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Deception and disguise, classic elements of comedy, are found in both William Wycherly’s The Country Wife and Richard Steele’s The Conscious Lovers. These devices rely on gaps of knowledge between different characters, or between characters and the audience, of a person’s true identity, but the true natures of the two plays’ characters are very different. The Country Wife is a typical stage comedy; most of the characters, including the protagonist, are humorous, flawed people who wish to hide their faults from others. The Conscious Lovers is a sentimental comedy, in which, according to Oliver Goldsmith, “the virtues of private life are exhibited, rather than the vices exposed” (491). The good guys have no vices either to expose or hide; they are without flaw or stain, exemplars of virtue for the audience, and distance themselves from deception, all of which aims to have the right couples marry. Each play treats disguise in a manner consistent with the moral atmosphere; in The Country Wife, it is accepted as yet another human foible, whereas The Conscious Lovers seeks to eliminate and condemn it.
Deception is prevalent in The Country Wife. Lady Fidget, Dainty Fidget, and Mrs. Squeamish value their reputations as respectable women, but only because reputation keeps them from being suspected. While they sleep with Horner, they maintain their appearances as virtuous women to their husbands and the rest of the world. In public, they act as their names would imply, but in private they carouse with Horner and even use “honor” as a euphemism for “sex.” They trick even the audience; the first time we see these women, they are sniffish and refined, saying things like, “No, no, no! Foh, foh, foh!” (1.1, 7) in the face of incivility. Only a few scenes later do we find them conceding that “the crime [of adultery]’s the less when not known” (2.1, 25). As the play progresses, they seem ever fouler, not caring that Horner is carrying on with all three of them at once. These pretenders to honor turn out to be the most vulgar characters in the play.
Their opposite in pretense, oddly enough, is Horner, who, in order to have access to women without suspicion, starts a rumor that he is a eunuch. He endures the mockery of Sir Jasper Fidget, but receives the praise and favors of Lady Fidget for his willingness to, “suffer [him]self the greatest shame that could fall upon a man, that none might fall upon us” (2.1, 28) which is true, even if it makes him appear more selfless than he is. Horner even risks his life later on to protect Mrs. Pinchwife, who loves him, from the wrath of her husband; he “must save [his] mistress…come what will on’t” (5.4, 80). Horner not only deceives husbands in appearing impotent, but is in some respects morally ambiguous, a more decent person than he first seems to us.
Horner and his mistresses conceal themselves throughout the play, but other characters wear literal disguises. Mr. Pinchwife, for example, makes his wife sit with the prostitutes in the theatre, so that nobody will think her married to him, and that is precisely when Horner first sees her. Pinchwife next has Margery dress as a man when she goes out, to keep men from seducing her, but Horner sees through the disguise at once and uses it as an opportunity to kiss her without her husband’s being able to protest. This pretense soon leads to another, in which Pinchwife leads his wife, whom he takes to be his sister, to an assignation with Horner. All of Margery Pinchwife’s disguises bring her closer to an affair, and the audience cannot help but cheer her on and smile each time the tyrannical Mr. Pinchwife draws her closer to Horner.
Not all such tricks lead to illicit affairs. Harcourt, hoping to wed Alithea, dresses up as a priest in order to marry her to Sparkish, her fianc?. He speaks to Alithea in ostensibly religious but obviously amorous addresses, such as “With all my soul, divine, heavenly creature, when you please” (4.1, 48) and in departure from an ancient convention of stage disguise, she sees through the costume but cannot persuade Sparkish that Harcourt is the priest. Sparkish’s obtuseness helps Alithea later, when he tells her he married her for money. The upright Alithea is shocked at his pretense, and the marriage’s invalidity allows her to wed Harcourt. The deception leads to a happy ending, but although we know Sparkish to be cowardly and stupid, we could not be sure until now that he did not love Alithea. Harcourt’s trick works because he is in a comedy, not because he knew (although he says so to Alithea) that he is saving her from a loveless marriage.
