit of the piece belong to an experienced and hardened man of the world, and not to a boy who would fain pose as such. Not only in depravity of moral tone, but in real dramatic ripeness, some of the scenes are the strongest to be found among Wycherley's plays. If, indeed, a competent critic were asked to point out the finest touch in all his writings, he would probably select a speech in the third scene of the third act of this very comedy, where the vain, foolish and boastful rake Dapperwit, having taken his friend to see his mistress for the express purpose of advertising his lordship over her, is coolly denied and insolently repulsed. "I think," says Dapperwit, "women take inconstancy from me worse than from any man breathing." The remark is worthy of the hand that drew Malvolio; and certain it is that no mere boy could have described, by this quiet touch, a vanity as impenetrable as the chain-armor which no shaft can pierce.

That the writer of such a play should at once become the talk of King Charles' court was inevitable; equally inevitable was it that the author of the song at the end of the first act, in praise of harlots and their offspring, should touch to its depth the soul of the duchess of Cleveland. Possibly Wycherley intended this famous song as a glorification of her Grace and her profession, for he seems to have been more delighted than surprised when, as he passed in his coach through Pall Mall, he heard the duchess address him from her carriage window as a "rascal," a "villain" and as a son of the very kind of lady his song had lauded. His answer was in perfect readiness: "Madame, you have been pleased to bestow a title on me which belongs only to the fortunate." Perceiving that she received the compliment in the spirit in which it was meant, he lost no time in calling upon her, and was from that moment the recipient of those favors to which he alludes with pride in the dedication of the play to her. Voltaire's story that the titled dame used to go to Wycherley's chambers in the Temple disguised as a country wench, in a straw hat, shod with pattens and a basket in her hand, may be in part apocryphal, for certain it is that disguise was quite superfluous in the case of the mistress of Charles II. At least it shows how general was the opinion that, under such patronage, Wycherley's fortune as a poet and dramatist, "eminent for his quality and politeness," was now assured.

In The Relapse, the third of Wycherley's plays, the mistake of introducing the element of farce damages a splendid comedy, but leaves it a capital play still. In The Gentleman Dancing Master this mingling of discordant elements destroys a piece that would never, under any circumstances, have been strong, but which abounds in animal spirits and is luminous here and there with true dramatic points. It is, however, on his two last comedies, The Country Wife and The Plain Dealer, that Wycherley's fame must rest as a master of that comedy of repartee which, inaugerated by Etherege, and afterward brought to perfection by Congreve and Vanbrugh, supplanted the humoristic comedy of the Elizabethans.

The Country Wife

The Country Wife is so full of wit, ingenuity, animal spirits and lively humor that, had it not been for its motive--as repulsive to the most lax as to the most moral of readers--it would probably have survived as long as the acted drama retained a literary form in England. So strong, indeed, is the hand that could draw such a character as Marjory Pinchwife, as Sparkish and Horner, the latter the undoubted original of all those cool, impudent rakes with whom the English stage has since been familiar, that Wycherley is certainly entitled to a place alongside Congreve and Vanbrugh. It seems difficult to deny that Wycherley is the most vigorous of the three. In order to do justice to the merits of The Country Wife we have only to compare it with The Country Girl, afterward made famous by the acting of Mrs. Jordan, the play in which Garrick endeavored to free Wycherley's comedy of its load of licentiousness by altering and sweetening the motive, as Voltaire afterward endeavored to purify the motive of The Plain Dealer in La Prude. While the two versions of Garrick and Voltaire are as dull as the Æsop of Boursault, the texture of Wycherley's dialogue would seem to scintillate with the changing hues of a shaken prism, were it not that the many-colored lights rather suggest the miasmatic radiance of a foul ditch shimmering in the sun.

The Plain Dealer

And hardly inferior to The Country Wife is The Plain Dealer, of which Voltaire said: "I know of no comedy, ancient or modern, that ha so much spirit." It is, indeed, impossible to overestimate the immense influence of this comedy, as regards manipulation of dialogue, upon all subsequent comedies of repartee, from those of Congreve and Vanbrugh to those of Douglas Jerrold and T.W. Robertson; and, as to characters, he who would trace the ancestry of Tony Lumpkin and Mrs. Hardcastle has only to turn to Jerry Blackacre and his mother, while Manly, for whom Wycherley's early patron, the duke of Montausier, sat, though he is perhaps overdone, has dominated this kind of stage character ever since. Few, perhaps, are aware how constantly the blunt sententious utterances of the last of these personages have reappeared, not on the stage alone, but in the novel and even in poetry. If the comedy itself is extinct, this is because a play whose motive is monstrous and intolerable can only live in a monstrous and intolerable state of society; it is because Wycherley's genius was followed by Nemesis, who always dogs the footsteps of the defiler of literary art. But while we can excuse Macaulay's indignation at what he terms this "satyr-like defilement of art," the literary richness of the play almost nullifies the value of the criticism.

