WYCHERLEY, WILLIAM (c. 1640–1716), English dramatist, was born about 1640 at Clive, near Shrewsbury, where for several generations his family had been settled on a moderate estate of about £600 a year. Like Vanbrugh, Wycherley spent his early years in France, whither, at the age of fifteen, he was sent to be educated in the very heart of the “precious” circle on the banks of the Charente. Wycherley’s 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 circle of Madame de Montausier, formerly Madame de Rambouillet, are certainly not chargeable with the “refinements” of Wycherley’s comedies—comedies which caused even his great admirer Voltaire to say afterwards of them, “Il semble que les Anglais prennent trop de liberté et que les Françaises n’en prennent pas assez”—these same affectations seem to have been much more potent in regard to the “refinements” of Wycherley’s religion.
Wycherley, though a man of far more intellectual power than is generally supposed, was a fine gentleman first, a responsible being afterwards. Hence under the manipulations of the heroine of the “Garland” he turned from the Protestantism of his fathers to Romanism—turned at once, and with the same easy alacrity as afterwards, at Oxford, he turned back to Protestantism under the manipulations of such an accomplished master in the art of turning as Bishop Barlow. And if, as Macaulay hints, Wycherley’s turning back to Romanism once more had something to do with the patronage and unwonted 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 France published by Rabutin, or 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 him, earned by that frank and straightforward way of confronting life which, according to Pope and Swift, characterized also his brilliant successor Vanbrugh.
That effort of Wycherley’s to bring to Buckingham’s notice the case of Samuel Butler (so shamefully neglected by the court Butler had served) shows that the writer of even such heartless plays as The Country Wife may be familiar with generous impulses, while his uncompromising lines in defence 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 that passion for fairplay 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 as faithful to the day of his death as Congreve himself. And, if his relations to that “other world beyond this,” which the Puritans had adopted, were liable to change with his environments, it was because that “other world” was really out of fashion altogether.
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) have always, since the great rebellion, been rather ashamed of possessing too much learning. As a fellow-commoner of Queen’s College, Oxford, Wycherley only lived (according to Wood) in the provost’s lodgings, being entered in the public library under the title of “Philosophiae Studiosus” in July 1660. And he does not seem to have matriculated or to have taken a degree.
Nor when, on quitting Oxford, he took up his residence in the Inner Temple, where he had been entered in 1659, 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 or politeness.” Pleasure and the stage were alone open to him, and probably early in 1671 was produced, at the Theatre Royal, Love in a Wood. It was published the next year. With regard to this comedy Wycherley told Pope—told him “over and over” till Pope believed him—believed him, at least, until they quarrelled about Wycherley’s verses—that he wrote it the year before he went to Oxford. But we need not believe him: the worst witness against a man is mostly 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 inkhorn Lotharios are not nearly so wicked as they would have us believe. 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, if not satisfied, appeased, there is, we repeat, no need to believe him. Indeed, there is every reason to disbelieve him,—not for the reasons advanced by Macaulay, however, who in challenging Wycherley’s date does not go nearly deep enough. Macaulay points to the allusions in the play to gentlemen’s periwigs, to guineas, to the vests which Charles ordered to be worn at court, to the great fire, &c., as showing that the comedy could not have been written the year before the author went to Oxford. We must remember, however, that even if the play had been written in that year, and delayed in its production till 1672, it is exactly this kind of allusion to recent events which any dramatist with an eye to freshness of colour would be certain to weave into his dialogue. It is not that “the whole air and spirit of the piece belong to a period subsequent to that mentioned by Wycherley,” but that “the whole air and spirit of the piece” belong to a man—an experienced and hardened young man of the world—and not to a boy who would fain pose as an experienced and hardened young man of the world. The real defence of Wycherley against his foolish impeachment of himself is this, that Love in a Wood, howsoever inferior in structure and in all the artistic economies to The Country Wife and The Plain Dealer, contains scenes which no inexperienced boy could have written—scenes which, not for moral hardness merely, but often for real dramatic ripeness, are almost the strongest to be found amongst his four plays. With regard to dramatic ripeness, indeed, if we were asked to indicate the finest touch in all Wycherley, we should very likely select a speech in the third scene of the third act of this very play, 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 by her and insolently repulsed. “I think,” says Dapperwit, “women take inconstancy from me worse than from any man breathing.”
