'Restoration comedies are simply about sex in its various manifestations from prostitution to romantic tenderness and not vehicles for social criticism.' Discuss Wycherly's The Country Wife and Behn's The Rover in light of this statement.
Neither Wycherly nor Behn were entirely typical of the authors encountered within the genre of Restoration comedy. In a time in which even Dryden descended to simple debauchery, both offered complex and defiant works that continue to this day to be enthusiastically interpreted and reinterpreted. As Wycherly wrote in his prologue to The Country Wife, "[this] play shan't ask your leave to live" In discussing them as social satire we must also remember that the irony of most comedies of this variety is keenly at work, that the truly virtuous amongst the audience ought really not to have grasped the sexual nature of the double entendres, and that this is an integral, and entirely intentional, feature of the writing.
Over the course of this essay I shall be extending my support for the view that art, in depicting social situations, contains implicit criticism of the political and social events around it. Both of these plays go a long way towards demonstrating the misogynistic attitudes of their day, and usually do so in ways that pejoratively depict ingrained traditional values. In addition, there was before this period the crisis of the monarchy, subsequent rule and removal of Cromwell, and the political position of authors in relation to this was frequently discernable in their works. Finally, there was the fact that plagiarism amongst authors becoming more prevalent a claim as an increasing pool of writers fought for the same (comparatively limited) audience. As Horner states early in The Country Wife, audiences became jaded with old tricks, and new depths had to be reached in order to abuse a husband or win interest. Thus we are presented wit the age-old question of how far one can spit in the face of censorship and close-mindedness without provoking a backlash. A wealth of critical works already exists in study of these issues, and to fail to engage with it would, I feel, be a major failing by omission.
Of the plays, Behn's is the easier of the two in which to isolate an open critique of contemporary social values. This is because expectations of female writers were quite different to those made of men, and writing from a position that entirely ignored these perceptions would have been torturously difficult: a female playwright could not gain renown in one sense without simultaneously forfeiting it in another. It is also easier to see societal parallels within The Rover because of its more realistic (though exotic) characterisation. Personal social agendas permeate the play, notably in the character of Pedro, who has his own intended husband for Florinda, and is upset at Antonio's affront of sending Belville to fight in his stead "[showing] how little [Antonio] esteemed her" However, the comic conventions of both plays depend principally upon their treatment of the socially mobile rake, which can in itself be considered valid criticism of moral hypocrisy. Behn also writes from a strongly politicised (Tory royalist) point-of-view, which cannot escape the production of social criticisms. Coming from a blundering character so lacking in wit and intelligence that Behn christened him 'Blunt', his pronouncement that "I thank my stars I had more grace than to forfeit my estate by cavaliering" suggests that what he views as 'grace' is intended by the author to be taken for craven folly and a lack of honourable resolve. Behn engages in the politics of sympathy for dispossessed royalists in the construction of Blunt as a coward and fool. A subsequent argument is made that the rover's are worthy because "they have the glory to suffer with the best of men and kings"
In particular though, both plays have much to offer the modern reader in their projection of gender politics. Marriage is a clear target of social criticism: It requires a quite precisely deliberate staging of The Country Wife to dismiss the casual violence of Pinchwife as the actions of blustering and ultimately harmless cully. His offhand statement "Good wives and private soldiers should be ignorant" reveals an equation between two disparate groups. "Theirs not to wonder why / Theirs but to do or die" would be a fittingly punning anachronism to elaborate upon his position: this seems to be primarily a class distinction rather than one of gender, but it is instrumental in revealing the extent of the disempowerment of women; they are effectively forbidden the status of class. Then there is the hypocrisy of "there is no being too hard for women at their own weapon, lying" since despite this, it is Pinchwife who first seeks to mask and conceal truths from his wife.
In order to tame a rake, a woman must be more than the blank slate demanded of her by the society embodied by those such as Pinchwife, and Alithea proves to be as much of an anomaly in her society as Hellena and Florinda are in theirs. They must prove themselves equal in flexible morality and, more importantly, wit, before they can be allowed to obtain a mate of enduring interest. Female agency is a necessity for this situation to be realised, a fact Wycherly is as interested in revealing as Behn in his discursion upon the Pinchwife marriage. His treatment of women, when not satirical, is sympathetic; he clearly does not side directly with Pinchwife's sentiment of "If we do not cheat women, they'll cheat us", since he has Mrs Pinchwife's conduct follow the ill-treatment by her husband, not precede it. Susan Staves offers a view of Benn's work that radically refocuses views of its social impact:
[Aphra Behn goes] one step further by offering perjured heroines. In [her] work even private vows prove impossible to keep. The heroic drama abounds in grand villainesses who gleefully perjure themselves, but Behn ... [ends] the century by presenting unfaithful women as heroines.
