The Way of the World
- AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY
- PLOT SUMMARY
- HISTORICAL CONTEXT
- CRITICAL OVERVIEW
- FURTHER READING
WILLIAM CONGREVE 1700
In 1700, when The Way of the World was performed on the English stage at Lincoln’s Inn Fields (a new theatre that William Congreve managed), it was not a popular success. This was the last play Congreve was to write, perhaps for that reason. Since that time, however, this play has come to be regarded not only as Congreve’s masterpiece, but as a classic example of the Comedy of Manners. The play is aptly named for two reasons. First, its action takes place in the “present,” which means it reflects the same social period during which the play was originally performed. Second, as a comedy of manners, its purpose is to expose to public scrutiny and laughter the often absurd yet very human passions and follies that characterize social behavior. It therefore transcends its time by holding a mirror to the fashionable world in all of its frivolity and confusion while posing something more precious and sensible as an antidote.
As with all comedies of this type, the principle comic material consists of sexual relations and confrontations. Marriages are made for the sake of convenience and tolerated within precise social limits. Affairs are conventional, jealousies abound, lovers are coy, and gallantry is contrived. Dowries are the coin of the marriage realm and therefore they are of central concern in all contracts and adulterous intrigues. Congreve makes clear that the general way of the world may be funny but it is not particularly nice. In the way of all romantic comedies the “marriage of true minds” is finally achieved, but Page 282 | Top of Articlehumiliation, cruelty, and villainy are the means by which the action goes forward. His comedy is not intended to remedy the world, of course, but to offer an insightful and amusing view of both its seedy and sympathetic aspects.
William Congreve was born in 1670 in Bardsey (a village near Leeds), Yorkshire. When his father was commissioned to command the garrison at Youghal four years later, the family moved to Ireland, where Congreve was enrolled at a famous school in Kilkenny. In 1686, he attended Trinity College, Dublin along with his contemporary, Jonathan Swift. In 1688, the Congreves moved back to England, where William began writing his first play, The Old Bachelour, as he was recovering from an illness. Although he was sent to study law at the Middle Temple in London in 1691, he was not a diligent student. He preferred writing.
The The Old Bachelour was an immature work and borrowed heavily from earlier seventeenth century playwrights, especially Wycherley and Etherege, but it was a popular success. Henry T. E. Perry writes in The Comic Spirit of Restoration that when the play first appeared on stage in 1693, with the help of John Dryden, “literary London went mad over the new author.” Congreve wrote four more plays between 1693 and 1700: The Double Dealer, Love for Love, The Mourning Bride, and The Way of the World, which appeared in 1700 and is considered his masterpiece.
As Congreve’s reputation grew as a dramatist, he began to enjoy the benefits of the literary establishment. He counted Swift, Dryden, and Alexander Pope among his friends. When Parson Jeremy Collier wrote his notorious attack on the English stage, Congreve answered it with The Way of the World. In William Congreve, Bonamy Dobráee conjectures that the play’s lukewarm reception may have been the reason that Congreve stopped writing plays. At any rate, Congreve still maintained his connections with the stage, managing Lincoln’s Inn Fields and collaborating with Vanbrugh and Walsh in writing Squire Trelooby in 1704. He also wrote two libretti.
As a man of letters, he also was rewarded with government sinecures. He was given a post in Customs and, in 1714, was made Secretary of Jamaica. With this patrimony, as well as revenue from theatre productions and some royalties, he made a comfortable living. Congreve never married, but he was fond of the actress, Mrs. Bracegirdle, who played leading roles in all of his plays, including the part of Mrs. Millamant in The Way of the World. He was also the lover of the second Duchess of Marlborough and fathered her younger daughter, Lady Mary, who became Duchess of Leeds. When he died in 1729 at the age of fifty-nine, he left most of his estate to the Duchess of Marlborough.
In ancient Greek tragedy, a prologue conventionally set forth the subject of the drama to be enacted. It still refers to the introductory material of a play that serves as a sketch of the characters or themes to appear. It also can be an explanatory speech given by one of the characters, which is the case here. Spoken by “Mr. Betterton,” the actor who played the role of Fainall in 1700, the Prologue takes the form of rhyming couplets in iambic pentameter meter. Congreve adapts the classic “heroic” verse both to establish this play as a serious dramatic offering but also to add to the comic effect. The Prologue also acts as both a tongue-in-cheek apology (in advance) and a taunt or challenge to the audience to find fault.
The speech begins with a comparison between “natural” fools and fools of “fortune.” Those fools, who presume themselves poets and depend upon fortune, have it the hardest because audiences are so fickle, whereas born fools are protected and even favored. Fortune is to born fools what surrogate mothers are to the offspring of cuckoo birds, known to lay their eggs in the nests of other birds. Poets, on the other hand, are like gamblers who get drawn into games with higher and higher stakes. Congreve therefore “pleads no Merit” from his past successes, a “vain Presumption” that might lose him his “Seat” in “Parnasus”—an allusion to the mountain in Greece sacred to Apollo and the Muses. He throws himself on the mercy of his audience and begs indulgence despite the “Toil” with which he “wrought the following Scenes.”
However, as the Prologue progresses, the tone changes. Congreve points the finger at “peevish Wits” who insist on the value of their work despite its reception. He playfully reminds his audience not Page 283 | Top of Articleto expect a satire since everyone in “so Reform’d a Town” is already “Correct” and therefore beyond instruction. Likewise, he claims no one should take it personally if he exposes a “Knave or Fool” since surely no such person would be found in this audience. He ends by referring to himself as a “Passive Poet” who will yield to audience judgement, but clearly he believes his play to be worthy and able to please.
The major male characters appear in the first act, set in a chocolate house in London. Two young men, Mirabell and Fainall, are playing cards, and Mirabell is losing. Fainall takes the opportunity to question Mirabell about his “indifferent mood,” which leads to a confession that Mirabell’s ardent love, Mrs. Millamant, rebuffed him the night before in the company of others. Those others include two “coxcombs” or conceited fools, Witwoud and Petulant, as well as several lady friends: Lady Wishfort (Millamant’s Aunt), Mrs. Marwood, and Mrs. Fainall. Fainall tells Mirabell that he must have come upon the women during one of their “cabal-nights” when they meet expressly to “sit upon the murder’d Reputations of the Week” and from which powwow men are deliberately excluded with the exception of the two fops mentioned above.
The following exchange reveals that half of Millamant’s fortune depends upon her marrying with her Aunt’s blessings. However, Lady Wishfort hates Mirabell for having pretended love to her while hiding his true designs to marry her niece. Mrs. Marwood, who, as the name intimates, is a spoiler, exposes the sham for reasons that appear later in the play. The misfortune of the lovers, the central conflict around which the action will revolve, is thus established early on.
Halfway through the act, a servant to Mirabell appears on the scene to tell him that one Waitwell is married “and bedded.” While it is not yet clear who Waitwell is or why this is important, Mirabell tells Fainall that he is “engag’d in a Matter of some sort of Mirth, which is not yet ripe for discovery.” The conversation then turns to the character of Millamant, whom Mirabell mildly criticizes for suffering fools. But in a revealing passage about the power of love, Mirabell confesses that he likes Millamant “with all her Faults” and even because of them. They are precious to him since he has studied them and knows them by heart. They are “as familiar to me as my own Frailties” he says, and “in a little time longer I shall like ’em as well.”
A messenger appears next with a letter from Sir Wilfull Witwoud for his half-brother Witwoud who is in the next room playing cards. Sir Wilfull has come to London to “Equip himself for Travel” abroad, which Mirabell finds outrageous since the man is over forty. Again the conversation between Mirabell and Fainall reveals information about characters introduced later, in this case the bashful, obstinate, but good-natured Sir Wilfull. He is compared to Witwoud whom Mirabell describes as a meddling fool but completely undiscerning about affronts directed at him. Enter Witwoud on cue who then demonstrates the nature of his wit in an amusing exchange among the three. Cajoled into revealing the nature of his friend Petulant’s faults, Witwoud reveals several, which he then turns to advantages. During the conversation, a coachman enters calling for Petulant and the audience finds that he has paid three ladies of indistinct reputations to call upon him to impress people with his own popularity. He also comes disguised in public places to call upon himself and leave messages for himself for the same reason. When he enters the room, he is affecting to be put out by the intrusion of the ladies and tells the coachman he will not come. Witwoud remarks, however, that the real reason Petulant does not go out is because there is “no more Company here to take notice of him.”
Through Petulant and Witwoud, Mirabell learns that Lady Wishfort is hatching a plot to marry Millamant to Mirabell’s uncle, who has come to London for the purpose of disinheriting Mirabell. If Millamant and the uncle marry and have a child, Mirabell will be disinherited. And he will lose his love. Throughout the exchange, Witwoud admires Petulant, but Petulant proves himself oafish and ill-bred. The men decide to walk in the “Mall” where they are sure to meet the ladies. Mirabell asks the two “gallants” to walk by themselves rather than embarrass him with their ribald remarks to women, whereby Petulant asserts that any lady who blushes deserves the shame since she has revealed in her understanding that either she is not innocent or not discreet enough to turn away. The act ends with an imputation in the form of a rhyming couplet spoken by Mirabell: the behavior that passes as fashionable wit is really thinly disguised impudence and malice.
The action takes place in St. James’s Park where Mrs. Fainall and Mrs. Marwood are first seen discussing the general depravity of men, a fashionable convention of the time; however, despite the assertions that men are “Vipers,” both ladies show that they are attracted to Mirabell. While they are talking, Fainall and Mirabell join them. Mr. and Mrs. Fainall seem tender toward one another, but when the two couples split, Fainall with Mrs. Marwood and Mrs. Fainall with Mirabell, it becomes plain that Fainall and Mrs. Marwood are having an affair and that Mirabell and Mrs. Fainall were once lovers. Mrs. Marwood intimates that Fainall’s wife likes Mirabell, but when Fainall responds, he accuses them both of being in love with Mirabell. Mrs. Marwood is offended and they quarrel. She threatens to broadcast their affair to the world and Fainall backs down. In Fainall’s ensuing attempt to make peace, Mrs. Marwood breaks into tears and to hide her face, dons a mask just as Mirabell and Mrs. Fainall enter.
Mrs. Fainall tells Mirabell how much she despises her husband. At the same time, she remarks how she once loved Mirabell “without Bounds.” Her marriage to Fainall, in fact, is one of convenience, made only to save her reputation. Mirabell makes Mrs. Fainall privy to his plot to have his servant, Waitwell, pretend to be his invented uncle (Sir Rowland). He has fixed it so that Waitwell has married Lady Wishfort’s waiting woman, Foible, to put them in league together. The plan is to have Waitwell, in the guise of the invented uncle, profess love to Lady Wishfort. Once she is caught in a trap, she will promise her niece to Mirabell to save herself from embarrassment. The plot thickens, so to speak, when Mirabell also tells Mrs. Fainall that he deliberately directed Foible to have Lady Wishfort announce in public that she would try and make a match between this invented uncle and Mrs. Millamant, his strategy being to secretly help Lady Wishfort keep her own marriage plans to the uncle a secret.
The young lovers come together for the first time when Mrs. Millamant enters the scene with her maid, Mincing, and her gallant follower, Witwoud. Witwoud bombards the gathered friends with a barrage of witticisms that demonstrate his tedious slavery to fashion and his silliness. Millamant then playfully satirizes the convention of letter sending as she and her maid discuss how they have “pinn’d up her hair” with the poetry but never the prose. Mirabell cuts through the raillery by confronting Millamant about the previous night when she snubbed him. The exchange conveys a sense of the popular courting conventions that require the façade of pretense, secrets, charm, and cruelty but never the demonstration of true feeling. When Mirabell gets Millamant alone, he questions why she spends time with such fools as Witwoud and Petulant. Millamant accuses him of being tiresome and walks away, but not without first letting drop the hint that she knows all about his plot. When she exits the scene, Mirabell is left alone pondering the “whirlwind” of love.
As the act closes, Waitwell and Foible enter the scene, obviously enjoying their recent nuptials. Foible tells Mirabell how his plot is progressing. She has supposedly gone out to show Sir Rowland the Lady’s picture in order to inflame his most ardent desires. She will then hurry back to her mistress to tell her how “he burns with Impatience” to see her. Mirabell is happy with the report and gives her money. He promises her that her future will be secure if all goes well. Just as Foible is about to return to her mistress, she sees Mrs. Marwood go by disguised in her mask. She suddenly panics and is in a hurry to get back lest Marwood tell her Lady she has seen her talking with Mirabell, Lady Wishfort’s sworn enemy. Mirabell now encourages Waitwell to “forget” himself and “transform into Sir Rowland.” In a comic last speech, Waitwell notes that it “will be impossible” for him to remember his old self since he has been married and knighted all in one day. He speaks the amusing closing line (again in rhyming couplet) that feigns Page 285 | Top of Articlegrief over the fact that he must lose his title and yet keep his wife.
