I’ve been thinking a lot about the durability of Trump’s house of lies. Will anyone in the GOP stand up to him rather than dancing forever in his shadow? Will cracks appear in his wall of support? A Restoration comedy featuring many of the same behaviors argues against optimism.
In William Wycherley’s Country Wife, a society defined by self-deception almost collapses when one of the few innocent characters wants to tell the truth. All is “saved,” however, when she is stifled, allowing willful self-blindness to continue on. The play actually concludes with a “dance of the cuckolds”—which is to say, of men who refuse to confront what is happening to them.
Produced during the decadent reign of Charles II, Country Wife is one of the darkest comedies in an era that produced many. Horner is a notorious rake who exists to cuckold husbands (put cuckold horns on their heads). Needing a new strategy to get past their heightened defenses, he has Dr. Quack start a rumor that venereal disease has rendered him impotent. When Quack warns, “[B]y this means you may be the more acquainted with the husbands, but the less with the wives,” Horner replies, “[I]f I can but abuse the husbands, I’ll soon disabuse the wives.” Sure enough, before long Sir Jasper Fidgit asks him to chaperone Lady Fidgit, who becomes one of his many mistresses.
How does this apply to our political situation? Well, we have for president a conman who the GOP establishment thought it could manipulate to their own ends. To their amazement, like Horner he has been (excuse the verb) screwing everyone over to his heart’s content. His presidency has been one long self-indulgence with not a glance toward higher principle, and the foolish husbands and wives find themselves hopelessly entangled in his machinations. He’s not playing their game. They’re playing his.
Yet their sense of pride doesn’t allow themselves to admit this. Likewise, the play provides a master class in self-denial. Even when Wycherley’s husbands finds their wives in compromising positions, they find ways to rationalize what they are seeing rather than admit the truth. Take the following scene, for instance, where Sir Jasper enters to find his wife in Horner’s arms:
Sir Jasp. How now!
Lady Fid. [Aside.] O my husband!—prevented—and what’s almost as bad, found with my arms about another man—that will appear too much—what shall I say?—[Aloud.] Sir Jasper, come hither: I am trying if Mr. Horner were ticklish, and he’s as ticklish as can be. I love to torment the confounded toad; let you and I tickle him.
Sir Jasp. No, your ladyship will tickle him better without me, I suppose. But is this your buying china? I thought you had been at the china-house.
Horn. [Aside.] China-house! that’s my cue, I must take it.—[Aloud.] A pox! can’t you keep your impertinent wives at home? Some men are troubled with the husbands, but I with the wives; but I’d have you to know, since I cannot be your journeyman by night, I will not be your drudge by day, to squire your wife about, and be your man of straw, or scarecrow only to pies and jays, that would be nibbling at your forbidden fruit; I shall be shortly the hackney gentleman-usher of the town.
Sir Jasp. [Aside.] He! he! he! poor fellow, he’s in the right on’t, faith. To squire women about for other folks is as ungrateful an employment, as to tell money for other folks.
What follows is the famous china scene where “china” takes on so many sexual innuendoes that for years afterwards people familiar with the play tittered when they heard it used.
Horner also makes love to the country wife of the title, Margery Pinchwife, but she has none of Lady Fidgit’s cosmopolitan sophistication. In her innocent eyes, if you fall in love with someone, you should just leave your husband and go off with him. In the play’s brilliant finale, she is ready to testify, to her husband and to the world, that Horner has not in fact been incapacitated by venereal disease.
If she does so, every one of Horner’s mistresses faces dishonor and every one of their husbands risks being shamed as a cuckold. In the Ukraine bribery scandal, every Trump supporter who mouths his defense risks being seen as a Russian dupe. So what happens in the play?
Forget about character witnesses. When Quack offers to bring in fellow doctors to testify to Horner’s STD, a skeptical Mr. Pinchwife says,
They!—they’ll swear a man that bled to death through his wounds, died of an apoplexy.
It’s like asking Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Rudy Giuliani, and William Barr to testify to Trump’s honesty.
Instead, to save the situation Mrs. Pinchwife is persuaded to accede to a flimsy lie. She was just taking revenge on an overly jealous husband, the maid Lucy says, and then leans on Margery to agree:
Lucy (the maid) to Mr. Pinchwife: Indeed, she’s innocent, sir, I am her witness, and her end of coming out was but to see her sister’s wedding; and what she has said to your face of her love to Mr. Horner, was but the usual innocent revenge on a husband’s jealousy;—was it not, madam, speak?
Mrs. Pinch. [Aside to Lucy and Horner.] Since you’ll have me tell more lies—[Aloud.] Yes, indeed, bud.
Trump and the GOP have been doing all in their power to keep our own Margery Pinchwives from telling the truth. Sometimes they do so by lambasting the truthtellers, just as Lady Fidgit angrily calls Mrs. Pinchwife a fool. In any event, keeping faith with Trump requires a tremendous amount of self deception, which is what Mr. Pinchwife acknowledges in the end:
For my own sake fain I would all believe;
Cuckolds, like lovers, should themselves deceive.
His resigned speech is followed by the dance of the cuckolds. Unlike most social comedy, no new social order emerges. Life goes on as before.