Although born in England, William Congreve was reared and educated in Ireland, thus joining the procession of great Irish comic writers that includes Richard Sheridan, Oliver Goldsmith, Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde, and George Bernard Shaw. Returning to England as a young man, Congreve studied at law briefly, wrote a novel, and joined with John Dryden in a translation of some works of Juvenal. His literary rise was rapid, and his first comedies, The Old Bachelor (1693) and Love for Love (1695), were highly successful. His sole tragedy, The Mourning Bride (1697), acclaimed by Samuel Johnson a generation later, was widely applauded. However, The Way of the World, now considered the masterpiece of all Restoration comedies, was coolly received. Congreve became involved in a notorious controversy over the morality of the stage and had to defend his plays strenuously from what he felt was misrepresentation. Despite this, he held honorary posts under King William and Queen Anne and was associated with Sir John Vanbrugh in the direction of the Queen’s Theatre in Haymarket. He was one of the most admired literary figures during the reign of Queen Anne; the duchess of Marlborough was his patron, and Alexander Pope, John Gay, Swift, Richard Steele, and Voltaire were his friends. When Congreve died in 1729, he was buried with much pomp and ceremony in Westminster Abbey.
Restoration comedy was critical comedy, bringing “the sword of common sense” to bear upon the extravagances of the period. Congreve’s works are perhaps as close to those of Molière as the English theater ever came; his plays brought an ironic scrutiny to the affectations of his age, with a style and a perfection of phrase that still dazzle audiences. He has been called the wittiest man who ever wrote the English language in the theater; certainly, his characters speak some of the wittiest dialogue. Without question, The Way of the World introduced a new standard of wit and polish to the theater. In Millamant, Congreve created one of the great characters of English drama, a comic heroine at once lovable and laughable. The poetry of the courtly life of the Restoration is summed up in the duet between these two brilliant lovers, Mirabell and Millamant.
The Way of the World is carried forward by the witty speeches of the characters rather than by dramatic reversals. The play is all of one piece, a world of wit and pleasure inhabited only by persons of quality and “deformed neither by realism nor by farce.” The plot is confusing but almost irrelevant, and the situations exist really only for the conversation. Although Congreve seems almost above such concerns as careful plotting, he is surprisingly artful in some of his stage effects. By delaying the entrance of Millamant until the second act, he arouses intense anticipation in the audience. The fifth act, crowded as it is with activity, flows with continual surprises.
Some critics have held that The Way of the World is marred by the artificial contrivances of the plot, but most audiences pay no attention to the complications, relishing instead the characters and the dialogue. The design of the play is to ridicule affected, or false, wit. Possibly, the play’s original lukewarm reception was a result of its coming too close to the faults of the courtly audience to be wholly agreeable to them. The dialogue is, also, closely woven, and the repartee demands such close attention that it might have exhausted its listeners. The Way of the World is now one of the most frequently revived and enjoyed of all of the Restoration comedies.
Apart from the presentation of incidental wit, Restoration comedy had two main interests: the behavior of polite society and of pretenders to polite society, and particular aspects of sexual relationships. The wit varied from a hard, metallic kind that seemed to exist for its own sake, with no relation to anything, to subtle satire. Occasionally, even Congreve falls into a pattern of easy antitheses, monotonously repeated until the sting of surprise is lost. His wit is never as blunt or as ruthless as that of William Wycherley. Considered fairly outspoken for many generations, the comedy seems primarily to consist of titillation, to suggest more than it delivers. However, the best of the Restoration playwrights, such as Congreve, did not rely entirely on titillation to get their laughs. There is also much feeling present in The Way of the World, particularly in the battle of the sexes. Congreve could not view love merely as a gratification of lust, as some of the Restoration playwrights seemed to think of it.
The characters in The Way of the World are among the best drawn in any Restoration comedy—or perhaps in any play of the period, comic or tragic. Besides Mirabell and Millamant, one of the most perfect pairs of lovers in any comedy, the play boasts a parade of such personalities as Foible, Witwoud, Petulant, and particularly Lady Wishfort, who approaches the tragic in her desperate attempt to preserve her youth. No character in the play, not even Fainall, fails to surprise the audience with witty observations. In The Way of the World, Congreve penetrates deeper than any of his contemporaries into the mysteries of human nature; he possesses more feeling for the individual and is subtler in his treatment of human idiosyncrasies.
The Way of the World reflects attitudes concerning sexuality that prevailed for centuries; above all, the play suggests, the most fascinating aspect of sexual relations is that of the chase. The pursuit, usually of the male for the female, although sometimes reversed, dominates Restoration comedy and is both glorified and satirized in The Way of the World. The lovely and intelligent Millamant herself expresses her belief in the necessity for a period devoted to such pursuit if a woman is to attract and to keep her lover. By playing hard to get, a woman proves her eventual worth. Congreve takes these conventional attitudes and fabricates his comedy from them, weaving a complicated and fascinating satire that continues to delight audiences and readers after two centuries.