Finally Lady Wishfort appears. The scene is a room in her house. She is in a tizzy, asking her servant, Peg, to fetch her a “little Red.” Peg mistakenly thinks she means “Ratifia,” a kind of cherry brandy, but she means her make-up or “paint.” However, Foible has locked up the paint and Peg can’t get at it. In a fit of anxiety, Lady Wishfort tells Peg to bring the Ratifia after all. The exchange shines a light on the silly vanity and bawdy, colorful humor of the Lady. Enter Mrs. Marwood. She indeed has reached the Lady before Foible and relates what she saw in St. James Park. When the Lady hears Foible entering, she bids Marwood hide in her closet so she can sound out her maid.
Foible, however, is up to the task. She admits speaking to Mirabell, but only because he begged her. She imputes to Mirabell’s character a cruelty that readily disposes the Lady to hate him even more. Lady Wishfort is especially incensed when Foible tells her that Mirabell has described her as “superannuated.” Lady Wishfort is “full of the Vigour of Fifty-five,” as Mirabell remarks in the first act. She has a difficult time keeping her face together and must practically lay on the paint with a trowel. The truth hurts, and the Lady is “so fretted” that she needs to repair her face before Sir Rowland comes, which Foible promises will be soon. Their exchange ends with Lady Wishfort pondering how best to receive Sir Rowland. She hopes he will be somewhat “importunate” so that she will not have to advance and “break Decorums.” Clearly, while she wants to preserve conventions, she is desperate for a husband and will not be too “nice” in the observance of convention if it does not suit the purpose. Before the Lady exits the scene, Foible reassures her that Sir Rowland is a “brisk man” and will take her “by storm.” The Lady is pacified.
Mrs. Fainall enters and tells Foible that she, too, is privy to the plot against her mother, Lady Wishfort. They discuss the details, not knowing that Mrs. Marwood is still hiding in the closet. Foible tells Mrs. Fainall that she is afraid Mrs. Marwood is watching her and so she must be careful. She hints at Marwood’s motivations when she tells Mrs. Fainall that Marwood “has a Month’s mind” (meaning she likes Mirabell), but that he “can’t abide her.” When they exit, Marwood enters the scene. She has overheard everything and is both angry and resolved that she will ruin Mirabell’s plans. Lady Wishfort enters and Mrs. Marwood puts it into her head to match Sir Wilfull Witwoud with Lady Wishfort’s niece, Millamant. The Lady thinks it a good idea and says she will “propose it.” Foible enters to announce that Witwoud and Petulant have arrived to dine. The Lady and Foible exit to change for dinner.
Enter Mrs. Millamant and Mincing. The exchange between Millamant and Marwood exposes the mean-spirited jealousy of Marwood as she advises Millamant that her love of Mirabell is no longer a secret and therefore not a fit subject for “Pretence.” Millamant accuses her of being “Censorious” and they trade thinly veiled insults. Millamant accuses Marwood of revealing to her aunt the secret love between her and Mirabell. Marwood taunts her, and Millamant pretends to be amused that Mirabell loves her so much that he has no use for the rest of the world, including Marwood. Marwood says she hates Mirabell and Millamant merrily agrees that she does, too, although this is just to have another go at Marwood, who is older than her and still unmarried. Marwood warns Millamant: “Your merry Note may be chang’d sooner than you think.” Millamant then calls for a song that satirizes the game of love by concluding that love is measured by the ambition involved, and the only worthy conquest is the one that has been won after so many others have tried and lost. Enter Petulant and Witwoud, who strive to showcase their combined wit in an amusing sally that further proves the aptness of their names.
Millamant and Mincing exit while Sir Wilfull Witwoud, dressed in his “Country Riding Habit,” along with a servant to Lady Wishfort enter. In a nod to “fashion,” which disdains country breeding, Witwoud pretends not to know his half-brother. Sir Wilfull approaches the “two gallants” standing by, who still refuse to speak. He speaks first: “No Offence, I hope.” Petulant and Witwoud are disgusted by his country manners and Witwoud adjures Petulant to “smoke him” or make fun of him. However, their attempts to “unman” him rebound, for Sir Wilfull is a match for them and answers them both honestly and artfully, although somewhat coarsely. “The Fashion’s a Fool; and you’re a Fop, dear Brother,” he proclaims. He roundly berates Witwoud for leaving the service of an attorney to become a professional dandy. Mrs. Marwood inquires after Sir Wilfull’s plans to travel but he says first he will “tarry” and “learn somewhat of your Page 286 | Top of ArticleLingo.” When Lady Wishfort and Fainall enter, the dialogue has established Sir Wilfull as somewhat buffoonish and crude but good-natured and honest.
Lady Wishfort and Fainall enter, and Lady Wishfort greets her guests. Mincing announces dinner and everyone exits except Mrs. Marwood and Fainall, who have been talking apart. Mrs. Marwood acquaints Fainall with Mirabell’s plot to outwit Lady Wishfort, and Fainall is dumbfounded that he has been made a cuckold. Mrs. Marwood pragmatically suggests that they prevent the plot and thereby spoil Mirabell’s chances at Millamant’s fortune. She reassures Fainall that his wife had given up her affair before marriage and that he should be satisfied to stay with her as soon as he has got hold of all her money. Fainall is more outraged that his wife has out-trumped him (“put Pam in her pocket”) than that she has been unfaithful. Mrs. Marwood suggests a counter-plot: Tell Lady Wishfort that Mrs. Fainall has been unfaithful with Mirabell and Lady Wishfort will be so “enraged” she will do anything to save her daughter’s reputation. Mrs. Marwood admits that her idea of matching Millamant and Sir Wilfull may now be an obstacle to their plan, for if they should marry, Millamant will claim her rightful fortune. However, Fainall promises to get him drunk so that he will be unable to make proper advances. Mrs. Marwood determines to write an anonymous letter to Lady Wishfort revealing all. Fainall is comforted by the notion that, in the worst case, he still has from his wife a “deed of Settlement of the best part of her Estate; which I wheadl’d out of her.” There is both disingenuous conceit and a premonition of truth in the closing couplet delivered by Fainall on the need for husbands to endure, to be neither too wise nor too foolish lest they suffer the consequences of pain or shame.
The action continues in Lady Wishfort’s house as the Lady and Foible discuss preparations for Sir Rowland’s visit. In a moment of unself-conscious comic animation, Lady Wishfort ponders how best to effect the most “alluring” pose and so take Sir Rowland’s breath away. As they hear his coach approaching, Foible tells the Lady that Sir Wilfull is on his way toward getting drunk and the Lady anxiously sends Foible to bring Millamant and return so that she is not left alone long with Sir Rowland. They exit and Mrs. Millamant and Fainall enter. Foible tells Millamant that Mirabell has been waiting to see her. She hesitates coyly and then decides to receive him. All the while she is walking and repeating verses by poet John Suckling (an early seventeenth-century poet perhaps best known for his “Ballad upon a Wedding”), which shows her to be deep in thought about the nature of sexual relationships.
Meanwhile, Sir Wilfull enters terribly drunk, and Mrs. Fainall intercepts him. She suggests that Sir Wilfull approach Millamant and “pursue his point” and when he hesitates, too bashful to proceed, she locks him in the room and exits. When Millamant says aloud “Natural, easie Suckling!” referring to the verses she has been quoting, Sir Wilfull thinks she means him and once again his inability to grasp the “lingo” of London makes for an amusing exchange. He is unable to make any headway with Millamant. It is clear that he is no match for her intellect or sophistication, and she sends him away somewhat frustrated as Mirabell enters.
Mirabell finishes the Suckling verse that Millamant has been quoting, which alludes to the mythical romance between Phoebus and Daphne and, by extension, the two of them. Here begins a “dance” of love marked by both conventional coy flirtation and true regard. They explore one another’s expectations and needs by setting pre-nuptial conditions under which the marriage will be managed and tolerated. She wants to make sure of her independence and privacy before she must “by degrees dwindle into a Wife.” He also has his terms that must be agreed upon before he is “enlarg’d into a Husband.” She must, primarily, not be involved in scandals or become a slave to fashion. Millamant is outraged that he should think her capable of such behavior, and so they agree as Mrs. Fainall re-enters.
Mrs. Fainall shares in their joy but hurries Mirabell out since her mother, the Lady Wishfort is on her way in. There’s danger that if he is caught there, the Lady will fly into a rage and be distracted from the business at hand; namely, Sir Rowland’s pretended suit. Mirabell exits. Mrs. Foible comments on Sir Wilfull’s drunkenness and mentions that he and Petulant were ready to quarrel when she came away. Millamant admits her love for Mirabell and conveys her disdain of Sir Wilfull. Enter Witwoud who tells them that Lady Wishfort broke up the “fray” and, soon after, a very drunk Petulant Page 287 | Top of Articleenters. He makes a rude, abrupt proposal of love to Millamant, for which Witwoud offers hyperbolic and satirical praise (“thou art an Epitomizer of words... a retailer of Phrases”).
Petulant responds by insulting Witwoud and calling him “half of an Ass,” Sir Wilfull being the other half. Witwoud finds the insult wittily endearing and asks to be kissed “for that.” In the ribald dialogue that follows, Millamant learns that the would-be quarrel has been about her. Apparently, Petulant has defended her beauty and his claim to it, but moodily he relinquishes her by his next remark: “If I shall have my Reward, say so; if not, fight for your Face the next time yourself.” He exits with a curt explanation that he’s going home to sleep with his maid. When Mrs. Fainall asks why everyone is in such a “pickle,” Witwoud explains that it is Fainall’s plot to “get rid of the Knight” (Sir Wilfull).
Lady Wishfort and Sir Wilfull enter arguing over his drunkenness, but Sir Wilfull is immune to the Lady’s reproaches. He is all merriment and pliability, willing and able in his drunken state to marry Millamant if that is in everyone’s best interests. He is singing popular drinking songs, talking ridiculously of traveling to the “Antipodes” (the opposite poles of the earth), and making a fool of himself. Millamant and Mrs. Fainall find his smell so offensive they exit the scene. When Lady Wishfort begs him to indeed travel, to travel as far away as possible to the “Saracens or the Tartars, or the Turks” he launches into a whimsical tirade on traveling outside Christian lands. After a third round of song, Foible enters to whisper to Lady Wishfort that her suitor is impatiently awaiting her. Lady Wishfort begs Witwoud to take Sir Wilfull away and the two exit, Sir Wilfull still singing. Waitwell enters disguised as Sir Rowland and pretends to be mad with desire for her. The Lady is taken in by his advances. Goaded on by her own desperation for a husband and Sir Rowland’s aspersions against “that Unnatural Viper,” Mirabell, she agrees to a quick arrangement, first having secured that Sir Rowland suspects no “sinister appetite” or “scruple of Carnality” has prompted her to marry. Sir Rowland, of course, is a gallant courtier, and he reassures the Lady that her honor is not suspect. Foible enters to tell her a letter has come for her and she exits. Lady Wishfort soon reappears with the letter.
Foible recognizes Mrs. Marwoods’s writing and enjoins Waitwell to get the letter from her. He pretends to recognize the writing, and sensing his “Passion” by this show of jealousy, she has him read with her. The letter uncovers Mirabell’s intrigue and Sir Rowland as an impostor. Lady Wishfort nearly faints. Waitwell, however, quick on his feet, denounces the letter as the work of Mirabell. He vows to revenge himself but Lady Wishfort pleads with him to act sensibly. He promises to give proof of his authentic intentions by bringing her the “black-box, which Contains the Writings of my whole Estate.” Lady Wishfort acquiesces, and Waitwell delivers the final couplet that promises her satisfaction and his immediate vindication. But Foible has the last word. In a final provocative pun, she suggests that the “Arrant Knight” is really an “arrant Knave.”
Lady Wishfort’s house is the setting for the denouement. Lady Wishfort, in some of the most colorful language of the play, is roundly dressing down Foible for her discovered part in the humiliating charade. She threatens to send her back to the streets where she found her, and Foible is desperately trying to defend herself. But Lady Wishfort is not taken in and announces that her “Turtle” is already in custody and that she “shall Coo in the same Cage.” She exits as Mrs. Fainall enters. Mrs. Fainall cheers Foible by telling her that Mirabell is releasing her husband. Foible then reveals that Mrs. Marwood and Fainall have been having an affair. She recounts that when she and Mincing caught them red-handed, she was made to swear secrecy on a “Book of Verses and Poems,” an oath no one could take seriously. Mrs. Fainall is surprised but quick to understand the opportunity this discovery allows.
