The Country Wife

The Country Wife Restoration Patent Theaters.

During the Restoration, theater companies needed royal patents in order to stage spoken plays. (Opera, pantomime, dance, masque, and other less verbal genres of performance could be staged without license.) Accordingly, King Charles II, who turned out to be a great patron of contemporary English theater, granted two theatrical monopolies in 1660, shortly after gaining the throne; the fortunate recipients were the King’s Company, managed by Thomas Killigrew, and the Duke’s Company, managed by William Davenant. The King’s Company soon settled in at the Theatre Royal in Bridges Street, later (in 1674) rebuilding and renaming the structure The Theatre Royal in Drury Lane; meanwhile, the Duke’s Company established itself at Lisle’s Tennis Court in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, later (in 1671) relocating to Dorset Garden. The great architect Sir Christopher Wren designed the new Theatre Royal in Drury Lane; the Dorset Garden Theatre, too, is often ascribed to Wren, though this attribution is in doubt.

Unlike the open-air theaters of the Renaissance, the playhouses of the Restoration had enclosed roofs and artificial lighting (probably very dim by today’s standards, as it was provided entirely by tallow candles). Seating was in two sections, namely the pit and the galleries. Unlike Renaissance theaters, in which the lowest-paying patrons (the famous “groundlings”) stood for the entire performance on the floor before the stage, Restoration theaters had benches on this level. At half-a-crown for admission, the pit, as it was called, was the second-most expensive part of the house; it was also the most miscellaneous part of the house, attracting various members of the gentry class plus the urban litterateurs and the “wits” with whom Wycherley’s Mr. Sparkish is so eager to class himself. Beyond the pit were three tiers of galleries. The lowest tier was subdivided into boxes, which were occupied by the nobility and wealthy gentry at four shillings per seat; in the center of this tier was the royal box. The second and third galleries were less grand, with the second subdivided into boxes and the third not; these seats were the cheapest in the house, costing eighteenpence and a shilling. The stage itself had two sections, the forestage (or proscenium) and the inner stage. The forestage, where the main action was performed, extended into the auditorium, while the inner stage was the setting for scenic effects. Separating the two areas of the stage was the proscenium arch, which provided a visual frame for the dramatic action; this architectural distinction of dramatic space from audience space was new to the English theater.

Three of Wycherley’s four plays debuted at the Theatre Royal. (The one exception, The Gentleman Dancing-Master, which played at the Dorset Garden Theatre in 1672, was his least successful effort, both artistically and commercially.) The original Theatre Royal in Bridges Street was a three-tiered wooden building with an audience capacity of 700; the new Theatre Royal in Drury Lane, at which The Country Wife opened in 1675, was also three-tiered but larger, with a capacity of 2,000. The construction of this elaborate and expensive building represented a major financial investment for the King’s Company, but Killigrew felt that he needed to upgrade his troupe’s facilities in response to the success of the Duke’s Company in employing crowd-pleasing technical advances. The new stage equipment included sound-effects apparatus and the continental innovation of moveable scenery made possible by sliding shutters.

The two rival companies offered two distinctly different styles of theater. Davenant’s Duke’s Company attracted crowds by emphasizing spectacle, going heavy on visual and sound effects and elaborate stage and costume design. This approach represented a continuation of the previous century’s masque or pageant tradition, in which professional actors and musicians, in tandem with amateur participants (usually courtiers or other aristocrats) would perform lavish allegories before a royal or noble patron. On this model, the quality of acting and scriptwriting was less important than the extravagance of the production values. By contrast, Killigrew at the Theatre Royal sought strong scripts for his fine actors. (Tellingly, his resident dramatist was the great poet John Dryden.) Accordingly, it was the King’s Company at the Theatre Royal that developed Restoration Comedy’s distinctive traits of actor-driven banter and clever innuendo, of which Wycherley’s works are major exempla; by comparison, the scripts put on by Davenant’s company have, by and large, not endured.