William Wycherley and his Important Plays

William Wycherley(1641-1715) was an English playwright orf the Restoration period. He was educated first in France, then at the Queen’s College, Oxford, but he never matriculated, afterward enrolling as a student in the Inner Temple.

His plays are four in number-Love in a Wood or St. James’s Park (1672), The Gentleman Dancing Master (1673), The Country Wife, (1675), and The Plain Dealer (1677).

All Wycherley’s comedies mark his strange revulsions against the society in which he lived. It appears that he was haunted with a sense that the plague was raising all over the society he was living. His first play, Love in a Wood, or St James’s Park, a comedy of intrigue set in St James’s Park, was probably acted in 1671, and published in 1672, and brought him the favor of the countess of Castlemaine (bap. 1640, d. 1709), the king’s mistress. It is almost entirely in the Etheregian style, with delightful situations and intrigues and funny fops and fools and quite engaging ladies and gentlemen In 1679 he secretly married the widowed countess of Drogheda (d. 1685), daughter of the first earl of Radnor, and incurred thereby the displeasure of Charles II, who had offered him the tutorship of his son, the duke of Richmond.

His second play, The Gentleman Dancing-Master, was probably acted 1671, published 1673. Despite the dexterity of his dramatic situations, the play did not succeed much mainly because of Wycherley’s excesses in social representations as well as license.

The Country Wife was published and probably first acted in 1675. The Country Wife, his third play, reveals some aspects of his
dramatic genius in his appropriate representation of the Restoration society and adequate portraiture of men and women. The play seems to have achieved much eminence in dramatic devices and remains quite serious in effect even in its entertaining situations. Wycherley makes the play both diverting and thought-provoking by entertainingly exposing social follies and shams. The play is supposed to be an adaptation of Moliere’s L’Ecole des Mares and L’Ecole des Femmes.

The Plain Dealer is, however, supposed to be Wycherley’s last and best comedy. his last play, The Plain-Dealer, was probably acted in 1676, published in 1677. The dramatic materials here are found also borrowed from a French play Le Misanthrope by Moliere. Wycherley is found to deviate here from the regular course of the comedy of manners and to abandon the easy-going, care-free spirit of this comedy for the bitter and indignant satire. There are many Puritan rigors than the Restoration license in it. Yet, this is his greatest triumph in the Restoration theatre.

His Miscellany Poems (1704) led to a friendship with Alexander Pope, who revised many of his writings. His Posthumous Works appeared in 1728.

Wycherley is both a social chronicler and a moralist. He reveals a good deal of fun and farce on the stage, but his drama has a deep moral tone at heart. While he loves cynically, he lashes at follies and vices, with which so much of the Restoration society was engulfed.

Wycherley’s significance lies mainly in the serious aspect of his comical themes and for his venture to model English comedies after the great French master Moliere. Of course, he lacks Moliere’s dramatic artistry and unparallelled sense of the comic as also his masterly character-portraits. On the other hand, he is found to complicate Moliere’s simple themes by doubling and redoubling intrigues and deforming the naturalness of characters.

Nevertheless, Wycherley’s plays indicate his vigor as a satirist, his skill of caricature as well as a strong sense of humor. His dramatic prose is quite solid, while his constructive art displays his commendable sense of the theatre.

Wycherley’s plays, admired by Charles Lamb but condemned by T. B. Macaulay as licentious and indecent, are highly regarded for their acute social criticism, particularly of sexual morality and the marriage conventions; his characterization and thematic organization are also strong, and his last two plays have been successfully revived many times. The standard edition is by A. Friedman (1979).