Mincing enters and tells them that Lady Wishfort is waiting to see Foible and that Mirabell has freed Waitwell. Mincing delivers a message from Mirabell that Foible is to hide in the closet until Lady Wishfort has calmed down. Fainall has upset her by demanding the Lady’s fortune or threatening to be divorced. Mincing reports that Millamant is ready to marry Sir Wilfull to save her fortune. Mincing agrees to “vouch” for Mrs. Fainall when she calls her. Mincing and Foible exit.
Lady Wishfort and Mrs. Marwood enter. Lady Wishfort thanks Marwood for her friendship and her timely discovery of the several plots against her. Page 288 | Top of ArticleShe questions her daughter’s apparent fall from grace, all the more deplorable since the Lady herself was a “Mold” and a “Pattern” for her. It is of course an ironic moment since by now it is clear how little virtue plays a role in the Lady’s pursuits. Mrs. Fainall protests her innocence and claims that they have both been wronged. She accuses Marwood of being a “Friend” to her husband and that she will prove it. Mrs. Marwood takes offense and Lady Wishfort is embarrassed for her. However, Mrs. Fainall is unfazed. She warns her mother that Marwood is “a Leach” who will “drop off when she’s full.” The comic irony is obvious when Lady Wishfort then soliloquizes about the irreproachable education that her daughter has been given in the “Rudiments of Vertue,” taught from infancy to detest and avoid men. Indeed, she talks herself out of belief in her daughter’s guilt and agrees that Fainall should prove his charges. But the clever and ambitious Mrs. Marwood regales her with scurrilous scenes of what will happen in court. The Lady shudders to think of what havoc such a course will wreck on her reputation and she backs down.
Fainall enters and details the condition under which she must surrender her estate. First, she must not marry unless, out of necessity, he chooses her husband, and second, his wife must settle her entire fortune on him and depend upon him entirely for her “Maintenance.” He finally demands Millamant’s six thousand pounds, which “she has forfeited... by her disobedience” in contracting a marriage against the Lady’s will and by refusing Sir Wilfull. The Lady asks for time to consider and Fainall grants her the amount of time needed to draw up the papers. He exits and Lady Wishfort is left to the cold comforts of Marwood who, she thinks, is still her friend. She calls Fainall a “merciless Villain,” a “Barbarian” compared to Languish, her daughter’s first husband.
Millamant and Sir Wilfull then enter with the news that they will wed. Lady Wishfort is greatly comforted that Millamant has nullified her contract with Mirabell, who waits to be admitted outside. Lady Wishfort can not bear to see him, but Millamant persuades her by saying that he plans to travel with Sir Wilfull and never trouble her again. Sir Willful corroborates her statement and Marwood, who senses another plot, exits. Sir Wilfull and Mirabell enter. Mirabell apologizes and Sir Wilfull acts as his supporter. Lady Wishfort grudgingly agrees to “stifle” her resentment on account of Sir Wilfull if Mirabell relinquishes any contract with her niece. Mirabell asserts that he has already done so. Despite her distrust of Mirabell, she is attracted. She says in an aside, “his appearance rakes the Embers which have so long layn smother’d in my Breast.”
Fainall and Mrs. Marwood enter together, Fainall with the papers for the Lady to sign. She tells him of Millamant’s decision to marry Sir Wilfull, which Fainall calls “a sham.” Sir Wilfull, his back up, threatens to draw his “Instrument” if Fainall does not withdraw his. But Fainall is undeterred. He insults Sir Wilfull and again warns that if the Lady doesn’t sign, he will set Mrs. Fainall “a drift, like a Leaky hulk to Sink or Swim.” The Lady is beside herself, and when Mirabell offers advice, she accepts it. He asks for her niece in “Compensation” but says he is willing to help her no matter what. The Lady is overwhelmed by his generosity and agrees that he shall have Millamant if he can save her from Fainall. Enter Mrs. Fainall, Foible, and Mincing. They expose the affair between Marwood and Fainall, but Fainall still will not back down and stands on his threat to expose Mrs. Fainall’s “shame.” Mirabell, however, has one more ace up his sleeve.
Enter Waitwell with the black box and soon after Petulant and Witwoud. The box contains Mrs. Fainall’s settlement (witnessed by Witwoud and Petulant) signed over in trust to Mirabell before she married Fainall precisely in order to avoid the very treachery now being enacted. Fainall is forced to admit that the settlement he thought had been signed over to him is a fake. He tries to run at his wife with his sword but is stopped by Sir Wilfull. He exits vowing revenge. Mrs. Fainall confronts Mrs. Marwood, who also warns that she will get even. Marwood exits. Nothing remains but to celebrate the restored lovers and the truce between Lady Wishfort and Mirabell. Mirabell reveals that Sir Wilfull has been a willing accomplice in Mirabell’s plans and so will suffer no pain at the loss of Millamant. The lovers embrace, and Mirabell quiets the Lady’s last fears that Fainall will “pursue some desperate Course.” Fainall needs his marriage (and his wife’s money) in order to survive, and Mirabell promises to be the mediator of peace. He restores the deed of trust to Mrs. Fainall, suggesting that “it may be a means well manag’d to make you live Easily together.” Her unhappy fate, then, is to continue to live with Fainall, but with new knowledge and power. The act ends with a quatrain warning against the evils of adultery.
Mrs. Bracegirdle, the actress who has played the part of Mrs. Millamant, speaks the closing lines of the play, which, according to comic convention, takes a satirical punch at drama critics.
Fainall is a faithless husband who depends on his wife’s inheritance for his ease and livelihood. His “Wit and outward fair Behaviour,” as his friendly acquaintance and rival, Mirabell, remarks, has allowed him to enjoy a good reputation “with the Town,” but his true nature is greedy, false, and profligate. While he is carrying on an affair with Mrs. Marwood, his wife’s friend and confidante, he is plotting to wrest full control of both his wife’s and his mother-in-law’s estates. As his name implies, he is a pretender, but one whose talent for getting along serves him well in society. It is, in fact, this tractability that makes him a suitable man to be “sacrificed” to “Arabella Languish” (Mrs. Fainall’s name by her first, deceased husband) when this widow is in need of an inoffensive second husband.
Mrs. Fainall is daughter to Lady Wishfort and heir to her fortune. Previously married to one “Languish,” she was widowed and then remarried to keep her love affair with Mirabell safe from public scrutiny. Unfortunately, her mother raised her to hate and revile men. Thus, while she can hardly bear her husband, she has warm regards still for her former lover, whom she is compelled to relinquish before she is remarried to preserve her good reputation. She is professed intimate friends with Mrs. Marwood until she learns that Mrs. Marwood is her husband’s lover. Mrs. Fainall is clever and cautious, having signed over a large part of her estate in trust before her marriage because she suspected that her husband’s greed would eventually force it from her. She is a loyal friend to her cousin, Mrs. Millamant, whom she helps to obtain Mirabell as a husband. In so doing, she is also generous: she not only willingly parts with her former lover, but she contrives to help Millamant, who stands to gain a portion of the moiety of her aunt’s (the Lady Wishfort’s) fortune when she marries.
Foible is a simple yet quick-witted, dissembling yet good-hearted waiting woman to Lady Wishfort. She nonetheless helps dupe the Lady by means of a clever yet harmless ploy hatched by Mirabell. Since her betrayal is in the cause of love, and since no one is injured (only mildly embarrassed), she is forgiven in the end. Thought to be an obedient errand girl whom her Lady uses as an emissary to procure a husband for herself, Foible guilelessly turns the tables and finds a husband for herself (Mirabell’s servant, Waitwell) as well as one for her Lady’s niece, Millamant. It just so happens that Millamant’s choice is Mirabell, her aunt’s sworn enemy, hence the necessity of Mirabell’s ploy. As a servant, Foible has the means to come and go throughout her mistress’s home and is therefore privy to much that other characters would like to hide. Through Foible’s assistance, Fainall and Marwood’s adulterous affair and their designs to steal her Lady’s fortune are found out and justly brought to closure.
Pretended friend to Mrs. Fainall and secret lover of her husband, Mrs. Marwood schemes to spoil the happiness of others to enrich herself. She almost succeeds in foiling the hoped-for marriage between the true lovers Mirabell and Millamant by exposing their love and so inciting the rage of Lady Wishfort who scorns Mirabell because he made false advances to her. Although she pretends she hates him and all men, Marwood also likes Mirabell and is jealous of his attentions to Millamant. Of all the characters in this comedy of manners, Mrs. Marwood is perhaps the least sympathetic: in fact, she is more than once referred to as “that devil” by both Mrs. Fainall and Foible. Because she deliberately sets out to destroy the happiness of others, and because she is duplicitous in her friendships, she is finally despised as an adulteress and a traitor. Even the trusting Lady Wishfort, who believes Marwood’s loyal friendship has saved her from the disgrace and villainy of others’ machinations and plots against her comes to see her as a “wicked accomplice.” While she is clever, she is not nice; while she has wit, she is not funny.
Mrs. Millamant is a young, vivacious, pretty, and fashionable lady who loves Mirabell and, as niece to Lady Wishfort, is heir to part of her fortune should she marry with Lady Wishfort’s approval. She affects a coy demeanor, as well as disdain for the opposite sex. She is often seen in the company of “fops,” somewhat tiresome and affected young wits who nonetheless are entertaining enough and whom she tolerates to hide her true regard for Mirabell. She is willful and witty in her own right and adeptly manages to steer clear of the convoluted plots and schemes that pack the action and threaten to undo most of the characters by their twists and turns. Mrs. Millamant’s nature is graceful, decorous, and confident; however, her tolerance for Witwoud and Petulance show her to be a creature of the world and somewhat at the mercy of the dictates of fashion. Despite her good breeding, she is not above abiding fools for her own mischievous ends.
Mincing is a somewhat affected yet dutiful and loyal waiting woman to Mrs. Millamant. Together with her friend, Foible, Mincing witnesses and corroborates Fainall’s and Marwood’s adulterous affair, and so helps expose the deception of the two in plotting to exploit Mrs. Fainall and extort from Lady Wishfort her entire estate. The two servant’s testimony leads to Lady Wishfort’s blessing of the marriage between Mirabell and Millamant.
Mirabell is a clever, handsome, young, and headstrong gentleman of good manners who is the admirer of and persistent suitor to Millamant. He also is the former lover of Mrs. Fainall, and he is liked by Mrs. Marwood. While once the object of desire, he is now the sworn enemy of Lady Wishfort for pretending love to her. A man of sense, he is also a clever and effective strategist who carries out his schemes to marry Lady Wishfort’s niece against her will and thereby secure his love and Millamant’s dowry. While likeable, he is also ruthless in his exploitation of both servants and peers to get his own way. But since nearly everyone benefits from his schemes, no one seems to mind, except Fainall and Marwood, whom he exposes at the end as perfidious and maladroit traitors. Mirabell is a proud, artful, and generous man of the world who knows he is suffering from a love sickness from which he cannot and does not want to escape.
This dandy and follower of Mrs. Millamant is every bit as rude and ill humored, as peevish and capricious, as the name would suggest. Friend to Witwoud, he is perceived by other characters to be the inferior wit of the two. He is illiterate and proud, boorish and vain. To give the impression that he is popular, he pays ladies of questionable virtue to call on him in public places, and he has also disguised himself precisely to call upon himself in public. He likes Mrs. Millamant but really would just as soon sleep with his maid. His raillery is pure brilliance to Witwoud, but he is barely tolerated by people of any sensibility. Petulant is endowed with a brutal tactlessness but is unable to speak a truth since everything he says and does is a performance based on his mood at the moment. As a fool, he is rather more dour than deft.
Servant to Mirabell, Waitwell is essential to furthering his master’s marriage designs. Being loyal and eager to please, he agrees both to marry Lady Wishfort’s maid, Foible, in order to better secure the plan, and also to impersonate Mirabell’s uncle in order to profess love to Lady Wishfort. As Mirabell’s invented uncle, Sir Rowland, Waitwell gives a delightful performance that convinces the Lady of his ardent desire and his rush to marry in order to foil Mirabell’s hope for a marriage dowry. It is his gallant love act that places Lady Wishfort in the embarrassing and precarious position of being fooled once again by a suitor, and, by helping to place her at the mercy of her enemies, clears the way for Mirabell to extricate her.
