Discuss the theme of social criticism in the way of the world?
Even of the title of the play makes it clear that this is going to make fun of the way folks act, the way folks socialize. Most of the conflicts between characters are built around social conventions and mores of the time. Fainall, who is allowed to exist thanks only to his wife's inheritance, thinks he is a champion manipulator, but in reality, he too is being manipulated to fit in with societal norms, for example in providing Mrs. Fainall with an "inoffensive" second husband.
Foible, whose name clearly is not indicating anything, is also an important mechanism for the social criticism of the play since she sees many of the characters in their more private moments, those that they would hide from the public if they could.
When Charles II ascended to the throne again and monarchy was restored in 1660, the then English society got relief from the suppression of the stern Puritan rules. But, this led the society to over-indulgence of sensual pleasure and immoral acts. The king himself was not a moral human at all. The society started losing their sense of priority. Immoral acts enveloped the society's good sides. While theaters were being flourished, writers & dramatists were patronized by the rulers, bad poets & notorious actors-actresses took birth (ref: John Dryden's McFlecknoe). Women were being disregarded and felt insecure. So, most of the women's primary goal became to charm men, and to make their own future secure anyhow. They used to pass time by gossiping, playing cards, having walks in the park with their male admirers, whereas, men used to pass time playing cards and drinking chocolate at the chocolate house. Extra-marital affair was a common phenomenon among the couples. But, neither husband nor wife expressed their internal feelings in front of others even if they hated each other. They always wore a facade. This was the condition of the Restoration society.
These social behavior and manners are depicted in many plays by playwrights like William Congreve, Richard Brinsley Sheridan of the age. The main target of such witty, satiric comedies is the society as a whole, not a particular theme or character, since the purpose of the play is to teach a moral via highlighting the social follies and criticising the manners and customs of the society.
Congreve's The Way of the World, shows many a portraits: Mirabell as a beau already done harm to Mrs. Fainall, Millament as a beautiful young lady feeling inertly insecure who always remains surrounded by some foolish men, Marwood's making love with the husband of Mrs. Fainall, Marwood's habit of eavesdropping and harming Mirabell & Milament being refused by Mirabell, Mrs. Fainall's wedding to Fainall to secure her future, and most importantly, Lady Wishfort's untiring willingness to make herself look young & beautiful and thus making herself more vulnerable, all these portraits are exact depiction of 18th century urban society. Through witty dialogues and careful handling of the plot, Congreve has superbly made it a successful Restoration comedy which is a social critique.
It reminds me of W B Yeat's poem 'The Second Coming'. The poem reveals that scentity of all religion has to be lost in the passes of time. The same thing happened with the Christianity. The puritans did realise the essence of the religion. Rather they considered it as a weapon to use against people. They ruled over the people showing the consequence of seven deadly sins, where as they commited sins by exploiting and oppressing the followers. People were in quest of way to be free from the bondage of relious exploitation. When people got relief from the suppression because of the rule of Charles II, they totaly deviated from the true human path. They lost sense of morality and aspired more and more for wordly pleasure.
The more we concentrate on earthly pleasure the more we forget about the people and society around us. We become self-centred and don't hesitate to harm others. we try to enjoy on the cost of others.
In the play 'The Way of the World' the playwright has shown how cragy people are for cheating each other. Even the old widow also desires to have a young boy friend, women donot hesitate to cheat her husband having elicit relationship withe another man. Young boys are so idle that they want to enjoy on the cost of his beloved' wealth.