It is certainly notable that discussion of the roles and position of women in society forms the basis of the first scene of The Rover, and is presented from the singular perspective of the women themselves. Florinda's brother rebukes Hellena for her resolution that she will "provide [herself]" on the basis that "You are not designed for the conversation of lovers". However, this designation is wholly that of Pedro and his absent father, and the patriarchal society they dominate. Its presence here is could almost be deemed a regression for the society that Behn writes from within, but only barely, as a similar argument was set against women writers. What is uncertain is how, as an author, she and other writers intend us to take their dialogue and set pieces.
McCarthy, author of a Wycherly biography, comes to the conclusion that "The division of opinion over [The Country Wife] usually occurs on the point of view towards Horner: is he a rake hero (approved by the author)? a satirist (possibly approved)? or satirized (disapproved)?" and goes on to note that the position of the reader is more implicated in the judgement than that of Wycherly himself and that "any critic who wants a simple resolution will run aground in this play ... its intention has yet to be resolved, and probably never will be".
This is discovered to be true in the manner in which both plays deny attempts at simplicity of societal analysis or subsequent solutions. Wycherly digs at the fact that "your bigots in honor are just like those in religion; they fear the eyes of the world more than the eye of Heaven, and think there is no virtue but railing at vice, and no sin but giving scandal", whilst with Willmore's antagonistic question of Florinda "why at this time of night was your cobweb door set open dear spider — but to catch flies" Behn acknowledges that female freedom is dangerous in a (male ordered) environment that does not yet accept it. Sex is thus revealed to be amongst the central themes of these two plays, but is certainly not present in isolation.
Bevis gives us his summation of the genre, that "the real immorality of Restoration comedy is here: not in the play, but in the prostitution of talent", but this is an indictment I am not inclined to share. Nor is it one entirely borne out by its author, who admits that debauchery is never Wycherly's sole purpose:
In sex comedy proper, sex is entertainment, an end in itself, whereas Horner uses his disguise not only to obtain sexual favours but to reveal hypocrisy, an activity he enjoys as keenly as seduction
This is further supported by more recent criticism:
"Horner's quest is clearly cognitive as well as sexual. His 'play' will misuse man by assigning a different value to him and will simultaneously and by the same transaction 'disabuse' or free from falsehood the sign of woman." (lecture handout)
This is also supported in the way in which Wycherly, through Harcourt and other, attacks pretenders to the throne of wit. Sparkish, one of his principal comic butts, is obsessed with pretension ("a wit to me is the greatest title in the world") and in a larger sense this was perhaps a response to the influx of new writers to London, whose derivative material was seen to dilute the 'purity' of its sources. Sparkish is built up with enough valid points (such as his comment, "[I,] hate a man for loving you! If he did love you, 'tis but what he can't help; and 'tis your fault, not his, if he admires you") that he might be presented as a worthy and sympathetic character if not for his susceptibility to verbal and logistical out-manoeuvre.
In a similar vein, Pinchwife's domination over his wife's actions in IV, ii ("I will stab out those eyes that cause my mischief") could possibly be interpreted either as the jealously of inadequate hacks against women writers, or of established writers against the growing circle of those who listed penmanship amongst their skills.
I would like to continue focusing upon the question of female authorship, in which I find the criticism of Richard Bevis problematical. He accepts that there is no lack of technical skill in the writing, since "three couples talk and cross-talk complexly, with numerous asides and interventions (iii. 1)" and that if anything, this is balanced out with the ever-present farce, largely centred in the mocked Blunt. However, he is dismissive of Behn's contribution to the stage: "Brisk stage business and easy laughs... characterised the intrigue comedies of Thomas Durfey and Aphra Behn.", going so far as to adjudge that "Behn rises to verse, though here are some characters who can (just) sustain it" which is closely connected to something I wish to highlight.
Many critics have made much of comparisons between Angellica Bianca and the author herself, for the simple reason that they are so many and varied. Angellica is one of few attributed the blank verse most usually associated with tragic heroines, which may be interpreted as a sign of authorial regard for the character. She is the only character who speaks honestly of love in the debilitating sense of conventional romance literature: "All this thou'st made me know, for which I hate thee / Had I remained in innocent security, I should have thought all men were born my slaves, / And worn my power like lightning in my eyes,". Elin Diamond notes that:
Angellica Bianca would seem to be a supplement to the intrigue plot ... Yet before the virgins are rewarded with the husbands they desire, they will traverse this whore's marketplace ... they will market themselves as she does, compete for the same male attention, suffer similar abuse.