An aging grand dame, Lady Wishfort is as desperate to get a husband as she is unsuspecting of the plans afoot to rob her of her fortune and her “virtue.” Mother to Mrs. Fainall and aunt to Mrs. Millamant, she holds the key to the money and the maid that will bring the action to its conclusion. Lady Wishfort’s colorful language and vehement expressions of emotion cause the greatest moments of amusement and liveliness in the play. She is the Page 291 | Top of Articledupe of nearly everyone close to her, including her own daughter, and while she is in danger of loosing her fortune, she is more worried about damaging her reputation. Her “paint” is practically laid on with a trowel to hide the wrinkles, but she fancies herself attractive to men the likes of Mirabell and the pretender, Sir Rowland. While she raises her daughter to hate men, she cannot be reconciled to life without them. And while she is at great pains to keep up appearances, her mighty constitution suffers all forms of indignities and humiliation, yet she is able to recover with some modicum of good grace and in the end forgive all.
A man who prides himself on his never-failing wit, raillery, and charm, this “becravated and beperriwig’d” fool (as Sir Wilfull calls him) is an admirer of Mrs. Millamant and a pretended favorite of the ladies. His chief usefulness is entertaining with his droll wit, and he is taken into the confidence of the ladies’ thrice weekly “cabals” as they set about destroying reputations and professing their fashionable opinions on marriage, men, and morals. By his good-natured affectation and unself-conscious methods, he allows the other characters to disguise their true emotions; his superficial and careless remedy of jokes, similes, and puns relieves tension and unwittingly exposes the foolishness of contemporary fashion and manners. While he is foolish, he is also harmless, and he furnishes, despite his desperate attempts at wit, some very funny and insightful moments.
Sir Wilfull Witwoud
Bashful and obstinate by turns, feisty and deferential when necessary, a country bumpkin with a good nature and a will to please, Sir Wilfull Witwoud, half brother by marriage to Witwoud, would be a wit if he could. He has come to town to look around before setting out on his travels and finds he doesn’t understand the “lingo” of the fashionable world. He serves as a foil to the well bred. In contrast to their studied rudeness and affectation, he is simple and matter-of-fact. Thus, he is an easy mark in the scheming game of matchmaking, but a cheerful one, especially after a long bout of drinking. In a show of generosity and an imposture of sincerity, he gladly agrees to marry Millamant as a last resort to save her fortune. However, he also dissembles well. His is but another actor in Mirabell’s clever ruse to catch Fainall and Mrs. Marwood in their deception and to lure Lady Wishfort into his harmless trap.
Congreve’s “comedy of manners” takes the fashionable or conventional social behavior of the time as the principle subject of satire. Conflicts that arise between and among characters are prompted by affected and artificial social mores, especially with respect to relationships between the sexes. Social pretenses and plot complications abound in The Way of the World. Women are compelled to act coyly and to dissemble in courtship, couples deceive one another in marriage, friends are double-dealing, and conquests have more to do with dowries and convenience than love. All moral principle is risked for the sake of reputation and money. However, what makes the action comic is the subterfuge. What one says is hardly ever what one really thinks or means. To judge by appearances, for example, no one could be happier in his marriage than Fainall, who in reality disdains his wife and is carrying on an adulterous affair with his wife’s close friend. Congreve intimates that, in fashionable society at the turn of the eighteenth century, it is crucial to preserve the outer trappings of beauty, wit, and sophistication no matter how egregious one’s actions and words might prove.
Dowries, Marriage, and Adultery
In the male-dominated, patriarchal society of Congreve’s time, a woman was little more than property in a marriage transaction. Her dowry (money, property, and estate) was relinquished to her husband at marriage and she became, by law, his chattel. In the upper classes, women had little voice in their own fate, and marriages were usually arranged according to social status, size of fortune, and family name. In the play, Millamant’s dowry is at the center of the struggle that pits Mirabell, her true lover, against Fainall and Mrs. Marwood, the two adulterers plotting to gain control of Millamant’s fortune as well as Fainall’s wife’s. Cunningly, Mrs.
Fainall has had a large part of her estate signed over in trust before her marriage to prevent her husband from acquiring it.
While marriages are important economic contracts, they are also convenient vehicles for protecting social reputations. Mrs. Fainall has made such a marriage, which is socially acceptable and even expected, as long as the pretense of civility is maintained. However, getting caught in an adulterous relationship puts both reputation and fortune at risk. Hence when the relationship between Fainall and Mrs. Marwood is discovered, the two become social outcasts. Fainall has staked his reputation on a plot to disinherit his wife. As punishment, he will have to bear the humiliating exposure, continuing to live with his wife and depend on her for his livelihood. Mrs. Marwood’s reputation is ruined, her future hopes destroyed. Congreve’s intent is to reflect the way of the world in all its manifest greed. The lesson is that those who cheat get their just desserts in the end.
Decorum and Wit
Congreve invents several characters who, as fops, dandies, and fools, provide fitting foils to the romantic hero and heroine. He pits these purported “wits” against Mirabell and Millamant to comment on the social decline of manners. Since the play is a comedy, audiences are to take it both as serious social satire and also as an amusing romp. No one, of course, escapes Congreve’s satirical pen entirely. All people are sometimes fools, Congreve suggests, Page 293 | Top of Articleor sometimes too earnest or too busy inventing counterfeit personas in order to hide their own moral turpitude. Petulant and Witwoud make good fools for they epitomize the shallowness and silliness of fashionable society, but they both also are capable of voicing through their wit the real motivations behind people’s actions. They mistake fashionable behavior for decorum and good manners, but they are basically harmless. The comic hero, Mirabell, unscrupulously uses blackmail and trickery to promote his own interests, yet he also represents what is wise and decent in society, and he protects and thoughtfully provides for his friends. Millament, while she acts capriciously and spends time with fops, is inherently thoughtful and able to distinguish between fashion and principles. Lady Wishfort is perhaps the most sympathetically comic character in that, for all her desperate attempts to preserve decorum and for all the power she wields as the wealthy matriarch of the family, she is at heart a lonely widow who will do anything for a husband.
Passion and Puritanism
It has been noted that this final Congreve play was, in effect, a dramatic answer to Puritan Pastor Jeremy Collier’s vilification of the theatre world, in which he publicly denounced the English stage as morally bankrupt. As comic heroes, Millamant and Mirabell represent characters who are most in touch with their own natural passions and creative spirits, free of both a fashionable sexual freedom and overwrought piety. Lady Wishfort symbolizes the tyranny and hypocrisy with which society constrains these natural, creative passions in the name of Puritanism. In contrast to the true lovers, she pretends to an elegance and pretentious demeanor at odds with the emotions and passions raging inside her. In a strict and amusingly eccentric Puritanical education in the ways of the world, she has served as a “model” by which to teach her daughter to despise men and lewd behavior, including “going to filthy Plays.” It is no coincidence that, in order for the two lovers to finally come together, they must reduce Lady Wishfort’s logic and principles to the transparent artifice that it has so clearly become by the end of the play.
The war between the sexes in this dramatic comedy is played with wit and artistry, treachery and complex design, tenderness and teasing, passion and charm, and, above all, precise timing. In Congreve’s play, it is safe to say that in this particular struggle—the high stakes of which are love, money, and social survival—men and women are equally proficient and powerful. Gender behavior is proscribed within the limits of social convention. Thus male and female attitudes and actions are expected to be very different and those differences are to be strictly maintained. The prenuptial “negotiation” scene between Mirabell and Millamant amusingly yet sincerely establishes the rules by which the couple will manage their marriage, preserving independence and privacy as well as intimacy and love. While the conditions of their agreements seem petty at first glance, it is clear that they reflect prohibitions against the “evil” tendencies of each sex. The bottom line is that Millamant will not be unduly dominated or possessed by her husband and her husband will not be vexed with the wiles of intrigue or the vain fashions of the time. It is a good exchange: it preserves the respect of each party as well as the distinctions and charms perceived to be natural and unique to men and women. Mirabell and Millamant’s union is certainly intended as a corrective to the deceitful adultery of Fainall, the pathetic loneliness of Lady Wishfort, and the emptiness and debauchery of the life of the dandy.
Congreve’s plays belong to a genre known as Restoration comedy. The Restoration refers to the reestablishment of the monarchy in England with the return of Charles II to the throne in 1660 after a period of social upheaval. In English literature, the Restoration “age” parallels the political period, covering roughly the years from 1660 to the revolution in 1688 when Parliament regained power. The genre is characterized by its satirical view of the times, with its particular focus on the relationship between conventional morality and the individual spirit. Its comic characters are often reflections of the shallow aristocrats of court society; they are peopled with libertines and wits, gallants and dandies. The hero is usually sophisticated and critical of convention and fashion: In The Way of the World, for example, Mirabell is able to out-rascal the other rogues and thereby wins the love and prosperity he seeks as well as the respect and admiration of the other characters. The plays of George Etherege, Page 294 | Top of ArticleWilliam Wycherley, Sir John Vanbrugh, and George Farquhar also belong to the English tradition of Restoration comedy.
Congreve’s play takes place in London, an apt setting since the play’s action revolves around the ways of the fashionable world. Indeed, the play reflects the manners and customs of London life in 1700, when it was first performed. Within the play, Congreve contrasts the pretentious, artificial (and often reprehensible and barbaric) manners of “Town” life with the rough, untutored but more natural country manners reflected in the character of Sir Wilfull. The play’s five acts include just three settings: a chocolate house, St. James Park, and Lady Wishfort’s London house. Each setting allows a glimpse of the way in which characters comport themselves in public and private.
In the chocolate house, the major male characters meet to drink and gamble in act 1. This is the domain where men seem to rule, and Congreve orients the audience to the social dictates by which they speak and act together. In act 2, the action moves to St. James Park, a more open and public place where men and women interact. In this setting, the intrigues of plot multiply. Couples are on display in the park, to see and be seen. The park is central to the plot because it allows Congreve to show the gap between the outward appearance of good manners and the scheming dialogue between couples in which slander, deceit, and trickery hold sway and where reputations are being ruined or advanced. In the following three acts, the scenes shift to Lady Wishfort’s house. Again, the setting is appropriate since it is Lady Wishfort’s fortune and her central position as the matriarch of the family that drives the action of the play. The house plays an important role in the development of the action because it has both public and private spaces—closets where characters may hide and overhear, rooms that can be locked, chambers where the private habits of the characters come into sharp contrast with outward appearances. It is in the private world of the house where the management or mismanagement of domestic affairs—marriage, dowry arrangements, match-making, and sexual intrigues—most properly belong.
Congreve is following a long tradition of dramatists who, since the classical period, used a formula of dividing the play into five acts of approximately the same length and playing time. The action rises, where it climaxes in the third act, and falls to its denouement. Typically, and it is true in Congreve’s play, the first act introduces the characters and sets up the plot, giving background information that helps the audience understand relationships between characters as well as thematic direction. For example, in the first act of this play, Congreve introduces the major male characters, sets up a romantic conflict, establishes the hero as antithetical to the shallow mannerisms of the times, and indicates that the dramatic action will revolve around the play of courtship. The second act complicates the action, increases the conflict, and leads the audience to the crisis of the third act, where the action reaches its most exciting turning point.
The women converge with the men in the second act where the park is the setting for intrigue, the revelation of extra-marital affairs, and the hatching of the plot to trick Lady Wishfort into agreeing to the marriage of Mirabell and Millamant. The action leads naturally to the third act where all characters meet in Lady Wishfort’s house and where Fainall and Marwood plan their devious plot to exploit Lady Wishfort. It is in the third act that suspense is greatest. The action falls in the fourth act with the resolution of the various plots. The merriment is at its height here: Millamant and Mirabaell negotiate their famous pre-nuptial agreement, Sir Wilfull performs his finest drunken hour, and the fake Sir Rowland plights his troth to Lady Wishfort only to be undone by the evil machinations of Marwood and Fainall. In the fifth act, the various plots are unraveled and the final event is a happy marriage contract between the two heroes.
Congreve uses several dramatic devices to good purpose. Of particular importance here are impersonation (and disguise), the foil, comic relief, counterplot, and hyperbole. Without these devices, the action could not go forward and the comedy would fall flat.
