We finished up The Country Wife today, and my classes agreed with me that the in vino veritas scene in act five seems forced. The play as a whole, as I mentioned last time, is a nonstop flurry of dirty jokes, stratagems to get sex, and more dirty jokes. The most central characters are the most experienced player and the most natural study (it’s not clear to me whether they actually get together, but I’m no Restoration comedy scholar), and in the end, predictably, things nearly fall apart when all of the scheming characters (which is to say all of the characters) wind up in the same room, and a skillfully applied but professionally convincing lie on the part of Horner’s physician saves his skin.
The drunken truth-telling scene comes a couple scenes before, when Horner and two of the women he’s (likely) enjoying on the sly get good and drunk and start talking about men’s and women’s reputations and the lengths they go to in order to enjoy illicit sex. Right in the middle of it, two of the women and Horner launch into what I thought (and my students agreed) sounded like some kind of broad social critique of the expectations surrounding marriage and sex in polite society. The problem is, of course, that none of the characters in the play seems to have enough of a soul to suffer from anything, much less repression, so even the drunken truth-telling seems entirely hollow.
I was perfectly honest with my class that I only taught this play because the department contracted me to do a historical survey of English literature; there are all sorts of things I’d rather teach. That said, now I know that I can in fact teach really bad comedy for a week, and I imagine I might have even taught somebody something.