Now, does the subsequent development of Wycherley’s dramatic genius lead us to believe that, at nineteen, he could have given this touch, worthy of the hand that drew Malvolio? Is there anything in his two masterpieces—The Country Wife or The Plain Dealer—that makes it credible that Wycherley, the boy, could have thus delineated by a single quiet touch vanity as a chain-armour which no shaft can pierce—vanity, that is to say, in its perfect development? However, Macaulay (forgetting that, among the myriad vanities of the writing fraternity, this of pretending to an early development of intellectual powers that ought not to be, even if they could be, developed early is at once the most comic and the most common) is rather too severe upon Wycherley’s disingenuousness in regard to the dates of his plays. That the writer of a play far more daring than Etheredge’s She Would if She Could—and far more brilliant too—should at once become the talk of Charles’s 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 depths 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 Mail, he heard the duchess address him from her coach window as a “rascal,” a “villain,” and as a son of the very kind of lady his song had lauded. For his answer was perfect in its readiness: “Madam, you have been pleased to bestow a title on me which belongs only to the fortunate.” Perceiving that Her Grace 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 “favours” to which he alludes with pride in the dedication of the play to her. Voltaire’s story (in his Letters on the English Nation) that Her Grace used to go to Wycherley’s chambers in the Temple disguised as a country wench, in a straw hat, with pattens on and a basket in her hand, may be apocryphal—very likely it is—for disguise was quite superfluous in the case of the mistress of Charles II. and Jacob Hall, but it at least shows how general was the opinion that, under such patronage as this, Wycherley’s fortune as poet and dramatist, “eminent for his quality and politeness,” was now made.
Charles, who had determined to bring up his son, the duke of Richmond, like a prince, was desirous of securing for tutor a man so entirely qualified as was Wycherley to impart what was then recognized as the princely education, and it seems pretty clear that, but for the accident, to which we shall have to recur, of his meeting the countess of Drogheda at Bath and secretly marrying her, the education of the young man would actually have been entrusted by his father to Wycherley as a reward for the dramatist’s having written Love in a Wood.
Whether Wycherley’s experiences as a naval officer, which he alludes to in his lines “On a Sea Fight which the Author was in betwixt the English and the Dutch,” occurred before or after the production of Love in a Wood is a point upon which opinions differ, but on the whole we are inclined to agree with Macaulay, against Leigh Hunt, that these experiences took place not only after the production of Love in a Wood but after the production of The Gentleman Dancing Master, in 1673. We also think, with Macaulay, that he went to sea simply because it was the “polite” thing to do so—simply because, as he himself in the epilogue to The Gentleman Dancing Master says, “all gentlemen must pack to sea.”
This second comedy was published in 1673, but was probably acted late in 1671. It is inferior to Love in a Wood. In The Relapse the artistic mistake of blending comedy and farce damages a splendid play, but leaves it a splendid play still. In The Gentleman Dancing Master this mingling of discordant elements destroys a play that would never in any circumstances have been strong—a play nevertheless 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 must rest Wycherley’s fame as a master of that comedy of repartee which, inaugurated by Etheredge, and afterwards brought to perfection by Congreve and Vanbrugh, supplanted the humoristic comedy of the Elizabethans. The Country Wife, produced in 1672 or 1673 and published in 1675, is so full of wit, ingenuity, animal spirits and conventional humour that, had it not been for its motive—a motive which in any healthy state of society must always be as repulsive to the most lax as to the most moral reader—it would probably have survived as long as the acted drama remained a literary form in England. So strong, indeed, is the hand that could draw such a character as Majory Pinchwife (the undoubted original not only of Congreve’s Miss Prue but of Vanbrugh’s Hoyden), such a character as Sparkish (the undoubted original of Congreve’s Tattle), such a character as Horner (the undoubted original of all those cool impudent rakes with whom our stage has since been familiar), that Wycherley is certainly entitled to a place alongside Congreve and Vanbrugh. And, indeed, if priority of date is to have its fair and full weight, it seems difficult to challenge Professor Spalding’s dictum that Wycherley is “the most vigorous of the set.”
