The Country Wife

First performance

The Country Wife was first performed in January 1675, by the King's Company, at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. This luxurious playhouse, designed by Christopher Wren and with room for 2,000 spectators, had opened only the year before. It was of compact design, retaining in spite of its large seating capacity much of the intimate actor/audience contact of the Elizabethan theatre, still with an almost Elizabethan-size forestage or apron stage, on which actors would come forward for maximum audience contact.

The original cast was listed in the first edition of The Country Wife, as was standard practice, and modern scholars have suggested that this information throws light on Wycherley's intentions.[7] Wycherley wrote with the original actors in mind, tailoring the roles to their strengths. Also, since the audience consisted mostly of habitual playgoers, authors and directors could use the associations of an actor's previous repertoire to enrich or undercut a character, effects familiar on television and in the cinema today.

Several of the actors were specialised comedians, notably Joseph Haines who played the false-wit character Sparkish, Alithea's original fiancé. At the outset of his high-profile career as comedian and song-and-dance man, young Haines already had a reputation for eccentricity and dominant stage presence, suggesting that Sparkish is not merely a comic butt for the truewits Horner, Harcourt, and Dorilant to mock, but also a real threat to the romance of Harcourt and Alithea.

Pinchwife was played by the elderly Michael Mohun, who was best known for playing menacing villains, such as Volpone and Iago. Mrs. Pinchwife was Elizabeth Boutell or Bowtel, a young actress who had "a childish look. Her voice was weak, tho' very mellow; she generally acted the young innocent lady whom all the heroes are mad in love with".[8] Boutell's previous recorded roles had in fact all been unmarried as well as innocent girls, and Margery was her first married role.[9] Matching Boutell and Mohun as a couple would emphasise "her youth and innocence against Mohun's age and violence".[10] The other husband to be cuckolded by Horner, Sir Jaspar Fidget, was played by another elderly actor, William Cartwright, best known for comic parts such as Falstaff. This casting suggests that Sir Jaspar was played as a straightforwardly comic part, while Pinchwife would be "alarming as well as funny".[10]

The male leads Horner and Harcourt were played by the contrasted actors Charles Hart and Edward Kynaston (or Kenaston). The forcefully masculine 45-year-old Hart "was celebrated for superman roles, notably the arrogant, bloodthirsty Almanzor in John Dryden's Conquest of Granada", and also for playing rakish comedy heroes with nonchalance and charisma.[11] Many critics credit the personalities and skills of Hart and Nell Gwyn with creating, as much as any playwright did, the famous flirting/bantering Restoration comedy couple. The beautiful androgynous Kynaston, probably in his early thirties, was a different kind of hero. He had started his career in 1660 as the outstanding Restoration female impersonator[12] – "the prettiest woman in the whole house"[13] – before real women entered the profession in the fall of 1660. (The 2004 movie Stage Beauty is loosely based on Kynaston's career.)

John Harold Wilson argues that the famously virile stage presence of Hart as Horner must be taken into account when interpreting the play. As personified by Hart, Horner will have won women not so much through clever trickery as "the old-fashioned way", by being "dangerously attractive", and it is only fools like Sir Jaspar Fidget who really believe him harmless.[14] Harcourt/Kynaston, although by 1675 a well-regarded and skilful actor of male roles, would clearly have been overshadowed by Horner/Hart. The actresses associated with each hero must also have tended to make the Horner plot more striking on the stage than the true-love plot. Horner's primary mistress Lady Fidget, spokeswoman for "the virtuous gang" of secretly sex-hungry town wives, was played by the dynamic Elizabeth Knepp, who Samuel Pepys declared "the most excellent, mad-humoured thing, and sings the noblest I've ever heard", talents that the famous drinking scene in Horner's lodging seems designed to do justice to. By contrast, the choice of the bit-part actress Elizabeth James as Alithea would have de-emphasised the Harcourt-Alithea plot. Such historical considerations have made modern critics sceptical of Norman Holland's classic 1959 "right way/wrong way" interpretation of the play, which positions the true-love plot as the most important one.

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