“When producing a classic today, it’s advisable
To rewrite it till it is unrecognizable.”
Richard Maltby and David Shire turn to William Wycherley’s The Country Wife (1675), one of the most biting and boldly sexual comedies of the Restoration period, for their musical adaptation. In doing so, they continue the rich tradition of theatrical adaption followed by Wycherley himself, who borrowed material from Terence’s The Eunuch (161 BCE) and Moliere’s The School for Husbands (1661) and The School for Wives (1662) for his own play.
Setting the story in 1839 New Orleans, Maltby and Shire celebrate the vibrant mixture of race, class, and music that the city offers as a theatrical backdrop (quite literally) to their musical. The quintessential 19th century theater manager Lucius McGrath -- newly decamped from his failed operation in Bath, England -- arrives in New Orleans eager to re-establish his artistic enterprise in this new, seemingly open, sensual world.
As Lucius can’t afford to pay professional actors, he uses amateurs from the local citizenry to form his acting company. Rehearsals have just concluded, and the play we see is a kind of 19th century work-in-progress that will be revised throughout the performance. Lucius interrupts the action to coach the actors or change the direction; as these intrusions mount up, we see his growing desperation to keep control of the production. Indeed, at the end of the first act Trixy, playing Margery Pinchwife, takes over, announcing that she doesn’t like the way women are treated in the play; she’s going to rewrite it so she can have the ending she wants – “True Love and Marriage.”
Following intermission, the ever-inventive Lucius must devise a way to delay the start of Act II while Trixy and company rehearse her rewrite. He arrives at the perfect solution: a delightful entr’acte that embodies the art of acting at its finest -- a celebration of theatrical androgyny that combines male and female in one hilarious musical vamp:
“God needs just one of me
When he fills up Noah’s Ark”
But how will the play end? Will Lucius be able to preserve Wycherley’s couplings, or will Trixy’s version win out? Lucius tricks Trixy by adopting another dramatic convention -- the Fifth Act Repentance Scene -- in which the incorrigible husband’s expression of “good heartedness” serves to soften the deep cynicism of Wycherley’s more “realistic” ending; this type of reversal would effectively turn Restoration Comedy into the Sentimental Comedy of the 18th century. But despite all this, Trixy still gets the last word -- a fitting conclusion to a metatheatrical mélange of Restoration wit, American entrepreneurialism, and girl-gets-boy happiness.
- Kathleen Dimmick | Dramaturg
KATHLEEN DIMMICK served as resident dramaturg at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles and American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco, where she worked on classic and contemporary plays. As production dramaturg, she has worked with directors JoAnne Akalaitis, Robert Woodruff, and Garland Wright. She was a member of the faculty at Bennington College for twelve years, and recently served as consulting dramaturg for Red Bull Theater. MFA, Yale School of Drama.