William Wycherley: Four Plays
Library of Alexandria
William Wycherley was, before Congreve arose to surpass him, the most eminent master of that artificial school of Comedy which commenced with the restoration of Charles II., and which may be said to have perished, in a blaze as of a funeral pyre, with Sheridan. Abandoning the beaten paths of English drama, the writers of this school found, in the various intrigue of the Spanish theatre, in the verbal vivacity and piquant satire of the French, a new basis for their productions. Their works, as a class, have been designated the Comedy of Manners, a title which aptly distinguishes them from the Comedy of Human Life, set forth by Shakespeare. It is a title, nevertheless, of limited applicability. The manners portrayed in these comedies, if drawn from the life, illustrate but one side of human character, and that side the most superficial. To divert by wit and ingenuity being the writer's aim, all allusion to the deeper motives of humanity was rejected as impertinent, or admitted only as an occasional contrast to the prevailing tone. Thus the artificiality of the characters is the consequence rather of incompleteness than of untruth; they are, as it were, but half characters; the dialogue is no longer, as with Shakespeare, the means of their development, but the purpose of their creation. Living in an age of loose manners and corrupt morals, the result, as has often been pointed out, of the unnatural state of repression which accompanied the Puritan supremacy, Wycherley cannot be acquitted of the vices of his time, nor can it be contended that it was altogether with the object of lashing these vices that he decked them out with all the allurements of brilliant dialogue and diverting situations. Yet I venture to assert that, in spite of their licentiousness, these comedies possess claims to recognition not lightly to be ignored. Nay, more: that their very indecency, although the most open, is certainly not the most pernicious form of immorality known to us in literature. For as the harm of licentious allusions consists in their appeal to the basest passions of human nature, so the appeal is stronger as the impression of human passion is deeper. But these simulacra, these puppet semblances of humanity, which Wycherley and his contemporaries summon upon the stage for our diversion, what human passion can we discover in these to which we should be in danger of unworthily responding? As we read the plays no sense of reality disturbs us. Transfer the language they employ, the actions they perform, to the characters in a play of Shakespeare's, a novel of Richardson's, and our resentment and detestation are instantly awakened. But the dramatis personæ of Wycherley or of Congreve are not, as the characters of Shakespeare and Richardson, men and women whom we feel to be as real and living as those with whom we daily associate. They merely simulate humanity so far as is requisite for the proper enactment of their parts. And herein lies the test: a Cordelia, an Iago, a Clarissa, a Lovelace, are, to our feelings, real creatures of flesh and blood, whom we love or hate, as the case may be. The characters of Wycherley and Congreve, on the contrary, we neither love nor detest; we are interested not in what they are, but only in what they say and do. They have no further existence for us than as they act and speak on the stage before our eyes; touch them, and, like ghosts in Elysium, they turn to empty air in our grasp.