By Susan T. Hessel  

Let’s get this straight. In the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse production of  “The Country Wife,” men behave badly and women are considered property, objects of sexual conquest. This must make it one of those modern plays, right?

No and yes.

There are more than 300 years between when “The Country Wife” was written and modern-day audiences, according to Greg Parmeter, assistant professor of performance and the play’s director. It’s an old play with modern context.

William Wycherley wrote “The Country Wife” in 1675, 15 years after theatre returned to British society after being banned by the Puritans for 18 years. “Theatre was considered a corrupting influence. It was banned for a time because it inspired people to be sinful and debaucherous,” the director said. “Theatre was shut down. Playwrights and actors found other ways to make their living.”

The Puritan era “was very buttoned up and proper,” Parmeter said. “It was boring in a lot of ways.”

It was King Charles II who reopened playhouses and allowed people to once again attend theatre productions. Having grown up in Paris, France, Charles had a passion for the arts. 

“The Country Wife” is a Restoration play about deception and sex, with clever wordplays or puns throughout. “Essentially, the leading character is a man named Horner, which is a pun on being horny,” Parmeter said. “He pretends to be impotent to have access to high-society ladies and wives without suspicion of husbands. He was not impotent. It was a ruse.”

 This Restoration era was also a time when women were first allowed to act onstage instead of boys performing as women. “Old mores started to change. It was a very progressive, libertine era.”

Actually, mores changed a lot. “There are reasons that Restoration comedies are written the way they are. They are very sexualized, very broad in how they deal with society,” Parmeter said.

“The best-known fact about the Restoration drama is that it is immoral. The dramatists did not criticize the accepted morality about gambling, drink, love, and pleasure generally, or try, like the dramatists of our own time, to work out their own view of character and conduct,” wrote historian George Norman Clark in his book, “The Later Stuarts, 1660-1714.” “What they did was, according to their respective inclinations, to mock at all restraints. Some were gross, others delicately improper … The dramatists did not merely say anything they liked: They also intended to glory in it and to shock those who did not like it.”

William Shakespeare, perhaps the best known of early British playwrights, wrote before the Puritan era. “Some people honor Shakespeare for his works of pure beauty. In reality, there was little that Shakespeare enjoyed more than bawdy humor. His plays don’t quite land as dirty now, but in their day they were absolutely disgusting,” Parmeter said.

How does the play hold up in the era of “Me, too?” 

“It is comedy. There are going to be some conversations that we need to have around it. ‘The Country Wife’ is really difficult when we look at it in modern context. It has some very difficult things to say about how women are treated, and women in this play are not treated particularly well,” he said.

The play is best seen with a dose of history. The play, which runs April 26-28 and May 1-4, is performed in luscious period clothing and sets. 

But, as Parmeter noted, “It’s important to know the style and history behind a play. Nothing we do in theatre is done in a vacuum. We must still address how it relates to modern contexts. It’s one of the challenges and opportunities when we approach this script. I hope it starts conversation across campus. English classes study the play, and it should be of interest to the history department and women’s studies. We find ways to actively engage a modern audience in this play.” 

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