I find one of the most confounding and exciting conceits in William Wycherley’s The Country Wife to be when the over-protective Mr. Pinchwife dresses his wife, Margery, in menswear in an attempt to shield her from the advances of his rival, the rakish and dashing Mr. Horner. Horner, undeterred, takes the opportunity to make out with Margery in front of her husband, undermining Pinchwife’s plan. I was struck by how Queer this scene is. Two “men” kissing onstage multiple times in front of voyeurs? A woman considered more attractive when she is cross-dressing? Smooching a character whose very manhood is in question, and LOVING IT? Through this scene the play began to crystalize for me as the genderqueer relationship-spoofing droll Restoration equivalent to Wet Hot American Summer that it is.
The central conceit of the show was the only hang-up I found in envisioning this 1675 classic as a sex positive farce palatable for a modern audience. Traditionally, Horner spreads a rumor hinting at his own impotence as a result of contracting a venereal disease in France. He is then referred to as a “eunuch” and uses the theoretical castration as a smokescreen for his many trysts. In my personal adaptation of Wycherley’s original script for The Country Wife, Horner has just come out to his social circles as a genderqueer person, or an androgyne. Because Horner’s society is ill-equipped to understand how gender performance can be distinct from sexual preference, Horner is wrongly assumed to have turned asexual. I believe that this change allows us to cheer on Horner’s sexual misadventures without the contemporary guilt I feel while watching the original Horner dupe women into his bedroom through an elaborate lie. Horner comes out as an androgyne and is rewarded by more admirers than ever before. The only people getting duped in our version are the Pinchwifes of the world, the people who aggressively require others to conform to an arbitrary set of definitions regarding sexuality and gender.
As a further step in exploring the gender politics of this piece, I chose to set our production in Edwardian England (circa 1905). The Restoration is a surprisingly gender fluid period, typified by the advent of The Fop, a fashion plate flamboyantly flaunting his luxurious wardrobe and periwig in reaction to the artistic repression of the recent Interregnum. I wanted to place the characters of The Country Wife in a more restrictive culture while also bringing the play closer into our relatable past. At the turn of the 20th century, gender roles were prescribed in a fashion so exacting that we still feel the effects of it today. Because the face of the aristocracy drastically changed with the advent of “New Money” and the “Self Made Man,” social conduct became codified in a way it had never been before. “Polite Society” began to refer to the manner in which people comported themselves rather than the inherent privilege of those born into nobility. Anyone could learn to act like a gentleman or a lady. It’s due to his irreproachable manners that Ernest (of The Importance of Being... fame) is able to wheedle his way into an engagement despite (initially) tracing his lineage to a handbag. Chekhov and Shaw explore this same performance of breeding in plays such as The Cherry Orchard and Pygmalion. In America, Godey’s Lady’s Book had been circulating the gospel of ladylike behavior like wildfire. Over the following decade, Emily Post would write the definitive tome Etiquette, a book that still haunts young fiancées to this day. Gender distinction is endemic to these societal constructs, the performance of masculinity and femininity is synonymous with the expectations of “civilization.” In this world of strict gender binaries, Horner’s refusal to conform appears all the more striking.
Through rehearsals and dramaturgical research, we have actually uncovered a fair amount of genderqueer precedence in turn of the century England. In the Music Halls of London, Vesta Tilley was the most famous male impersonator and in New York, Julian Eltinge the most popular female impersonator. In the political sphere, Millicent Fawcett’s NUWSS and Emmeline Pankhurst’s WSPU were fighting for Women’s Suffrage with increasing militancy. Edith Garrud gained a reputation for her experience with Jiu jitsu and her tendency to beat police officers with clubs she concealed in her accessories. A contemporary touchstone would be Downton Abbey’s fictional Lady Sybil debuting her new pants suit to her utterly scandalized family. All of these exceptions, however, only go to further emphasize the rules that governed the presentation of gender in Edwardian society.
At our current moment in history, exactly one hundred and ten years later, our understanding of gender is undoubtedly in flux. What began with a few articles coining the concept of “metrosexuality” swelled into a deluge of think pieces about skinny jeans, man buns, pixie cuts and the mystique of Tilda Swinton. If feels like the tide of representation is slowly starting to trickle in; in film, we’ve recently had the lauded premiere of Tangerine, on television it seems to be the age of Laverne Cox and on stage, the award winning Hedwig and the Angry Inch is drawing to a close just as the amazing Taylor Mac’s Hir is about to make its New York debut. I’m excited to be making genderqueer theater at this particular moment in history, especially through the seemingly innocent and irrepressibly fun lens of a good old-fashioned bedroom farce. I hope you’ll swing by the Flamboyán Theater at the Clemente to see both The Country Wife and Elle Anhorn’s The Cunt (an original play inspired by Wycherley’s), running in repertory from 9/16 to 9/27. Tickets on sale here: https://www.artful.ly/spicy-witch-productions. Let’s keep the conversation going!