In order to do justice to the life and brilliance of The Country Wife we have only to compare it with The Country Girl, afterwards made famous by the acting of Mrs Jordan, that Bowdlerized form of The Country Wife in which Garrick, with an object more praiseworthy than his success, endeavoured to free it of its load of unparalleled licentiousness by disturbing and sweetening the motive—even as Voltaire afterwards (with an object also more praiseworthy than his success) endeavoured to disturb and sweeten the motive of The Plain Dealer in La Prude. While the two Bowdlerized forms of Garrick and Voltaire are as dull as the Æsop of Boursault, the texture of Wycherley’s scandalous dialogue would seem to scintillate with the changing hues of shot silk or of the neck of a pigeon or of a shaken prism, were it not that the many-coloured lights rather suggest the miasmatic radiance of a foul ditch shimmering in the sun. It is easy to share Macaulay’s indignation at Wycherley’s satyr-like defilement of art, and yet, at the same time, to protest against that disparagement of their literary riches which nullifies the value of Macaulay’s criticism. And scarcely inferior to The Country Wife is The Plain Dealer, produced probably early in 1674 and published three years later,—a play of which Voltaire said, “Je ne connais point de comedie chez les anciens ni chez les moderns où il y ait autant d’esprit.” This comedy had an immense influence, as regards manipulation of dialogue, upon all subsequent English comedies of repartee, and he who wants to 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 knid of stage character ever since. If but few readers know how constantly the blunt sententious utterances of this character are reappearing, not on the stage alone, but in the novel and even in poetry, it 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. When Burns said—
|“||The rank is but the guinea stamp,|
|The man’s the gowd for a’ that”;|
when Sterne, in Tristram Shandy, said, “Honours, like impressions upon coin, may give an ideal and local value to a bit of base metal, but gold and silver will pass all the world over without any other recommendation than their own weight,” what did these writers do but adopt—adopt without improving—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”? And yet it is in the fourth and fifth acts that the confiscations of Wycherley’s comic genius are the most dazzling; also, it is there that the licentiousness is the most astonishing. Not that the worst scenes in this play are really more wicked than the worst scenes in Vanbrugh’s Relapse, but they are more seriously imagined. Being less humorous than Vanbrugh’s scenes, they are more terribly and earnestly realistic; therefore they seem more wicked. They form indeed a striking instance of the folly of the artist who selects a story which cannot be actualized without hurting the finer instincts of human nature. When Menander declared that, having selected his plot, he looked upon his comedy as three parts finished, he touched upon a subject which all workers in drama—all workers in imaginative literature of every kind—would do well to consider. In all literatures—ancient and modern—an infinite wealth of material has been wasted upon subjects that are unworthy, or else incapable, of artistic realization; and yet Wycherley’s case is, in our literature at least, without a parallel. No doubt it may be right to say, with Aristotle, that comedy is an imitation of bad characters, but this does not mean that in comedy art may imitate bad characters as earnestly as she may imitate good ones,—a fact which Thackeray forgot when he made Becky Sharp a murderess, thereby destroying at once what would otherwise have been the finest specimen of the comedy of convention in the world. And perhaps it was because Vanbrugh was conscious of this law of art that he blended comedy with farce. Perhaps he felt that the colossal depravity of intrigue in which the English comedians indulged needs to be not only warmed by a superabundance of humour but softened by the playful mockery of farce before a dramatic circle such as that of the Restoration drama can be really brought within human sympathy. Plutarch’s impeachment of Aristophanes, which affirms that the master of the old comedy wrote less for honest men than for men sunk in baseness and debauchery, was no doubt unjust to the Greek poet, one side of whose humour, and one alone, could thus be impeached. But does it not touch all sides of a comedy like Wycherley’s—a comedy which strikes at the very root of the social compact upon which civilization is built? As to comparing such a comedy as that of the Restoration with the comedy of the Elizabethans, Jeremy Collier did but a poor service to the cause he undertook to advocate when he set the occasional coarseness of Shakespeare alongside the wickedness of Congreve and Vanbrugh. And yet, ever since Macaulay’s essay, it has been the fashion to speak of Collier’s attack as being levelled against the immorality of the “Restoration dramatists.” It is nothing of the kind. It is (as was pointed out so long ago as 1699 by Dr Drake in his little-known vigorous reply to Collier) an attack upon the English drama generally, with a special reference to the case of Shakespeare. While dwelling upon that noxious and highly immoral play Hamlet, Collier actually leaves unscathed the author of The Country Wife, but fastens on Congreve and Vanbrugh, whose plays—profligate enough in all conscience—seem almost decent beside a comedy whose incredible vis matrix is “the modish distemper.”
