The Country Wife
Repertory theater for New York? Weren’t we all thinking of something like Laurence Olivier as Hotspur one night and as Justice Shallow the next? I found, to go back a little, that it was difficult to make out what we were supposed to feel about David Wayne and Hal Holbrook in a “challenging” variety of roles. This was a puzzling privilege we were being offered. One mentions the leading actors in the Kazan-Whitehead company only because the names of the actors in the Blau-Irving Company are not yet familiar to us. We now have their second production, Wycherley’s The Country Wife, and it is clear that the company and its whole organization must be immediately modified. To refuse to do this, out of some fidelity to old longings, would be puritanical pedantry. This group is an emerging country that must have foreign aid or sink. Outside American and foreign actors and directors will have to be brought in for particular roles and particular plays, for single performances and single productions. It is one thing to collect a group of dedicated people working together on a shoe-string outside New York, bringing interesting theater where there would perhaps be no theater at all. But you cannot play around with the gold of Lincoln Center, buying the most splendid costumes and the most intricate staging, and, like a millionaire hoarding soap shavings, cut off consumption just where it is needed most, in the leading roles. It is often thought that the repertory ideal is sacred, that somehow the company working and learning together will be sufficient to its tasks. I do not, however, from my seat in the audience, get the impression that the Repertory Theatre of Lincoln Center is made up of youngsters learning their craft. I have the belief that the contrary is true: that these actors are in the prime of life and that they are as they will be. Those roles that cannot be filled among them will have to be filled from the outside.
The Country Wife, as the textbooks used to have it, is a “blast at sexual hypocrisy.” It is a cynical comedy with scarcely more than an occasional subplot trace of human feeling. Fornication is the sole concern of the plot. The characters exist in an isolated, dream-like world of zestful copulation; they take time out only for perverse tricks that will heighten the pleasure. Pinchwife’s jealousy lashes him on: “I’m on the rack!” Sparkish is just the opposite and throws his betrothed into the arms of his best friend, or his fellow fop, since friendship is not a sentiment in this work. The most outrageous diversion is that being played out by Horner, the “hero” of the play. He spreads the word that he has gotten clap abroad and been made impotent by treatment. This is indeed an extreme “conceit.” Thinking him impotent, husbands will have no fears for their wives, etc.
Horner could be a number of things in …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.