Impersonation is, of course, a ploy by which Mirabell plans to trick Lady Wishfort into surrendering her niece. With Waitwell disguised as Sir Rowland, Mirabell hopes to inflame Lady Wishfort’s passion, persuade her to marry Sir Rowland, and then, when the hoax is revealed, to force her into agreeing to his marriage with Millamant. Disguise Page 295 | Top of Articleis also used in two other instances—when Marwood dons a mask to escape attention in the park after her quarrel with Fainall, and when she hides in the closet and overhears Mirabell’s plot. Pretense and disguise are the raw materials of comedy, and they abound in this play. Everyone is pretending, from Lady Wishfort, who must wear layers of paint to hide her age and layers of self-righteousness to feign her disinterest in men, to Mrs. Fainall, who appears to be a wife at the mercy of her husband and turns out to be a shrewd businesswoman. Mirabell plays at being Lady Wishfort’s lover; Fainall appears to be an honest husband; Foible is not the loyal waiting woman she seems; and Sir Wilfull good-naturedly feigns his pursuit of Millamant, who, in turn, demonstrates that the shallow and capricious “femme fatale” is in reality an intelligent, passionate, and worthy match to Mirabell.
A character may serve as foil to a protagonist or hero by representing unattractive traits or immoral behavior, thereby causing the hero to shine in a comparatively brighter, superior light. It’s easy to see how Fainall, for example, acts as a foil to Mirabell. Both are gentlemen, both are scheming to achieve their own ends. However, Fainall’s treachery, his willingness to sacrifice everyone to win, makes him a villain. From the shadows cast by Fainall’s evil, Mirabell emerges as a true gallant, saving Mrs. Fainall and Lady Wishfort’s reputation and fortune, winning his bride as a reward, and generally succeeding in bringing the action to a happy ending. A similar comparison can be made between Marwood and Millamant.
Comic relief signifies precisely what its name suggests—the introduction of laughter to break the tension over a conflict arising in the action. Paradoxically, comic relief is designed both to ease emotional intensity and to heighten the seriousness of the potential crisis or action. In Congreve’s play, as in all good dramatic comedy, tragedy figures largely. It is the reverse side of the coin, the tension, that makes the comedy work. In this play, a funny remark or observation relieves many serious moments of suspense. For example, in act 5 Mirabell first enters Lady Wishfort’s presence having been cast out as an object of scorn. His future depends on this moment. He must complete his scheme to liberate Lady Wishfort from her foes and win Millamant. Enter Sir Wilfull by his side, and stepping into the serious breach between them offers words of encouragement:
“Look up Man, I’ll stand by you, ’sbud an she do frown, she can’t kill you;—besides—Hearkee she dare not frown desperately, because her face is none of her own; ’Sheart an she shou’d her forehead wou’d wrinkle like the Coat of a Cream-cheese.”
Sir Wilfull has managed both to remind the audience of the seriousness of the undertaking and to immediately relieve any prospect of danger by alluding to Lady Wishfort’s by now generally-acknowledged vanity and her desperate attempts to maintain her looks.
Using counterplots or subplots, Congreve echoes the themes being played out in the main drama. Subplots complicate the drama and are intended to further engage the audience in the action, vary the theme, and convey the sense of a real and larger world beyond the life of the heroes. Marwood and Fainall conspire in a subplot to ruin Lady Wishfort that provides a counter to Mirabell’s own scheme to win the hand of her niece. Lady Wishfort also secretly plans to marry her niece to Sir Wilfull while she herself marries Sir Rowland (Mirabell’s pretended uncle) hoping at one and the same time to foil Mirabell’s prospects of marriage and have him disinherited.
Hyperbole (deliberate and obvious exaggeration) works together with understatement (deliberately restrained and therefore ironic expressions of reality) to make comedy potent. Such devices also serve to expose cultural stereotypes and, especially in this play, deeply held assumptions about male and female behavior. Examples of hyperbole and understatement abound in Congreve’s play. The two “experts” are Witwoud and Petulant, although each character is endowed with a witty energy that is often employed to insult or outsmart a foe. In act 3, Petulant hopes to insult Sir Wilfull by remarking how obvious it is that he’s been traveling. “I presume,” he says, “upon the Information of your Boots.” Petulant’s attitude and speech are patently silly and pretentious. But Sir Wilfull is not taken aback. He matches Petulant at his own game by replying in just as exaggerated and deliberate a fashion, “If you are not satisfy’d with the Information of my Boots, Sir if you will step to the Stable, you may enquire further of my Horse, Sir.” In the same act, a servant entering the scene with Sir Wilfull conveys the deliberately understated information that Lady Wishfort is growing so old that it takes her all morning to prepare herself for public examination. It is afternoon, and Sir Wilfull has asked the servant if he would even recognize the Lady since he has only been in her employ a week. The servant replies, “Why truly Sir, I cannot safely Page 296 | Top of Articleswear to her Face in a Morning, before she is dress’d. ’Tis like I may give a shrew’d guess at her by this time.”
The period in English history from 1670 to 1729, when Congreve lived and worked, was marked by a dramatic political event, which gave its name to the literary tradition known as Restoration drama. In 1660, Charles II came to the throne, and the monarchy, which had been in exile, once again ruled England. Although that restoration period was shortlived (Parliament regained power in 1688), it was important to western culture in that it provided a perfect milieu for the comedy of manners.
The English comedies of this time, Congreve’s included, take the manners of high society and the aristocracy as material for satire, focusing their attention, as Henry T. E. Perry writes in The Comic Spirit in Restoration Drama “upon the surface of a highly polished and fundamentally insecure civilization.” The merry licentiousness that characterized the new court was itself a reaction against the civil war of the 1640s, which resulted in the dissolution of the monarchy and led to the subsequent Puritanical mood that settled over the country. As Joseph Wood Krutch observes in Comedy and Conscience After the Restoration, the court of Charles II
wished to make the time to come in every way the reverse of the time that was past, and the sin of regicide of which the preceding generation had been guilty made it seem a sort of piety to reverse all that had been done; to pull down all that had been set up, and set up all that had been pulled down; to hate all that had been loved and love all that had been hated.
King Charles loved the theatre, and the Restoration comedies that flourished in this period contain ample cultural evidence of the sophisticated decadence of the times during which he ruled. In the theatres, playgoers did their best to prove the point that the dramatic characters had indeed been modeled on them. High society gentlemen were loud and lewd, more interested in the appearance of their wigs than the play itself, keen to appear witty and cruel and willing to preserve their reputations as gallants by any means necessary, be they ever so barbaric. Krutch notes that it is no wonder that language and actions that would shock modern audiences would merely amuse a seventeenth-century audience. He writes,
“Dramatists were not perverse creatures creating monsters to debase the auditors, but... were merely holding the mirror up to nature, or rather, to that part of nature which was best known to their fashionable auditors.”
Of course, not all of England was peopled by creatures of fashion or high society. Plenty of Puritans lived among the middle and lower classes, and most of the literature written in this period was either religious in nature or scientific and philosophical. John Bunyan had published “Pilgrim’s Progress” in 1684, and John Locke published his “Essay Concerning Humane Understanding” in 1690. The epistemology of Locke and the religious passion of Bunyan were far cries from the London stage. It is interesting to note that critics such as the Puritan moralist Jeremy Collier—whose criticism of the stage best expresses the dogmatic protest against it—led the charge to “reform” the English theatre world. Collier’s attack on the theatre came two years before the performance of The Way of the World. This play, then, can be read as an amusing retort to the criticism leveled against the stage as well as a symbolic maker at the historical juncture when Restoration comedy was giving way to the next incarnation of English drama, the so-called Sentimental comedy.
The Way of the World is considered one of the finest examples of late seventeenth-century Restoration drama during the period when the comedy of manners flourished in England. Congreve had written two extremely popular dramas before this, Love for Love (1695) and The Mourning Bride (1697), which received rave reviews in London and cemented his reputation as a major playwright. However, his next and final play, The Way of the World, was only a marginal success when it was performed in 1700. Several theories have been forwarded as to why audience reaction at the time was lukewarm. One of Congreve’s biographers, Bonamy Dobraée, speculates that, while Congreve’s masterpiece must be appreciated for “depth and sympathy of its characterisation... together with the general sense of what is precious in life, and the magnificent
handling of language,” the play might have been “too subtle.” A character like Witwoud, he notes, is “indeed a coxcomb” but he was also “no idiot.” Dobraée also characterizes the resolution of the plot as “abrupt and unlikely.”
Several studies of late seventeenth-century drama make the claim that Congreve was writing for a “coterie” audience (fashionable high society) that disappeared at the turn of the century. The argument is that new playgoers were middle class or bourgeois in their tastes, and they demanded a new style, hence the rise of “sentimental” comedy popular after 1700. As Virginia Ogden Birdsall writes in Wild Civility, The English Comic Spirit on the Restoration Stage, the “conditions and circumstances in which English civilization had to grow” led to “a new and not inconsiderable ally in the cause of repressive sobriety—namely, an increasingly influential middle-class mentality almost invariably hostile to the comic or play spirit.”
Recent studies by such scholars as Emmett Avery, Harold Love, and Pierre Danchin have demonstrated that the late seventeenth-century London theatre-going audience (at the time only two theatres, Drury Lane and Lincoln’s Inn Fields, were in operation in London) was perhaps more heterogeneous than modern audiences. Robert Hume calls the audiences of the period between 1697 and 1703 “cranky” and for reasons not completely understood, they “damned” the new plays of the Restoration while continuing to enjoy the older, stock dramas of the period that expressed similar sentiments. In the 1697-1698 season, writes Hume, “fifteen out of seventeen new plays failed.” Jeremy Collier’s attack on the theatre and the consequent controversy over the theatre world’s morality probably added to the troubles that plagued the theatre at this time, but as Hume observes, audiences were “revolting” prior to Collier’s scathing denouncements. Here, it is worth quoting Hume at length:
Why audiences were so difficult in the years around 1700 we frankly do not know. Authors were baffled: in prologue after prologue they lamented the fickleness of the audience, and in prefaces and dedications they tended to blame actors and managers for their misfortunes. If authors were puzzled and indignant, managers were frantic. They imported foreign singers at inflated prices, tried entr’acte dancers, animal acts, acrobats, and vaudeville turns. They cannibalized favorite scenes from plays and popular operas. They kept changing the starting time of performance.
Whatever the reasons for the minimal success of The Way of the World in 1700, it was revived to popular acclaim in the eighteenth century: it was performed over two hundred times in London. Professor Avery, writes Hume, concluded that Congreve’s play flourished and “gained popularity steadily over a period of some forty years, achieving his greatest share in the repertory around 1740.” When Garrick, who was indifferent to Congreve, took over management of Drury Lane, performances of the play diminished. During the nineteenth century, as Herbert Davies notes in The Complete Plays of William Congreve, it was performed “with considerable cuts and alterations to suit the taste of the times.” It was revived in 1904 and continues to be performed today.
Smith is an independent scholar and freelance writer. In this essay, Smith explores the significance of Congreve’s play to Restoration drama, particularly the comedy of manners.
Western philosophers have theorized about the nature and causes of mirth at least since the time of Plato. Comedy feeds on incongruity; people laugh even when the joke is cruel because they want to feel a sense of relief that their own follies are not fatal. Indeed, comedy has the power to heighten people’s sense of belonging to a common human family. Restoration playwrights understood the value of laughter as a social force, and they used the theatre as a staging ground. With an attitude of detached instruction that was still entertaining, they contrived their plots, fashioned their stock characters (the country bumpkin, the wit, the hero, the fool, etc.), and satirized familiar domestic situations and themes to reflect the ridiculous but nonetheless very human impulses of the times. No playwright was more adept at this in the late seventeeth century than Congreve. And no play better represents his mastery of the comedy of manners than his final play, The Way of the World.
Congreve’s decision to include lines from Horace, the Roman satirist, on the title page of the printed play immediately alert the reader that his work will relate to the immorality and unscrupulousness of society. These lines, quoted in the original Latin from Horace’s Satires, cautions adulterers and mocks the fate of those who, caught in the
act, must relinquish their dowries. Of course, marital disharmony and sexual intrigue are not new themes. What is of interest is the way these themes are treated in Restoration comedy, where, as Joseph Wood Krutch notes in Comedy and Conscience after the Restoration, “the technique of wit” is used to great advantage in “rationalizing debauchery into a philosophical system.”
