Monday, February 11, 2019

Theatricality in THE COUNTRY WIFE

The prologue to William Wycherley's Restoration comedy The Country Wife takes a bit of a personal turn when Wycherley writes:

                    But though our Bayes's battles oft I've fought,
                    And with bruis'd knuckles their dear conquests bought;
                    Nay, never yet fear'd odds upon the stage,
                    In prologue dare not hector with the age,
                    But would take quarter from your saving hands,
                    Though Bayes within all yielding countermands,
                    Says you confed'rate wits no quarter give,
                    Therefore his play shan't ask your leave to live.

Who is this Bayes that Wycherley mentions? He's not an actual person, but the fictional playwright in The Rehearsal, a satirical play written by George Villiers and a group of his upper-class friends.

Bayes is based on John Dryden, and The Rehearsal skewers Dryden's play The Conquest of Grenada. As it happens, Dryden wrote in the prologue to The Conquest of Grenada a denunciation of contemporary dramatists which did indeed seem to hector with the age.

The Conquest of Grenada is written in two parts, and the prologue to the first was written to be recited by Nell Gwyn, a talented actress who even attracted the attentions of the king. Dressed in a broad-brimmed hat, she addressed the audience with these words:

                    For 'twere a shame a poet should be killed
                    Under the shelter of so broad a shield.
                    This is that hat, whose very sight did win ye
                    To laugh and clap as though the devil were in ye.

After The Rehearsal, Bayes became Dryden's unfortunate nickname. What Wycherley seems to be doing is attacking Dryden through the fictional Bayes, reminding the audience of the playwright's rather defensive prologue. To be fair to Dryden, his prologue actually attempts to poke fun at audiences in a humorous, good-natured way, as Gwyn was more than capable of doing.

However, the prologue is not the only part of The Country Wife that tips its hat to the institution of the theatre. From the very first act, Wycherley uses meta-theatricality, reminding the audience of the very institution in which they are watching his play. Dorilant speaks of "orange wenches" who sold refreshments in the theatre, the "vizard-mask" which was worn by ladies to disguise themselves at the theatre, and even "a great-bellied actress" and "a second-hand critic."

Toward the end of the first act, Horner tells Pinchwife, "I saw you yesterday in the eighteen-penny place with a pretty country wench." Seats in the gallery above the boxes were only eighteen pence, and Pinchwife seems to have taken his new bride there to hide her from his friends. Unfortunately for him, this tactic doesn't work. Not only was his wife Margery seen, but she develops a taste for the theatre. Complaining to her sister-in-law, she says that at the playhouse Pinchwife kept her "amongst ugly people" and while she found herself "weary of the play" she "liked hugeously the actors."

The gallery was where the cheap seats were, and below them were the boxes, where respectable people could watch the play while still enjoying some privacy. These seats were the most expensive in the auditorium, but not necessarily the best place to watch the play. The floor of the auditorium was known as the pit, and since it was closest to the stage, it was where the best seats were if you actually wanted to see and hear the show rather than just be seen and gather with close family members and friends. Upper-class men would purchase box seats since that was expected of them, but if they wanted to get a better view of the stage (and mingle with the general public) they would then go down into the pit to watch the show.

In Act II of The Country Wife, Margery's sister-in-law Alithea complains when invited to the theatre, "I will not go, if you intend to leave me alone in the box and run into the pit, as you use to do." Her husband-to-be responds to her, "if I sat in the box, I would be thought no judge but of trimmings." True enthusiasts of the theatre sat in the pit, which of course made it difficult for respectable women to fully enjoy a play while maintaining their respectability. That didn't mean upper-class women didn't attend the theatre, though. They would just have to stay in a box, or if they did venture down into the pit, they would generally wear a mask. In Act II a group of women even comes over to Pinchwife's house expecting to take his new bride with them to see a play.

Pinchwife's strategy to take his wife out into the world but not provoke the desire of men is to dress her as a man and pretend that she is her own brother. Alithea suggests she instead "put on her mask" as would have been common for women attending the theatre. Later, however, she reflects that "beauty masked, like the sun in eclipse, gathers together more gazers than if it shined out." Similarly, when Margery Pinchwife dons male clothing, she attracts more attention from men than ever, yet her husband must stand idly by while men insist on kissing his "brother-in-law" right in front of him.

Though the theatre becomes less important in the play's final acts, there are still references to it. In Act V, Mrs. Squeamish says, "that demureness, coyness, and modesty that you see in our faces in the boxes at plays, is as much a sign of a kind woman, as a vizard-mask in the pit."

Remember, only disreputable women could be seen in the pit, so many ladies wore masks to disguise themselves there. Squeamish is saying that the reputation of a "good" woman in the box seats was just as much a disguise as the masks worn by prostitutes and loose women down below them.

It's a rather cynical attitude, but The Country Wife is a rather cynical play!