Why is "The Way of the World" considered to be a comedy of manners?

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lit24 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Valedictorian

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The Comedy of Manners was a particular type of comedy which was very popular during the Restoration Age. William Congreve's [1670-1729] "The Way of the World" was first staged in London in the year 1700. It is generally regarded as one of best examples of the comedy of manners.

Some of the important features of the comedy of manners are as follows:

1. The action always takes place in London. There are many references in the play to actual localities in London city, for example the servant reports to Mirabell how the marriage between Waitwell and Foible took place:

Sir, there's such coupling at Pancras that they stand behind one another, as 'twere in a country-dance. Ours was the last couple to lead up; and no hopes appearing of dispatch, besides, the parson growing hoarse, we were afraid his lungs would have failed before it came to our turn; so we drove round to Duke's Place, and there they were riveted in a trice.

During Congreve's time both Pancras and Duke's Place in London were notorious places where couples could get married easily without questions being asked.

2. There is always a contrast between the rural and the urban. Squire Witwoud is from the county of Shropshire and his arrival in London results in a lot of amusement and humour as Petulant and the others mock at him.

3. The presence of atleast one pair of very intelligent young lovers. Mirabell and Millamant are witty lovers in this play.

4. Witty dialogue is perhaps the most important feature of the Comedy of Manners. The best example of a scene of witty dialogue is the 'proviso' scene in which Millamant specifies her conditions before she agrees to accept Mirabell as her husband and he in turn also states his conditions. Millamant insists,

Let us be as strange as if we had been
married a great while, and as well-bred as if we were not married at

5. All the other aspects of the play are usually sacrificed for the sake of contriving a situation which would give rise to 'witty' dialogue.

6. The appeal of the Comedy of Manners is to the intelligence of the audience/reader and not to the emotions.

7. The 'witty' dialogue was usually obscene, for the theatres had just reopened after the Restoration after being closed during the Puritan rule of Oliver Cromwell. Petulant especially is notrious for embarrassing the ladies by his filthy conversation and Mirabell avoids his company thus,

Pray then walk by yourselves. Let not us be accessory to your putting the ladies out of countenance with your senseless ribaldry, which you roar out aloud as often as they pass by you, and when you have made a handsome woman blush, then you think you have been severe.

8.The women in these plays were very emancipated and bold and independent, unlike the heroines of the Sentimental dramas.

9.The institution of marriage was always held to ridicule. Both husbands and wives openly expressed their dissatisfaction of their spouses:

MRS. FAIN. Is it possible? Dost thou hate those vipers, men?

MRS. MAR. I have done hating 'em, and am now come to despise 'em; the next thing I have to do is eternally to forget 'em.

10. These plays were mainly intended for the elegant and sophisticated audiences of London city. Hence the characters were almost always from the upper class society of London.

11. These plays portrayed the lifestyle of the idle rich of London city very realistically. Lady Wishfort wakes late in the day and cannot dress without the help of her servant Foible. Peg another servant remarks:

Lord, madam, your ladyship is so impatient.--I cannot come at the paint, madam: Mrs. Foible has locked it up, and carried the key with her.

12. The plays were mildly satirical-the playwright could not afford to hurt his upper class audience. Congreve remarks in his 'prologue' with tongue in cheek irony:

He'll not instruct, lest it should give offence.
Should he by chance a knave or fool expose,
That hurts none here, sure here are none of those.

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