The parallels are woven deeply into her featuring scenes. For instance, the Bravo's comment upon hanging up Angellica Bianca's sign: "This is a trade, sir, that cannot live by credit" is a remark as equally true in regard of playwright as of prostitute. Moretta's "Here's no selling by retail ... I tell thee we only sell by the whole piece"  is a more explicit parallel between the activity of prostitution and the fact that the creative spark of writing is indivisible if its author is to profit by its third-day returns.
Social inequalities are most explicitly brought to the forefront of the discussion in Angellica Bianca's confrontation of Willmore: "are you not guilty of the same mercenary crime? When a lady is proposed to you for a wife, you never ask how fair, discreet or virtuous she is, but what's her fortune" Discernment of Behn's socially-aware voice in the narrative is not limited to the scenes of Angellica Bianca, however. When Blunt states his intention that he"will be revenged on one whore for the sins of another", Florinda's reply might well speak for her author: "must I be sacrificed for the crimes of the most infamous of my sex? I never understood the sins you name". It also works on a purely literal level to reveal the dual standard of male sexual brutality: "[it would] anger us vilely to be trussed up for a rape upon a maid of quality, when we only believe we ruffle a harlot".
Authorial voice is a matter closely interwoven with discussion of the issue of gender and authorship and how this relates to the subject, immorality and plagiarism. Paulina Kewes offers a consideration of this that differs from the usual:
[Behn protests] that her sex, and the fact that she writes for money, make her an obvious target ... [but this] could, and often did, work in her favour. If some contemporary commentators equated women writers with prostitutes or condemned them for plagiarism, others rose to their defence.
This is a welcome remark in the context that it validates Behn's writing on its own merits rather than placing her in the more traditional situation of being defined by her 'otherness' to male writers such as Wycherly.
Personally, my only criticism of Behn's socially-realist construction might be the method by which she supplies monetary independence for her two female characters almost as an afterthought in the form of existing (and know, save to us) bequests. Whilst this was a convenient plot device, used by Farquhar amongst other contemporaries, its application here (as elsewhere) chafes a little at the suspension of disbelief. Its necessity, however, serves to remind us never to lose sight of the social realities of Restoration England in discussing the works of its authors—all of which make comment upon them by default.
B. Eugene McCarthy, William Wycherly: A Reference Guide, 1985
Richard W. Bevis, English Drama: 1660-1789, Longman, 1988
Paulina Kewes, Authorship and Appropriation, Oxford, 1998
Susan Staves, Player's Sceptres, Lincoln and London, 1979
Scott McMillin (ed.), Restoration And Eighteenth-Century Comedy, Norton, 1997
 Restoration And Eighteenth-Century Comedy, p3
 Restoration And Eighteenth-Century Comedy, p241
 Restoration And Eighteenth-Century Comedy, p176
 Restoration And Eighteenth-Century Comedy, p245
 Restoration And Eighteenth-Century Comedy, p13
 Sir Alfred Tennyson, The Charge Of The Light Brigade (from memory)
 Restoration And Eighteenth-Century Comedy, p23
 Restoration And Eighteenth-Century Comedy, p54
 Player's Sceptres, p247
 Restoration And Eighteenth-Century Comedy, p172
 Restoration And Eighteenth-Century Comedy, p173
 Wycherly: A Reference Guide, xxvii
 Restoration And Eighteenth-Century Comedy, p55
 Restoration And Eighteenth-Century Comedy, p208
 English Drama: 1660-1789, p92
 English Drama: 1660-1789, p85
 Restoration And Eighteenth-Century Comedy, p11
 Restoration And Eighteenth-Century Comedy, p36
 Restoration And Eighteenth-Century Comedy, p52
 English Drama: 1660-1789, p91
 English Drama: 1660-1789, p90
 English Drama: 1660-1789, p90
 Restoration And Eighteenth-Century Comedy, p239
 "Gestus and Signature", Restoration And Eighteenth-Century Comedy, p597
 Restoration And Eighteenth-Century Comedy, p187
 Restoration And Eighteenth-Century Comedy, p192
 Restoration And Eighteenth-Century Comedy, p194
 Restoration And Eighteenth-Century Comedy, p229
 Restoration And Eighteenth-Century Comedy, p231
 Authorship and Appropriation, p66
 George Farquhar, The Recruiting Officer