The Restoration comedies of the English dramatist William Wycherley (ca. 1640-1716) ridiculed the manners and morals of sophisticated ladies and gentlemen who delighted in illicit intrigue.
William Wycherley was born at Clive, near Shrewsbury, Shropshire, where his father, a royalist, owned a small estate. Because the Puritans were in power, Wycherley was sent to France for his education. He spent several years there studying with the Duchesse de Montausier and her circle of intellectuals. As was the case with many who followed the Stuarts to France, Wycherley was converted to Roman Catholicism. However, he reverted to Protestantism upon his return to England just before the Restoration.
Wycherley entered the Inner Temple, of which his father was a member, ostensibly to study law. But he was more inclined toward literature and later settled in Oxford at the provost's quarters of Queen's College to study at the Bodleian library. He left Oxford without taking a degree.
Early in 1671 Wycherley's first play, Love in a Wood, was produced at the Theatre Royal, London. It attracted the attention of Charles II's mistress, the Duchess of Cleveland, who introduced Wycherley to court circles. His second play, The Gentleman Dancing Master, a comedy of intrigue based on a play by Pedro Calderón, was performed at Covent Garden late in 1671. It was not well received. Shortly after this Wycherley probably served as a naval officer in the Dutch War.
The Country Wife, Wycherley's best-known play, was first performed in 1672 or 1673. It centers on the attempts of a jealous husband named Pinchwife to keep his young and naive wife out of society because of his fear that she will prove unfaithful. This play was a great success and is still performed today. The next year The Plain Dealer was performed with equal success. In both plays he was much influenced by Molière, although his satire is fiercer than Molière's. After The Plain Dealer Wycherley stopped writing for the stage.
Wycherley fell ill in 1678, and Charles II sent him to France to recuperate. When he returned, the King entrusted the education of his illegitimate son, the Duke of Richmond, to Wycherley, but he lost the appointment a year later because of Charles's displeasure at his absence from court. This absence was occasioned by his secret marriage to the Countess of Drogheda, who died about a year later. Litigation over her estate proved so expensive that Wycherley was imprisoned for debt. About 7 years later King James II secured his freedom, paid his debts, and gave him a pension.
In 1697 Wycherley succeeded to his father's estate. In 1704 he published Miscellany Poems, which caught the attention of young Alexander Pope, who later helped Wycherley to revise them. He died on Jan. 1, 1716.
An excellent, annotated edition of Wycherley's work is The Complete Plays of William Wycherley, edited by Gerald Weales (1966). The only full-length biography is Willard Connely, Brawny Wycherley (1930). The best study of his plays is Rose A. Zimbardo, Wycherley's Drama (1965). More general discussions of Restoration comedy include John Palmer, The Comedy of Manners (1913; repr. 1962); Kathleen M. Lynch, The Social Mode of Restoration Comedy (1926); Norman N. Holland, The First Modern Comedies (1959); and Virginia Ogden Birdsall, Wild Civility: The English Comic Spirit on the Restoration Stage (1970).
McCarthy, B. Eugene, William Wycherley: a biography, Athens: Ohio University Press, 1979. □