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 humiliation, 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.