Taking nothing away from Congreve as a master of polished dialogue and a purveyor of wit, it must be observed that this final play was written in answer to one of the most notorious Puritanical attacks on the theatre by Parson Jeremy Collier. The play therefore offers much more than a witty “rationalization,” however. It playfully teaches people how to find an antidote to debauchery. In Congreve’s dedication of the play to the Earl of Montague, he announces the profound, if comic, intent of his art by placing himself in direct line of ancestry with Terence, “the most correct Writer in the World” who is himself a descendent of the masters of comedy in the classic tradition from Theophrastus to Moliere. Of this new play, he laments that it will be little understood because it is not animated by the usual characters who “are Fools so gross, that in my humble Opinion, they should rather disturb than divert the well-natur’d and reflecting part of an Audience....” While Congreve is no moralist, nor should his play be read as anything more doctrinal than a well-wrought fable with a moral attached, the heroes of this play nonetheless undertake a “remarriage” of minds that is possible only when both perversely jaded and self-righteously censorious views on marriage are rejected.
In order for the romantic heroes Mirabell and Mrs. Millamant to come together in marriage and to achieve a happy ending for the play, they must first thwart the devious intentions of their foes and character foils Fainall and Mrs. Marwood, who are carrying on an adulterous affair. Moreover, they must undermine Lady Wishfort’s falsely pious pronouncements and patently disingenuous hatred of men. It is no accident that the Lady appears in the third act to take her place as the central comic figure of the play when the action reaches a climax. As the dominant matriarch in control of the purse strings, she is also the character who best reflects the sworn enemies of comedy: hypocritical and self-righteousness, with a fashionable but overdeveloped appetite for the opposite sex. Finally, by relying on
their intelligence and thoughtful common sense, the two heroes also deflect the tiresome banter of the self-proclaimed “wits,” Witwoud and Petulant. These two dandies playfully engage the audience in amusing and often sophisticated dialogues, pointing up unpleasant yet honest insights into the way of the world. But they are essentially shallow, as is the fashionable world they represent, and as such they also serve as foils to the heroes.
In the opening of the first act, when Fainall and Mirabell are gambling (a foreshadowing of the suspenseful battle they will wage for love and money), Congreve establishes the prevailing cavalier attitude toward sexual encounters. Fainall’s quip to Mirabell over cards that “I’d no more play with a Man that slighted his ill Fortune, than I’d make Love to a Woman who undervalu’d the Loss of her Reputation” demonstrates the value both he and society place on conquests that will prove disastrous for the vanquished. Congreve would have the audience smile at the sentiment, to acknowledge its compelling force in the way of the world. But he also finally undermines Fainall and society’s libertine attitudes toward adultery and scandal. Both Page 301 | Top of ArticleFainall’s “Inconstancy and Tyranny of temper” have led Mirabell to protect Mrs. Fainall’s fortunes from her husband by deeding them over in trust to him before she was married. In the final act, this precaution proves to be Fainall’s undoing, for without the deed to Mrs. Fainall’s property he is without means. He cannot extort Lady Wishfort’s estate by blackmail or make good on his promise to set his wife “a drift, like a Leaky hulk to Sink or Swim, as she and the Current of this Lewd Town can agree.” He needs his wife’s money (which he thought he had “wheadl’d out of her”) to survive. Mrs. Marwood suffers a more ignominious fate for her role as a spoiler. She exits the play vowing revenge on Mrs. Fainall. My resentment, she swears, “shall have Vent, and to your Confusion, or I’ll perish in the attempt.” But her vow is an empty one. She has been revealed as a vicious, grasping adulteress, and she is left without husband or means. Fainall can return to his wife, and Mirabell promises to “Contribute all that in me lies to a Reunion,” but Marwood has become, ironically and by her own hand, the “Leaky hulk” that risks perishing. She has exploited her wit, Congreve implies, at the expense of true feelings.
Congreve comically draws out the natural and enduring conflict between the sexes in order to make his audience laugh at human foibles and to poke fun at the posturing associated with romance and sexual intrigue. Early on, Mirabell expresses his mocking disdain of the romantic entanglements that drive the story. The night before the story begins, Millamant has rebuffed him. What can he expect, Fainall asks. The women had met on “one of their Cabal-nights... where they come together like the Coroner’s Inquest, to sit upon the murder’d Reputations of the Week.” Men are excluded from the gossip circle, and their presence (with the exception of the “coxcombs” Witwoud and Petulant) would naturally stall all conversation.
Clearly Mirabell is too grave, too love-struck, to understand that he has breached “decorum.” It is further learned that he cannot win Millamant without first pacifying her aunt, whom he has angered by playing the knave and pretending love to her. Fashion has dictated the rules by which men must pay court to women, and, in the case of Lady Wishfort, Mirabell has paid them only lip service. He has indeed engaged in the “last Act of Flattery with her, and was guilty of a Song in her Commendation.” He tells Fainall he even went so far as to “complement her with the Imputation of an Affair with a
young Fellow...” But his attentions have been false. Throughout the exchange of dialogue in act 1, Congreve shines the light of truth on the way things are. The none too subtle implication is that fashionable women and men are victims of their own vanities, that they delight in the weaknesses of others, and that they are blind to their own defects.
For his gravity as a lover and his knavery as a gallant, Mirabell must temporarily suffer. He will be disappointed in his expectations of Millamant until it appears that his gallant efforts to win her have been in vain. For his ability to read the corrupt nature of the world and his desire to circumvent it, even while deploying its methods, he is victorious in the end. He is able to rise above the superficial manners of his peers; furthermore, his deceptions and undisguised attempts at blackmail have been wrought in the name of love rather than greed or artificial gallantry. He is, as Virginia Birsdall has pointed out in Wild Civility: The English Comic Spirit on the Restoration Stage, “a promoter of marriages.” The marriages he promotes and also helps to sustain suit his own interests. His arrangement of Foible and Waitwell’s marriage secures him the co-conspiracy of Foible against Lady Wishfort. His arrangement of marriage between Mrs. Fainall and her husband and his consequent safeguarding of her estate enable him to foil Fainall, who wants to use his wife’s fortune as leverage in the game of extortion. Yet, at the same time, Foible loves Waitwell and is made happy by the union. And Mrs. Fainall, who has been widowed and has indulged in an affair with Mirabell, protects her reputation by marrying Fainall. His ability to be both gallant and wise, both sophisticated and loving render his plots harmless and instructive. It is later left up to Millamant to teach him how to be “enlarg’d” into a proper husband.
In the famous “prenuptial agreement” scene in act 4, Millamant outlines the conditions under which she will “by degrees dwindle into a Wife.” The gaiety, capriciousness, and arrogance that has characterized her behavior and conversation with Mirabell are offset by veins of gravity and intelligence, an energetic charm and a desire for profound love that culminate here in a style that reflects her power as a heroine. She has toyed with Mirabell unmercifully, snubbing and teasing him until, at the end of act 2, he can think of her only as “a Whirlwind” and himself unwittingly lodged in that whirlwind. While he allows passion to tyrannize him, she is in complete control. Her airy detachment is a challenge to the despotism of the old marriage code. Indeed, she wishes to establish a new marriage pattern that will look very much like a permanent courtship: “I’ll fly and be follow’d to the last Moment,” she asserts to Mirabell,
“tho’ I am upon the very Verge of Matrimony, I expect you should sollicit me as much as if I were wavering at the Grate of a Monastery, with one Foot over the Threshold. I’ll be sollicited to the very last, nay and afterwards.”
While she is a genius in her manipulation of other characters and while her playfulness borders on cruelty, she is intrinsically aware of her own follies, and she finally cannot deny her own natural inclinations. At the end of the scene she admits to Fainall, “Well, If Mirabell shou’d not make a good Husband, I am a lost thing; for I find I love him violently.”
It is fitting to conclude with Lady Wishfort, whose declarations of piety and hatred of men have fooled no one, including herself. In act 3, Mrs. Marwood enters the Lady’s house to tattle on Foible whom she has seen speaking with Mirabell in St. James Park. Lady Wishfort knows Foible has gone out with the Lady’s picture to show Sir Rowland, the more to incite his passions for her. Of course, she doesn’t know that Mirabell has invented the admiring uncle for his own purposes. She only fears here that her own passions will be found out and that she will lose her last chance at marriage, an unpleasant thought at the ripe old age of fifty-five. She laments to Marwood,
“Oh, he carries Poyson in his Tongue that wou’d corrupt Integrity it self. If she has given him an Opportunity, she has as good as put her Integrity into his Hands. Ah dear Marwood, what’s Integrity to an Opportunity?”
Despite her willingness to take advantage of her own opportunity, especially at the expense of ruining Mirabell, she falsely insists on her disdain of men in general. Compare the very funny scene with Foible in act 4, during which she readies herself for Sir Rowland:
“In what figure shall I give his Heart the first Impression?... Shall I sit?... No I won’t sit... I’ll walk... and then turn full upon him... No, that will be too sudden... I’ll lie... aye, I’ll lie down... I’ll receive him in my little dressing Room... with one Foot a little dangling off... and then as soon as he appear, start, aye, start and be surpriz’d, and rise to meet him in a pretty disorder...”
to her soliloquy in the final act on the virtues of raising a daughter to despise men:
“I chiefly made it my own Care to Initiate her very Infancy in the Rudiments of Vertue, and to Impress upon her tender Years, a Young Odium and Aversion to the very sight of Men... she never look’d a Man in the Face but her own Father, or the Chaplain, and him we made a shift to put upon her for a Woman, by the help of his long Garments, and his Sleek-face...”
Her unnatural parenting is not only hypocritical, it has by implication contributed to the unfortunate circumstances in which her daughter has found herself sadly married to a man she truly does hate. And it is Congreve’s final “revenge” that she not only be humiliated in her romance with “Sir Rowland,” but be the butt of his general joke. For while her fortune is “saved” from Fainall, her reputation as a “superannuated Frippery,” a fate she fears most, has indeed come to pass. If Congreve took exception to the lewdness and over-elaborate artificiality of the times, he also clearly resented the Puritanical attacks upon it. Clearly, Lady Wishfort supplies his comic vehicle for demonstrating the weakness of both extremes. But perhaps the most unconsciously insightful remark belongs to the rude but kind-hearted country bumpkin, Sir Wilfull, who for all his misunderstandings of the “lingo” of London, speaks the great lesson of the play when he denounces Witwoud as a fop and declares that “Fashion” is indeed “a Fool.”
Source: Kathy Smith, Critical Essay on The Way of the World, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.
In the following essay excerpt, Kaplan studies The Way of the World as a representative twentieth-century revival of a Restoration comedy.
Opening in a small Greenwich Village playhouse in 1924, The Way of the World created a considerable Page 303 | Top of Articlestir among New York theatregoers. The play was a novelty to many, “so old,” one reviewer said, “that it is new.” The play, however, seemed fresh and unusual not simply because of its age but because it had not been seen and heard for a long time. Considered too bawdy for public performances, most Restoration comedies had been banished from theatres in Great Britain and the United States for several generations. The necessary prelude to their twentieth-century return to the stage—and to the attention that return generated—was literary. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, men of letters such as Algernon Charles Swinburne and Edmund Gosse rehabilitated the comedies’ reputations, convincing their readers that the plays were not tasteless, obscene works but brilliant and witty classics.
Restoration comedy seemed as new to theatre workers in the 1920s as to their audiences, for the plays had no performance tradition. An authentic or “authorized” performance style for classic plays is, of course, unattainable, but there were no vital conventions on which theatre groups could draw. How, then, were the plays to be performed? This essay charts the answers provided to this question in the United States throughout the twentieth century. Although that performance history can not be isolated from twentieth-century British revivals of Restoration comedies, I have chosen to foreground the American productions because their history is generally unknown. Reviewers of the American revivals still all too frequently invoke only British productions. Indeed, they do not always seem aware, when reviewing a particular comedy, that it was revived in the United States earlier in the century. But my aim is to do more than just fill in a gap. We can not adequately understand and assess the ways that Restoration comedies are currently being performed in the U.S. unless we historicize the production and reception of these plays.
I focus on the theatrical career of one play in order to make manifest long-term trends impossible to see in an essay surveying productions of several different plays. I have chosen William Congreve’s The Way of the World because of its prestige and prominence on twentieth-century British and American stages. Often said to be not just the greatest comedy of its period but the greatest English language comedy, it was the Restoration play first offered in modern, commercial revivals in both London and New York. And it has been performed steadily over the course of the century, travelling the route taken by many other classic plays in the
U.S.—from little theatres and semi-private theatrical clubs to off and off-off-Broadway and resident theatres after World War II, with an occasional British import offered on Broadway or in one of the larger resident venues. The Way of the World is regarded by many critics as the quintessence of Restoration comedy. Moreover, when staged, it concentrates the problems as well as the virtues of Restoration comedy. Its plot may be even more maze-like, its pyrotechnic wit somewhat more dense and topical, but these features in most Restoration comedies have challenged twentieth-century directors and theatre companies and have influenced the way Congreve’s play and the other comedies of its period have been performed. It is not, to be sure, the quintessence of bawdiness. The Way of the World comes late—1700—in the corpus of Restoration comedies, and it is less ribald than many of its predecessors written during the reign of Charles II. But for most twentieth-century American theatre workers and theatregoers the reputed naughtiness of Restoration comedies has been more salient than the degree of ribaldry within any one of them.