Probably none of the plays of this period have been so frequently quoted and adapted. Take, for instance, Manly's fine saying to Freeman in the first act: "I weigh the man, not his title, 'tis not the king's stamp can make the metal better or heavier." This we have in one of Burns' most famous couplets:

The rank is but the guinea stamp
The man's the gowd for a' that.

And so when, in Tristram Shandy, Sterne says: "Honors, like impressions upon a coin, may give an ideal and local value to a bit of base metal, but gold and silver will pass the world over without any other recommendation than their even weight." But it is in the fourth and fifth acts that the coruscations of Wycherley's comic genius are the most dazzling; it is there, also, that the licentiousness is most astounding. Not that the worst scenes in this play are really more wicked than those from other dramatists, but they are more seriously imagined, and being less humorous, they are more terribly and earnestly realistic. They form, indeed, a striking instance of the folly of the artist who selects a story which cannot be dramatized without hurting the finer instincts of human nature.

Wycherley's Marriage

It was after the success of The Plain Dealer that the turning point came in Wycherley's career. The great dream of all the men about town, as is shown in Wycherley's plays, was to marry a widow, young and handsome, a peer's daughter if possible, but in any event rich, and spend her money upon wine and women. While talking to a friend in a bookseller's shop at Tunbridge, Wycherley heard The Plain Dealer asked for by a lady who, in the person of the countess of Drogheda, answered all the above requirements. An introduction ensued, then love-making, then marriage--a secret marriage, for, fearing to lose the king's patronage and the income therefrom, Wycherley still thought it politic to pass as a bachelor. Whether because his countenance wore a pensive and subdued expression, suggestive of a poet who had married a dowager countess and awakened to the situation, or whether treacherous confidants divulged his secret, does not appear; but the news of his marriage soon oozed out, it reached the royal ears, and deeply wounded the "merry monarch," who had intended to intrust to him the education of his son. Wycherley lost the appointment that was so nearly within his grasp; lost, indeed, the royal favor forever. He never had an opportunity of regaining it, for the countess seems to have really loved him, and Love in a Wood had proclaimed the writer to be the kind of husband whose virtue prospers best when closely guarded at the domestic hearth. Wherever he went the countess followed him, and when she did allow him to meet his boon companions it was in a tavern in Bow street, opposite his own house, and even there under certain protective conditions. In summer or in winter he was obliged to sit with the window open and the blinds up, so that his wife might see that the party included no member of a sex for which her husband's plays had advertised his partiality. She died at last, however, and left him the whole of her fortune.

But the title to the property was disputed; the costs of litigation were heavy--so heavy that the poet's father was unable or unwilling to come to his aid; and the result of his marrying the rich, beautiful and titled widow was that Wycherley was thrown into Fleet prison. He languished there for seven years, being finally released by the liberality of James II, which, incredible as it seems, is too well authenticated to be challenged. James had been so much gratified by seeing The Plain Dealer acted that, finding a parallel between Manly's "manliness" and his own, such as no spectator before had discovered, he paid off Wycherley's execution creditor. Other debts still troubled him, however, and he never was released from his embarrassments, not even after succeeding to a life estate in the family property.

As we come to Wycherley's death we come to the worst allegation that has been made against him. At the age of seventy-five he married a young girl, and is said to have done so in order to spite his nephew, the next in succession, knowing that he himself must shortly die and that the jointure would impoverish the estate. No doubt it is true enough that he married the girl and died a few days afterward; but, if we consider that the lady was young and an heiress, or supposed to be an heiress, and if we further consider how difficult it was for an old gallant of Wycherley's personal vanity to realize his physical condition, we may well suppose that, even if he talked about "marrying to spite his nephew," he did so as a cloak for other impulses, such as senile desire or senile cupidity, or a blending of both.

†This article was originally published in The Drama: Its History, Literature and Influence on Civilization, vol XIV ed. Alfred Bates. New York: Historical Publishing Company, 1906. pp. 108-119.

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