Wycherley is one of the most important writers in the Restoration period. He is also the master of the Restoration Comedy of manners like William Congreve.
Wycherley, with his early dramatic experience in France, had a long life, but strangely enough, his literary activity goes to cover a very short period, lasting for nearly some five years. His plays are actually 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. His first play Love in a Wood is almost entirely in the Etheregian style, with delightful situations and intrigues and funny fops and fools and quite engaging ladies and gentlemen. His second play The Gentleman Dancing Master is, no doubt, a diverting comedy, with the materials borrowed from a Spanish play. 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, 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. In fact, Wycherley makes the play both diverting and thought-provoking by exposing social follies and shams in an entertaining manner. The play is supposed to be an adaptation of Moliere’s L’Ecole des Mares and L’Ecole des femmes.
The Plain Dealer is Wycherley’s last and best comedy. The dramatic materials here are 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 is much of Puritan rigors than the Restoration license in it. Yet this is his greatest triumph in the Restoration theatre.
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 which filled the Restoration society at that time.
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 an unparalleled sense of the comic as also his masterly character-portraits. On the other hand, we see he complicates Moliere’s simple themes by doubling and redoubling intrigues and deforming the naturalness of characters.
Nevertheless, Wycherley’s play indicates his vigor as a satirist, his skill of caricature and a strong sense of humor.
His dramatic prose is quite solid, while his constructive art displays his commendable sense of the theatre.