The revival history exemplified by The Way of the World has at its center a single performance style. When Restoration comedies came back to American theatres in the 1920s, a period style that had recently been devised for them in Britain was imported along with the plays. It included late seventeenth-century props and costumes and acting that mixed farce, parody, and “artificial” or “high style” performance. The artificial acting, conveying the affectations and hauteur of the play’s elite characters, was considered the most important and most characteristic element of this period style. In Page 304 | Top of Articlethe interwar years, theatre companies appropriated the period style, but some of the most successful also adjusted it to suit the New York context. Early on, theatre workers and critics identified certain features of the style as “British” and certain as “American,” and directors exploited these nationalistic constructions and comparisons to the enjoyment of their audiences. Such identifications and juxtapositions of stylistic elements expressed simultaneously a recognition of Restoration comedy as culturally prestigious drama and performance and an iconoclastic, nationalistic impulse—to mock British, highbrow culture and assert the superior vitality of popular American theatrical arts. By contrast, after World War II there was very little interest in adjusting or altering the 1920s period style. Theatre companies engaged in reverential conservation of the early twentieth-century style, which had come to be seen as entirely, admirably British and traditional.
These two phases in the performance of Restoration comedies we owe, of course, to theatre companies and, especially, to directors. But the institutional contexts for productions also constrain or enable performance styles or, in this case, alterations in the treatment of a single performance style. The cultural stature accorded to a theatrical production has an impact on its presentational features, and the development of diverse theatrical institutions has underwritten the creation of a hierarchy of cultural prestige. This variation in institutions has in twentieth-century America succeeded in establishing classifications of high and popular theatre, even though the boundaries between American theatrical institutions in this century have usually been weak. The type of theatre institutions, including the audiences they address, and the social and financial strains they experience have had an impact on the style of the productions.
My history of Restoration period style that follows will suggest the revivals offered in the interwar period were more interesting than those presented after World War II. Modern bodies, modern materials, and the modern mental lives of theatre workers and theatregoers make inevitable the mediating function of performance styles, suiting a play written in and for one culture to the culture in which it is staged. Between the two world wars, the period style was reproduced, but it was also challenged and altered with new “Americanized” elements. After World War II, however, the intercultural work of performance styles was denied, as directors and companies sought again and again to recapture a style devised in the 1920s.
Those years of denial appear to be coming to an end, for the question of how to perform Restoration comedies has recently been reopened. Distancing themselves from the theatrical Anglophilism so pervasive between 1945 and 1990, some directors have consciously rejected many if not all of the elements of the period style. While they have acknowledged Restoration comedies as classics, they have not given the plays’ conventional performance style the same status. In the second section of this essay, I look at three of the revivals of The Way of the World that have pioneered new approaches to Restoration comedy. Although these recent productions have not all been critical or box-office successes, they have been important efforts to find new and compelling performance idioms. More than aesthetic achievement is at stake in these attempts. Their directors have sought to bridge the cultural chasm between Restoration comedy and late twentieth-century audiences in the United States.
Restoration Period Style in America
During the interwar period, a handful of Restoration revivals were offered in New York. The institutional contexts for the majority of the American productions—the art theatre and the private theatre club—facilitated the inventiveness of their stylistic appropriations. The art theatre provided a venue for serious contemporary and classic European plays, new American plays, and experimental stagings. The Players’ Club, in its annual spring productions, staged mostly classics. By presenting plays and productions not usually seen on Broadway, these two institutions contributed to the segmentation of theatre, to the creation of a “high” as opposed to “popular” culture. But while they helped to create these categories, they enjoyed playing with this new distinction as well. Such play was possible because culturally elite audiences in this period were notable for their broad tastes, enjoying popular as well as high art. It was also possible because the institutional boundaries between the culturally prestigious and the popular were not yet firm. That transformation occurred gradually, between 1910 and 1940. Productions done initially under the aegis of the art theatre and the Players’ Club did not always play only to small, culturally elite audiences. The Restoration revivals they sponsored were most compelling precisely when they mingled high and popular elements for audiences consisting not only Page 305 | Top of Articleof “longhairs” with wide interests but also of those with less cultural capital.
An art theatre, the Cherry Lane Playhouse in Greenwich Village, first offered The Way of the World in twentieth-century New York. The immediate impetus for the production in the Village was a revival that had opened nine months earlier in February 1924. Directed by Nigel Playfair, Congreve’s play was the first commercially produced Restoration comedy in twentieth-century London. Because of its great popularity with both critics and the theatregoing public, this and other Restoration comedies were deemed “playable” again. The performance style that Playfair developed for The Way of the World was subsequently emulated in the United States as well as in Great Britain because British actor and director Dennis Cleugh presented not only the comedy but also Playfair’s performance style at the Cherry Lane.
What was it he appropriated? Nigel Playfair had chosen to do the play because he considered it “the greatest of all comedies of manners,” but he disliked reverential, scholarly, and theatrically dull approaches to classics. He believed that “one is out... in reproducing old plays, not so much to give a replica (which is impossible) as to furnish a sort of review and criticism—a parody if you like, but a parody which expresses admiration.” He mocked many aspects of Restoration period manners. Doris Zinkeisen created brightly colored, poster style sets, whose overtly artificial strokes complemented the stage business he devised. As one reviewer summed up the production, “the servants had to light the candles in quartet formation, and everybody who was not speaking had to strike attitudes with arms raised or elbow stuck out, and all the dresses were as gorgeously polychromatic as could be, and the very ladies in the orchestra wore full-bottomed wigs. In a word, the play was fantasticated.” The actors were even instructed to give archaic pronunciations to certain words—“tay” for tea, for example, and “rallery” for raillery—not for the sake of historical accuracy but to give aural reminders of the “oldfashioned” character of this Restoration world.
Playfair worried that audiences would find the plot of The Way of the World too confusing. His response was to mock the plot as well and, in general, to draw attention away from it and to the style of the production. Some reviewers thought that he was also trying to distract spectators from the sexual content of the already lightly expurgated script. In Great Britain, Victorian prudery had not yet entirely disappeared. His mocking approach also infused the acting, which was a mix of high style, parody, and farce. In Edith Evans, as Millamant, Playfair found an actress capable of brilliant high style playing. Nineteenth-century essayist and critic Charles Lamb had insisted on the artificiality of Restoration comedy, and early twentieth-century actors attempted to make themselves as highly mannered and affected, as polished and brittle, as possible. Writing in 1963, John Gielgud remembered Evans’s performance as “probably the finest stylized piece of bravura acting seen in London in the last fifty years. Her economy and grace of movement, her perfectly sustained poses, the purring, coquetry of her voice with its extraordinary subtlety of range, was inimitably captivating.” As Gielgud’s description suggests, high style acting could—and sometimes did—shade into the parody of camp. Playfair also encouraged farcical playing by a few of the actors. Next to Edith Evans, Margaret Yarde attracted the most attention in his production with her broad interpretation of Lady Wishfort. Some spectators objected, convinced that her performance was not in the spirit of Congreve’s play, but most praised her performance.
Although a few reviewers thought that Playfair gingered up The Way of the World too much, this generally well-received production determined what became known as Restoration period style in early twentieth-century Britain. “The approach,” according to J. L. Styan, “was not that of ’Let’s put on a Restoration comedy,’ but of ’Let’s pretend to put on a Restoration comedy.’” And the playfully ridiculed, campy world produced became “the Restoration” in British revivals for many subsequent decades. Playfair’s work also set the perimeters for Restoration period style and the world that it conveyed in the United States through the medium of Cleugh’s production in New York.
The actors at the Cherry Lane aimed for both high style and farce, giving their performances parodic touches as well. Cleugh steered the actors to silly sounding pronunciations such as “obleeged” for obliged, for example. Playfair’s style also influenced the visual look of the production: “beribboned and bewigged, flaring linings, lace cuffs, tight bodices, fans and monocles; the world of fashion did not spare color.” This review in the New York Times suggests not just elaborate but also comically exaggerated period dress. The sets too, another reviewer noted approvingly, were “quaintly and amusingly done,” no doubt, referring particularly to the scenery for act two, signifying St. James’s Page 306 | Top of ArticlePark. The backdrop offered a row of townhouses, painted only one or two feet high to indicate their distance. Because perspective was only suggested and not realistically represented, the residences looked like doll houses.
The successful commercial production between the wars had 100 performances, and Cleugh’s revival topped that number by twenty. So popular was it that part way through the run the production was moved uptown to the Princess Theatre near Broadway at 39th Street. The Way of the World was so successful at least in part because it offered theatregoers an opportunity to demonstrate their cultural sophistication. The play had high status as a British dramatic classic. But it was also known as a risque work, and spectators could display their cultural capital by responding aesthetically rather than morally, by remaining unperturbed by what they heard. Reviewers let it be known that they were unfazed by the play’s bawdiness and observed no “moral agitation” among audience members.
Moreover, culturally sophisticated New Yorkers appreciated popular and mass culture as well as high culture, and they took pleasure in comparing the ribaldry of the Restoration with homegrown, widely enjoyed versions. Critics proudly asserted that American entertainment was at least as bawdy as what had been produced long ago about a British social elite. For Variety’s reviewer burlesque was the relevant comparison. In the slang that writers for the weekly liked to affect, he announced: “I heard it was very ’dirty’ before I cum down, but it’s as tame as a Sunday night with the wife... if this mob think this is a peppy opera I would just like to see a flock of them long-haired guys sittin’ in rail seats up at the Prospect when the “Hot Water-Bag Babies” strut bare-legged out on that runway.”
It was not just the ribaldry of the play, however, but the performance as a whole to which New York theatregoers responded. Although the American production revealed small alterations in Playfair’s composite of acting styles, it did not dispense with high style playing. Most reviewers thought that the actors failed to convey its polished artifice, but high style was apparently already understood to be an aspect of the Restoration period style too crucial to reject. Critics attributed the difficulties that the cast had with it to their modernity: “it is of course impossible in this year of grace,” noted one, “to bring back to the stage the full flavor of aristocratic comedy. The grand air must be acquired for the occasion, and the grand air does not flourish on Broadway or even on Shaftesbury Avenue.” The actors’ national identity, however, and, in particular, their location in a polyglot and poly-accented American city, was thought to be an even greater handicap, preventing the players from achieving an Anglo-Saxon standard. “The actors,” he continued, “must learn to speak the English language. This is a particular difficulty in New York.”
If being American was deemed a cultural liability for performing high style, it was an asset for performing farce and parody, the other components of Restoration period style acting. Americans were considered very adept at low comedy, as the vaudeville and burlesque industries were demonstrating. Sir Wilfull Witwoud was apparently the character most farcically rendered, and the critics loved him. Bruce de Lette and Lawrence Tulloch, as Witwoud and Petulant, also won praise for presenting the parody of camp. Indeed, references to the “slapstick” and “buffoonery” in the production as well as to Witwoud and Petulant as “female impersonators” suggest that the actors borrowed from vaudeville and burlesque—and perhaps from the drag balls and “Pansy” acts, popular at that time in New York—for their “low turns.” The Way of the World’s performance style may have been appealing enough to fill the uptown Princess Theatre not only because the farcical and parodic elements compensated for the technical deficiencies of the high style playing but also because the farce and parody incorporated elements from other New York entertainments.
Cleugh’s production set precedents not only by introducing Restoration comedies to the twentiethcentury American stage and not only by introducing Playfair’s performance style for that comedy but also by introducing acting tagged according to nationality into Restoration comedy. The propensity to treat high style acting as British and farce and parody as American shaped both the production and consumption of some of the most successful of the American revivals in the interwar period. In a more pronounced way than Cleugh’s, subsequent productions exploited the hybrid of high and low, British and American. Playfair had lightly parodied the world of Restoration comedy. In the United States additional parodic effects were achieved through the juxtaposition, and by that means the creation, of “national” styles. These revivals simultaneously offered high art fare and took advantage of Playfair’s parodic approach to make fun not just of the early eighteenth century but also of highbrow and British art.