The Conscious Lovers contains a similar deception; two characters pretend to be judges, confusing Cimberton and Mrs. Sealand with the complex legal nonsense that “according to the instruction of Sir Ralph, he could not dock the entail and then create a new estate for the heirs general” (3.1, 358) in order to tangle the marriage proceedings between Lucinda and her crass, inhuman suitor. In this case, the deceit has perfect justification; Cimberton’s motives are entirely clear and his eventual rejection of Lucinda on account of her decrease fortunes surprises nobody. The plot’s executors are also different; the men involved are Myrtle, who loves Lucinda, and the servant Tom. Bevil Jr. himself, the play’s main and most virtuous character, is exempted from taking part in the plot, although he invented it. Unlike Harcourt’s, this scheme works perfectly, Cimberton granted more wit than Sparkish and the judges less daring than Harcourt to mock the fianc? in obvious lapses; Bevil Jr. considers it almost “immoral” (2.1, 341) even to make fun of Target’s stammer. The disguise and roundabout language are necessary evils, barely allowed to be funny.
The play’s little immoral pretense is frowned upon and consigned to minor characters. Humphrey upbraids Tom for putting on airs and acting like his master in Parliament waiting-rooms; Indiana’s servant botches the trick of claiming his mistress is out; an unruly fellow at a masquerade insults John Bevil, at which point Bevil Jr. removes his own mask, the better to defend his father’s credit. Unmasking reveals his true nature, and his true nature is good; a mask does not befit Bevil Jr. He can suffer the judge’s robes on Myrtle, but whenever a secret appears dangerous, he reveals it. He keeps Lucinda’s letter secure for less than a scene, showing it to Myrtle to “serve him and her by disobeying her in the article of secrecy” (4.1, 361) and avoid an imminent duel with him. Horner, when a lady entrusted him with a secret, would fight to keep it silent. Each play presents the main character’s decision as laudable; The Conscious Lovers stands opposed to deceit.
When important, upper-class characters do attempt to conceal the truth, they do it out of regard for each other, not malice. John Bevil orders his son to marry Lucinda, though the marriage will not take place, because he wants to ensure that Bevil Jr. has no dishonorable affections for Indiana. The son himself wishes to remain an anonymous benefactor to Indiana because he delights merely “to be conscious that from his superfluity an innocent, virtuous spirit is supported above the temptations and sorrows of life” (2.2, 350). These charitable deeds lie far from The Country Wife’s society of Fidgets and Squeamishes. Isabella’s doubt of Bevil’s intentions can be explained by her previous ill usage; the trusting Indiana never risks her honor, and, unlike her equivalent, the innocent Mrs. Pinchwife, never wishes to.
Everybody is what he seems; Indiana never looses her virtue, nor does Bevil Jr. threaten her or disobey his father. Mrs. Sealand even knows that Cimberton does not love Lucinda; nobody falls in or out of love, nobody reveals a new facet of character. The only real surprise, that Indiana is Sealand’s daughter, is a plot contrivance, not a secret. It allows the play to end happily, but without any change in the deadlocked arrangement of static characters.
The Conscious Lovers, with its exemplars of honesty and honor, conveys moral messages without the characters’ stooping to guile. It sets out to produce joy in the audience by showing people behaving well, and it succeeds at least in the second part of its objective. Steele, in fashioning a new form of comedy, employs deception reluctantly, apologizing for its inherent immorality and shunting it to servants. The Country Wife has no more noble purpose than to entertain the audience, and embraces the old comic convention of disguise to accomplish all sorts of adulterous ends. Each approach fits its play and characters, but Wycherly’s is the more complete. The Country Wife lies in a firm comic tradition; The Conscious Lovers, unwilling to abandon its roots entirely, stakes out uneasy ground between comedy and tragedy. We must not laugh at Tom and Myrtle’s jokes; Bevil Jr. chastises those who conceal their identities, and would have us delight in virtue instead. Unless we smile at the protagonist’s exaggerated goodness, what humor remains in The Conscious Lovers is hard to accept. The characters in The Country Wife may be unscrupulous, and we may be so for laughing at them, but the play teaches us to expect no better of ourselves.
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