William Congreve in the dedication of his last play to his patron Sir Ralph Montague tells us the reason why he wrote this play. Contemporary dramatists introduced physically deformed comic characters on the stage who amused the audiences with broad comic effects. Congreve says that his intention on the contrary was to
"design some characters, which should appear ridiculous not so much through a natural folly (which is incorrigible, and therefore not proper for the stage) as through an affected wit; a wit, which at the same time that it is affected, is also false."
So, his aim was to satirise young fashionable men of his time who although they were not intelligent and witty pretended as though they were very intelligent and witty. He does this through the characters Anthony Witwoud and Petulant.
Sir William Congreve (167-1729) wrote this play in the year 1700. Hence it belongs to the Restoration Age. All the writers of this age sought inspiration and guidance from the writers of ancient classical Greece and Rome and hence Congreve's attempt to trace the ancestry of Comedy right up to Aristotle in his Dedication. Hence also the adherence to the Three Unities and the division of the text of the play into five actswhich were insisted upon by the French Neo-Classical critics of his time.
The play belongs to the genre of Comedy called the Comedy of Manners. Some of the important features of this type of comedy are:
1. The plays always take place in the metropolis of London.
2. There is always a rural and urban contrast which results in a lot of hummour: the scene as soon as Sir Wilful Witwoud, the stepbrother of Antony Witwoud arrives in London, and later when both of them quarrel.
3. A pair of witty lovers, like Mirabell and Millamant.
4. Witty dialogue is the most important feature of this type of comedy, in fact plot and characterisation will often be sacrificed for the sake of witty dialogue. The highlight of this type of comedy is the scene when the two young intelligent lovers try to outsmart one another in witty conversation. The most important scene in the play takes place in ActIV when finally Mirabell woos and wins Millamant.
5. Restoration Comedy of Manners heroines are very bold and independent. Read the 'Proviso Scene' (Act IV) in which Mirabell woos and wins Millamant.
6. The aim of the Restoration Comedy of Manners was to satirise mildly the ills of society. Congreve does this by employing many 'type' characters,that is, the names of the characters themselves would reveal the quality of the person which Congreve wanted to satirise.
The plot of the play is slight and the main interest of the play rests on Mirabell's attempt to humiliate and blackmail Lady Wishfort so that he can marry her niece Millamant with her share of her ancestral property. But as stated in the Dedication his intention to satirise the fops of contemporary London society spoilt the dramatic interest of the play. The play itself was only moderately successful. After this play Congreve stopped writing plays.