The Country Wife by William Wycherley

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BBC Radio 3, 13 April 2008

David Blount’s revival of The Country Wife was perhaps the first I had encountered to focus specifically on gender roles, and how the characters’ behaviour differs in public and in private. Husbands such as Pinchwife (Geoffrey Whitehead) automatically made assumptions about their partners, based on their received opinions about females; such assumptions inevitably proved wrong. This underlined how many men had been conditioned by the expectations imposed on them by London society. The same applied to rakes like Horner (Ben Miller). Most Restoration revivals present such characters for our admiration; they possess both the verbal and creative skills to achieve their lecherous ends. Blount presented Horner’s verbal games as a desperate struggle to preserve his masculine identity in a world dominated by strong-willed women. His asides resembled appeals to the listeners’ good nature. If they liked what he was saying, then perhaps he could become more certain about his identity.


Female characters such as Margery Pinchwife (Clare Corbett) and Lady Fidget (Celia Imrie) had no such hang-ups; they were inevitably more adept with words and could achieve their aims with little effort.  This revival became a series of verbal duels between the sexes, in which women apparently assumed a secondary role as objects of male affection, but who in reality held the upper hand as they toyed with their suitors’ feelings. Such behaviour might be considered coquettish (and thereby confirming to established gender roles in a patriarchal society). In Blount’s revival we were left in no doubt that Lady Fidget was merely playing at being a coquette; she knew all the rules of the game of love and could ably exploit them for their own ends. It was the women who resolved all the plot-complications (even though the men believed they were in control) and brought the play to a satisfying conclusion.


However, I would not go so far as to call this revival ‘feminist’ in tone. Rather it reminded us of the constructed nature of gender roles, and how people can prosper if they are aware of such constructions. They can help to forge new constructions – for example, equating femaleness with power rather than passivity. This Country Wife had something very important to say to contemporary listeners, and Blount should be congratulated on his achievement. Recently the Sunday plays on Radio 3 have been extremely thought-provoking, offering radical readings of the classics (A Streetcar Named Desire, The Country Wife). I eagerly anticipate further groundbreaking productions.