The Provoked Wife is the second original comedy written by John Vanbrugh. The often-repeated claim that Vanbrugh wrote part of his comedy The Provoked Wife in the Bastille is based on allusions in a couple of much later memoirs, but is regarded with some doubt by modern scholars (see McCormick). It is different in tone from his first play, the largely farcical The Relapse, and adapted to the greater acting skills of the new company of actors chosen for its premiere, who walked out not long before in a disupute with management. The actors' cooperative boasted the established star performers of the age, and Vanbrugh tailored The Provoked Wife to their specialties. While The Relapse had been robustly phrased to be suitable for amateurs and minor acting talents, he could count on versatile professionals like Thomas Betterton, Elizabeth Barry, and the rising young star Anne Bracegirdle to do justice to characters of depth and nuance.
The role of Sir John Brute in The Provoked Wife became one of David Garrick's most famous roles.
The Provoked Wife is a comedy, but Elizabeth Barry who played the abused wife was especially famous as a tragic actress, and for her power of "moving the passions", i.e., moving an audience to pity and tears. Barry and the younger Bracegirdle had often worked together as a tragic/comic heroine pair to bring audiences the typically tragic/comic rollercoaster experience of Restoration plays. Vanbrugh takes advantage of this schema and these actresses to deepen audience sympathy for the unhappily married Lady Brute, even as she fires off her witty ripostes. In the intimate conversational dialogue between Lady Brute and her niece Bellinda (Bracegirdle), and especially in the star part of Sir John Brute the brutish husband (Betterton), which was hailed as one of the peaks of Thomas Betterton's remarkable career, The Provoked Wife is something as unusual as a Restoration problem play. The premise of the plot, that a wife trapped in an abusive marriage might consider either leaving it or taking a lover, outraged some sections of Restoration society.