To see this, we need to turn to the other institution that showcased Restoration comedy, the Players’ Club. Established by Edwin Booth in the late 1880s as a men’s club for actors and others interested in the theatre, the Players’ began offering annual spring productions in 1922 and continued until 1940. During that time it presented three Restoration plays. Its productions can not be readily characterized as either art or commercial theatre. The club usually performed classics for an audience that contained a strong contingent of artists and others in the theatre industry. It ran productions for only one week and gave some of the profits to charity. But it also performed in Broadway theatres and used all-star casts who donated their services. Moreover, successful productions sometimes got picked up by producers who sent them on tours. The ambiguity or even liminality of the club’s position in the emerging cultural hierarchy for theatrical productions could make for dramatizations of surprising, audience-pleasing incongruities.
The Players’ Club’s production of The Way of the World in 1931 was the flop that proves the rule. No one quarrelled with the look of the production. “Bewigged, becravatted, beflounced and also bedevilled with amorous intrigue,” noted New York Times reviewer Brooks Atkinson about the characters, “they make a fine pictorial showing as they strut across the stage.” “There are singers and dancers and musicians,” another critic enumerated, “and no end of silks and satins and furbelows and wigs upon the players.” Critics grumbled once again, however, at the high style acting. Walter Hampden, famous for his appearances in costume dramas, knew how to express elegance and artifice in his stage posturings. But he had so much difficulty with diction that it was impossible for the audiences to understand him much of the time. The other cast members too had substantial difficulties with technique, so much so that they were unable to give the impression of a common, lacquered playing style. What sunk the production, however, was not poor high style playing but a dearth of the broad, “Americanized” comedy that could offset it. Although he commended Ernest Cossart for his performance as Sir Wilfull Witwoud, Percy Hammond, writing for the New York Herald Tribune, thought the part “cries out for Mr. James T. Powers to play it.”
Famous for hamming it up in musical comedies and comic operas, Powers had played Scrub in the Players’ Club’s revival of The Beaux’ Stratagem in 1928. He and Raymond Hitchcock—star of vaudeville, musical comedies, and revues and in The Beaux’ Stratagem playing the role of Boniface—delighted audiences with their improvised antics. Both took liberties with the text, inventing a good deal of “horseplay.” One reviewer thought the production lacked “cohesion,” but most critics and the audiences in general did not care. With its combination of high style and shtick, The Beaux’ Stratagem played to standing room only crowds.
The Players’ Club’s production of The Way of the World failed because American actors were not deemed capable of carrying a Restoration revival on the strength of their high style playing alone. But more problematic than that, the production took a reverential approach to a Restoration classic. (Playfair knew that he couldn’t sell that approach even to British theatregoers, to whose national dramatic heritage the play belonged.) New York theatregoers were ready to acknowledge the cultural prestige of the play as long as they weren’t asked to attend exclusively to its performance metaphor—high style playing—or to watch American actors defeated by that playing. The other Players’ Club revivals of Restoration comedies succeeded not just because they included irreverent acting but because they relied on indigenous versions of irreverence.
Theatre workers and audiences understood and enjoyed the incongruities of putting twentieth-century vaudevillians and musical comedy stars into Restoration comedy. Funnier still were productions in which the encounters between high and low, British and American, old and modern did not seem incongruous. When Bobby Clark played Ben in the Players’ Club’s revival of Love for Love in 1940, he brought his well known vaudeville and burlesque routines to Congreve’s comedy. As one reviewer explained, he “abandoned the painted spectacles and immense cigar, which are his trademarks, but he played the part with all the abundant spirit of burlesque, the lusty, gusty, leering magnificence that makes his modern clowning supreme in its field.” The play had become an exhilarating showcase for American popular culture. “All those years ago William Congreve was really writing a vehicle for Bobby Clark,” declared one amused—and gratified—reviewer.
After World War II, with the exception of an occasional British production imported to Broadway, Restoration comedies were performed in the U.S. by off-Broadway and resident theatres and, only in more recent years, by off-off-Broadways. The impetus for off-Broadway originally was “more Page 308 | Top of Articleeconomic than artistic.” It provided outlets for plays produced more cheaply than they could be on Broadway, though a few off-Broadway companies, such as Proscenium Productions, which performed The Way of the World in Greenwich Village in 1954, were dedicated to classic revivals or to new plays without commercial appeal. By contrast, the not-for-profit resident theatres, in general, did aim at least originally “to be an independent channel for presentations of a more adventurous, if usually less popular, nature.” But they and an increasing pool of non-profit off-Broadways, while supposedly protected from the whims of the marketplace, needed to take into account the tastes of their subscribers, their boards of trustees, and the private foundations and government agencies that began providing financial support in the late 1950s and mid-1960s respectively. The regional and many of the off-Broadway theatres settled on a repertoire of culturally prestigious high art mixed with some entertaining Broadway-like and, beginning in the late 1960s, Broadway-bound fare.
Resident and off-Broadway productions throughout this period had to please audiences that were notably homogeneous—white, affluent, and well-educated. Theatre historians and critics were lamenting the absence of multi-class audiences by the mid-1960s, and though some theatres, often with the help of government and foundation support, sought out new, more diverse audiences in that and subsequent decades, they had little success. Audiences did become somewhat more racially diverse over the course of the 1980s, but the multi-class audience remained an unattainable goal. In 1965 Richard Schechner enumerated the stultifying effects that resulted from resident theatres addressing the interests of middle-class subscribers—“little truly adventurous drama” and productions that “have a museum quality.” “A resident theatre that has systematically retreated into the middleclass is doomed to a monotony equivalent to an Ohio highway,” he complained. It was a monotony that Jack Poggi found particularly in the major resident theatres. In their schedules, he observed, “the same plays crop up over and over again. The directors, the managers, and the actors can move easily from one company to another—an indication that there really is not much difference in style among the theaters.” The predominance of an upper middle- and middleclass audience, and the consequently monotonous fare of the theatres that catered to them, help to explain why the style of Restoration revivals was so unvarying in this period.
And yet, within these staid off-Broadway and resident venues, the revivals were more unvarying than productions of other classic plays. These institutions did make excursions off the bland Ohio highway, choosing unusual plays or performance styles. Off-off-Broadway, which emerged in the 1960s, was a likely source of their experiments with style. Conceptual directors working in unconventional performance spaces were occasionally invited into off-Broadway or resident theatres to essay boldly avant-garde productions of plays by, for example, Euripides, Shakespeare, and Moliere. The plays of Congreve and other Restoration writers, however, did not receive similarly innovative treatments.
In addition, even the alternative Restoration period style seen in London theatres by the early 1960s had little impact on the American revivals. William Gaskill, directing The Recruiting Officer at Britain’s National Theatre in 1963, did most to transform the style of performance. He replaced high style and its camp extremes with naturalistic acting. There were bits of farce in the production, but Playfair’s parodic approach to period and play was banished. Gaskill steered the actors away from “coy archaisms” in pronunciation and rejected “lisps, huge wigs, canes and fans.” He tried, as he later explained, “to make the text sound as if it was being spoken by real people in recognizable situations.” The result was a dark and biting vision of the period, whose cynicism seemed quite relevant to late twentieth-century audiences and critics. But while that performance style quickly spread to most subsequent Restoration revivals in Great Britain, including most of the major productions of The Way of the World, only one American production in this period, staged at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theater in 1972 by British director Malcolm Black, adopted a naturalistic style.
The lack of change can be explained by considering the function of Restoration revivals within resident and off-Broadway theatres. These institutions justified their non-profit status and established themselves more firmly through the interwoven public services of cultural conservation and instruction. They helped to maintain dramatic canons through productions, educating theatregoers and theatre workers in older plays. And they were sometimes able to win government and foundation grants specifically earmarked for gathering student audiences or improving the skills of their companies. Such public service extended to performance styles as well as to play—when possible. Many artistic Page 309 | Top of Articledirectors included a Restoration comedy in their seasonal offerings in order to introduce audiences and actors not just to a dramatic classic but also to that classic’s “classic” performance style. And it was the 1920s version of period style, rather than the alternative devised by the early 1960s, that reigned in the non-profits. It was older, of course. But, ironically, it also had the stature of a tradition precisely because of its strangeness and greater difficulty for those used to naturalistic acting.
Some directors with reputations as specialists in Restoration period style were invited in those years to train American theatre companies. Norman Ayrton and Anthony Cornish, for example, both known for that expertise, staged two of the resident theatre revivals of The Way of the World in the postwar period, Ayrton for the Acting Company and Cornish for the Intiman Theater Company. Ayrton acknowledged in a newspaper interview, just before the Acting Company’s production opened in 1976: “I’m very often called upon for Restoration drama... I don’t like to be typed any more than an actor does. But I feel compelled to accept Restoration assignments to help keep the style alive and well.”
Within institutions that needed to offer culturally prestigious as well as popular art, Playfair’s performance style became highbrow not only because it was supposedly traditional but also because it was British. That national identity was encoded now not just in high style acting but in the composite of acting styles and in late seventeenth-century costume. It was expressed in the impression produced by these period elements: at best “brightly quaint figures flitting about, sparkling and remote, in an unfamiliar world.” And it was reinforced through publicity that stressed the nationality of the director/specialists. “London Expert Here for ’Way of the World,’” was the title of a local newspaper article featuring Cornish, a few days before the Intiman Theater Company began its run of Congreve’s play.
Directors who viewed the preservation of Restoration period style as a cultural mission found support among theatergoers. “Ever since the end of World War II,” Robert Brustein has observed, “American audiences have been in thrall to the theatre emanating from Great Britain.... Our admiration for British playwriting, directing, composing—and particularly acting—has begun to resemble something of a national inferiority complex.” Those who disliked sacralized and Anglo-identified styles, however, were, no doubt, repelled by the style and the silly, self-mocking—and irrelevant—world it constructed. The wonder is that the dominance of this reified period style in the postwar era did not permanently inhibit new approaches. In the early 1990s some directors did finally begin to see in late seventeenth-century comedies possibilities for innovative performance styles and new Restorations.
Source: Deborah Kaplan, “Learning ’to Speak the English Language’: The Way of the World on the Twentieth-Century American Stage,” in Theatre Journal, Vol. 49, No. 3, October 1997, pp. 301−21.
Sue L. Kimball
In the following essay excerpt, Kimball examines the theme of gaming in The Way of the World, including the “idea that life is a game in the world of play and elsewhere.”
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Source: Sue L. Kimball, “Games People Play in Congreve’s The Way of the World,” in A Provision of Human Nature: Essays on Fielding and Others in Honor of Miriam Austin Locke, edited by Donald Kay, University of Alabama Press, 1977, pp. 191−207.
Birdsall, Virginia Ogden, Wild Civility: The English Comic Spirit on the Restoration Stage, Indiana University Press, 1970, pp. 227−52.
Congreve, William, The Complete Plays of William Congreve, edited by Herbert Davis, University of Chicago Press, 1967, pp. 386−479.
Dobráee, Bonamy, William Congreve, Longmans, Green & Co., 1963.
Hume, Robert, The Rakish Stage: Studies in English Drama, 1660-1800, Southern Illinois University Press, 1983.
Krutch, Joseph Wood, Comedy and Conscience after the Restoration, Columbia University Press, 1949.
Perry, Henry Ten Eyck, The Comic Spirit in Restoration Drama, Russell & Russell, Inc., 1962, pp. 56−81.
Wilcox, John, The Relation of Moliere to Restoration Comedy, Benjamin Blom, 1964, pp. 154−201.
Gardiner, Samuel R., History of the Great Civil War, 1642−1649, London, 1886−1891.
Gardiner discusses the Civil War that temporarily ended the reign of the monarchy in England and replaced it with a parliamentary form of government. The “Restoration” of the monarchy took place when Charles II came to the throne in 1660.
Holland, Norman, The First Modern Comedies: The Significance of Etherege, Wycherley, and Congreve, Harvard University Press, 1959.
Holland provides a thorough study of the three Restoration playwrights, their influences, and their heirs.
Johnson, Samuel, “Preface to William Congreve” in Lives of the English Poets, 1781.
It is a token of Johnson’s eminence that the later eighteenth century is often called the “Age of Johnson.” His collection of biographies on the lives of the poets from Cowley to Gray are amusing, often disparaging, but always insightful glosses on the literary giants of the age. The language of the “Preface” is singularly witty, urbane, and acerbic. He outlines the life and work of Congreve from his vantage point only fifty years after Congreve’s death.
Loftis, John, Comedy and Society from Congreve to Fielding, Stanford University Press, 1959.
As its title would suggest, this critical work reviews the relationship between social history and culture in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The book is particularly appropriate in its study of moral matters, social customs, and theater values.
Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2694000026