That a stage, indeed, upon which was given with applause A Woman Killed with Kindness (where a wife dies of a broken heart for doing what any one of Wycherley’s married women would have gloried in doing) should, in seventy years, have given with applause The Country Wife shows that in historic and social evolution as in the evolution of organisms, “change” and “progress” are very far from being convertible terms. For the barbarism of the society depicted in these plays was, in the true sense of the word, far deeper and more brutal than any barbarism that has ever existed in these islands within the historic period. If civilization has any meaning at all for the soul of man, the Englishmen of Chaucer’s time, the Anglo-Saxons of the Heptarchy, nay, those half-naked heroes, who in the dawn of English history clustered along the southern coast to defend it from the invasion of Caesar, were far more civilized than that “race gangrenée”—the treacherous rakes, mercenary slaves and brazen strumpets of the court of Charles II., who did their best to substitute for the human passion of love (a passion which was known perhaps even to palaeolithic man) the promiscuous intercourse of the beasts of the field. Yet Collier leaves Wycherley unassailed, and classes Vanbrugh and Congreve with Shakespeare.
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 in Charles’s time, as Wycherley’s plays all show, 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 requirements. An introduction ensued, then love-making, then marriage—a secret marriage, probably in 1680, for, fearing to lose the king’s patronage and the income therefrom, Wycherley still thought it politic to pass as a bachelor. He had not seen enough of life to learn that in the long run nothing is politic but “straightforwardness.” 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 because treacherous confidants divulged his secret, does not appear, but the news of his marriage oozed out—it reached the royal ears, and deeply wounded the father anxious about the education of his son. Wycherley lost the appointment that was so nearly within his grasp—lost indeed the royal favour for ever. 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 to 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, however, in the year after her marriage and left him the whole of her fortune. But the title to the property was disputed; the costs of the litigation were heavy—so heavy that his father was unable (or else he was unwilling) to come to his aid; and the result of his marrying the rich, beautiful and titled widow was that the poet was thrown into the Fleet prison. There he remained for seven years, being finally released by the liberality of James II.—a liberality 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 had before discovered, he paid off Wycherley’s execution creditor and settled on him a pension of £200 a year. Other debts still troubled Wycherley, however, and he never was released from his embarrassments, not even after succeeding to a life estate in the family property. In coming to Wycherley’s death, we come to the worst allegation that has ever been made against him as a man and as a gentleman. 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.
Wycherley wrote verses, and, when quite an old man, prepared them for the press by the aid of Alexander Pope, then not much more than a boy. But, notwithstanding all Pope’s tinkering, they remain contemptible. Pope’s published correspondence with the dramatist was probably edited by him with a view to giving an impression of his own precocity. The friendship between the two cooled, according to Pope’s account, because Wycherley took offence at the numerous corrections on his verses. It seems more likely that Wycherley discovered that Pope, while still professing friendship and admiration, satirized his friend in the Essay on Criticism. Wycherley died on the 1st of January 1716, and was buried in the vault of the church in Covent Garden.