Tuesday, 11 October 2011

The Country Wife (1977)

By William Wycherley (1675)
BBC TV, 13 February 1977

Mrs Margery Pinchwife is a character that will last for ever, I should hope; and even when the original is no more, if that should ever be, while self-will, curiosity, art, and ignorance are to be found in the same person, it will be just as good as just as intelligible as ever in the description.
– William Hazlitt
The character has lasted, even surviving bowdlerisation during a couple of centuries when Wycherley’s variety of bawdy was considered indecent for public consumption. As we meet her in Act II, the “country wife” of the title (Mirren, in this TV production) is recently returned from her first visit to the London theatre, allowing the playwright to put a little self-referential joke into her mouth:
Indeed, I was a-weary of the play, but I liked hugeously the actors; they are the goodliest, properest men…
Like any good comedy, The Country Wife is constructed as an intricate mechanism. Three plots interlock. The first concerns the notorious rake Horner (Anthony Andrews), “one of the lewdest fellows in town”, who causes a false rumour to be spread about that he has been rendered impotent by a bungled treatment for the pox. This gives him free access to the ladies of the town, whose husbands suspect he is no threat to them. The second centres on the maniacally jealous Pinchwife (Bernard Cribbins), who has married an innocent country girl in the belief that she will not turn out to be a “jill-flirt”, a “gadder” and a “magpie” like all town-wives. Mayhem ensues as Pinchwife’s best-laid plans to frustrate Margery’s open and amorous inclinations only drive her into the arms of the libidinous Horner, who is determined to cuckold the old fool. In the third plot, a ridiculous fop and would-be wit, Sparkish (Michael Cochrane), loses the hand of Pinchwife’s sister Alithea (Ciaran Madden) to the more resourceful, and deserving, Harcourt (Jeremy Clyde). The three plotlines converge in the last Act, where Margery Pinchwife’s final recourse to dissimulation implies that she is learning the ways of the city even if she must remain a country wife, “for I can’t, like a city one, be rid of my musty husband and do what I list.”

Speaking to the BBC’s Andrew Marr recently, Helen Mirren ventured the opinion that Shakespeare would have written better female parts had he been writing for women performers, not boys.* It’s a good discussion point, although I’m not sure I believe it. I’m not even sure she believes it herself. In an earlier interview, the one that accompanies the DVD boxset of her television work, she talks with enthusiasm of the Jacobean tragedians and how they created fabulous women’s parts. She’d played three of them: Castiza in The Revenger’s Tragedy, Beatrice-Joanna in The Changeling and the title role in The Duchess of Malfi. Well, of course, these parts were all written for, and originally created by, male actors. It was only with the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 that professional actresses were welcome on the English stage. After a visit to the playhouse on 3 January 1661, Pepys recorded in his diary that that day was “the first time that ever I saw Women come upon the stage.” Eighty years later, once actresses’ place was firmly established, Colley Cibber assumed that their predecessors, the young men of “effeminate aspect”, those “ungain Hoydens” en travesti, must have been incapable of “Grace or Master Strokes of Action”. But the likelihood is that the boy actors of Elizabethan and Jacobean London made a decent fist of it, much as, in Japanese kabuki theatre to this day, there are male performers who specialise in playing women’s parts with uncanny verisimilitude. A spectator who saw Othello performed by the King’s Men in 1610 was totally convinced by the acting of the boy playing Desdemona:
…killed by her husband, in death she moved us especially when, as she lay in her bed, her face alone implored the pity of the audience.
So Wycherley belonged to the first generation of British dramatists who had the luxury of writing with professional actresses in mind. Mirren feels that, in creating the character of Margery Pinchwife, he didn’t use this to his advantage:
It’s an interesting role. She’s a little bit of a pawn, and everyone else is being funny around her, and she’s just being very sweet and innocent in the middle of it all. I don’t love those Restoration comedies, actually. They’re funny, but they’re threaded through with such cynicism and cruelty, and the women’s characters are rather cruelly treated in general, although they’re great women’s characters. But the writing is usually coming at them from a slightly cruel standpoint, and I don’t love them. You know, you’re either a beautiful young innocent or you’re a corrupt old bag, and there’s nothing in between. (Interview, 2007).
If there was any scope for characterisation “in between” we could rely on Mirren to find it, and she may well have done so in her take on the part. Margery is a “pawn” in the power struggle between men, but she’s also one of the few characters to emerge with any dignity at the end. Her admiration for the town gallants and obvious interest in sex – comedy-rich sources of outrage to her husband – suggest that she is not quite as “innocent” as she seems. Cruelty is certainly there: when Pinchwife dictates a letter that Margery must send to halt any further dealings with Horner, he reinforces his authority over her with threats of violence that, to us, are anything but comic. On the other hand, what follows immediately is his come-uppance: a delicious monologue where Margery dupes him by secretly composing a love letter to “poor, dear Mr Horner” and substituting one letter for the other. In Mirren’s reading, this is nicely executed and full of imaginative details, as she alternately writes furiously and gazes dreamily into space.

All in all, whatever her own reservations about the part, a very engaging performance: sign of a talent for comedy that she’d used in The Bed Before Yesterday and would draw on much later in Calendar Girls.

* Sir Harold Hobson seems to have agreed with her on this. In his cringeworthy review of her Lady Macbeth, he wrote: ‘When the stage was occupied only by Macbeth himself, Macduff and so on, I was wishing the author would get rid of them and let us see what was happening to this marvellous actress. I really do regret that Shakespeare never knew Miss Mirren. We would then have had a different play.’

Colley Cibber, Apology for the Life of Colley Cibber (1740)
William Hazlitt, ‘On Wycherley, Congreve, Vanbrugh, and Farquhar’ (1819)
Elizabeth Howe, The First English Actresses: Women and Drama 1660-1700 (1992)

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