The Way of the World is considered one of the finest examples of late seventeenth-century Restoration drama during the period when the comedy of manners flourished in England. Congreve had written two extremely popular dramas before this, Love for Love (1695) and The Mourning Bride (1697), which received rave reviews in London and cemented his reputation as a major playwright. However, his next and final play, The Way of the World, was only a marginal success when it was performed in 1700. Several theories have been forwarded as to why audience reaction at the time was lukewarm. One of Congreve's biographers, Bonamy Dobráee, speculates that, while Congreve's masterpiece must be appreciated for ‘‘depth and sympathy of its characterisation...together with the general sense of what is precious in life, and the magnificent handling of language,’’ the play might have been ‘‘too subtle.’’ A character like Witwoud, he notes, is "indeed a coxcomb,'' but he was also "no idiot.’’ Dobráee also characterizes the resolution of the plot as ''abrupt and unlikely.’’
Several studies of late seventeenth-century drama make the claim that Congreve was writing fora "coterie" audience (fashionable high society) that disappeared at the turn-of-the-century. The argument is that new playgoers were middle class or bourgeois in their tastes, and they demanded a new style, hence the rise of "sentimental" comedy popular after 1700. As Virginia Ogden Birdsall writes in Wild Civility, The English Comic Spirit on the Restoration Stage, the ‘‘conditions and circumstances in which English civilization had to grow'' led to ‘‘a new and not inconsiderable ally in the cause of repressive sobriety—namely, an increasingly influential middle-class mentality almost invariably hostile to the comic or play spirit.’’
Recent studies by such scholars as Emmett Avery, Harold Love, and Pierre Danchin have demonstrated that the late seventeenth-century London theatre-going audience (at the time only two theatres, Drury Lane and Lincoln's Inn Fields, were in operation in London) was perhaps more heterogeneous than modern audiences. Robert Hume calls the audiences of the period between 1697 and 1703 "cranky" and for reasons not completely understood, they "damned'' the new plays of the Restoration while continuing to enjoy the older, stock dramas of the period that expressed similar sentiments. In the 1697-1698 season, writes Hume, "fifteen out of seventeen new plays failed.'' Jeremy Collier's attack on the theatre and the consequent controversy over the theatre world's morality probably added to the troubles that plagued the theatre at this time, but as Hume observes, audiences were "revolting" prior to Collier's scathing denouncements. Here, it is worth quoting Hume at length:
Why audiences were so difficult in the years around 1700 we frankly do not know. Authors were baffled: in prologue after prologue they lamented the fickleness of the audience, and in prefaces and dedications they tended to blame actors and managers for their misfortunes. If authors were puzzled and indignant, managers were frantic. They imported foreign singers at inflated prices, tried entr'acte dancers, animal acts, acrobats, and vaudeville turns. They cannibalized favorite scenes from plays and popular operas. They kept changing the starting time of performance.
Whatever the reasons for the minimal success of The Way of the World in 1700, it was revived to popular acclaim in the eighteenth century: it was performed over two hundred times in London. Professor Avery, writes Hume, concluded that Congreve's play flourished and ‘‘gained popularity steadily over a period of some forty years, achieving his greatest share in the repertory around 1740.’’ When Garrick, who was indifferent to Congreve, took over management of Drury Lane, performances of the play diminished. During the nineteenth century, as Herbert Davies notes in The Complete Plays of William Congreve, it was performed ‘‘with considerable cuts and alterations to suit the taste of the times.’’ It was revived in 1904 and continues to be performed today.