Ilustration of a man kissing a woman's hand

The Way of the World

by William Congreve

Start Free Trial

The Significance of Congreve's Play to Restoration Drama

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Western philosophers have theorized about the nature and causes of mirth at least since the time of Plato. Comedy feeds on incongruity; people laugh even when the joke is cruel because they want to feel a sense of relief that their own follies are not fatal. Indeed, comedy has the power to heighten people's sense of belonging to a common human family. Restoration playwrights understood the value of laughter as a social force, and they used the theatre as a staging ground. With an attitude of detached instruction that was still entertaining, they contrived their plots, fashioned their stock characters (the country bumpkin, the wit, the hero, the fool, etc.), and satirized familiar domestic situations and themes to reflect the ridiculous but nonetheless very human impulses of the times. No playwright was more adept at this in the late seventeeth century than Congreve. And no play better represents his mastery of the comedy of manners than his final play, The Way of the World.

Congreve's decision to include lines from Horace, the Roman satirist, on the title page of the printed play immediately alert the reader that his work will relate to the immorality and unscrupulousness of society. These lines, quoted in the original Latin from Horace's Satires, caution adulterers and mock the fate of those who, caught in the act, must relinquish their dowries. Of course, marital disharmony and sexual intrigue are not new themes. What is of interest is the way these themes are treated in Restoration comedy, where, as Joseph Wood Krutch notes in Comedy and Conscience after the Restoration, ‘‘the technique of wit’’ is used to great advantage in "rationalizing debauchery into a philosophical system.’’

Taking nothing away from Congreve as a master of polished dialogue and a purveyor of wit, it must be observed that this final play was written in answer to one of the most notorious Puritanical attacks on the theatre by Parson Jeremy Collier. The play therefore offers much more than a witty "rationalization,’’ however. It playfully teaches people how to find an antidote to debauchery. In Congreve's dedication of the play to the Earl of Montague, he announces the profound, if comic, intent of his art by placing himself in direct line of ancestry with Terence, "the most correct Writer in the World'' who is himself a descendent of the masters of comedy in the classic tradition from Theophrastus to Moliére. Of this new play, he laments that it will be little understood because it is not animated by the usual characters who "are Fools so gross, that in my humble Opinion, they should rather disturb than divert the well-natur'd and reflecting part of an Audience...’’ While Congreve is no moralist, nor should his play be read as anything more doctrinal than a well-wrought fable with a moral attached, the heroes of this play nonetheless undertake a "remarriage'' of minds that is possible only when both perversely jaded and self-righteously censorious views on marriage are rejected.

In order for the romantic heroes Mirabell and Mrs. Millamant to come together in marriage and to achieve a happy ending for the play, they must first thwart the devious intentions of their foes and character foils, Fainall and Mrs. Marwood, who are carrying on an adulterous affair. Moreover, they must undermine Lady Wishfort's falsely pious pronouncements and patently disingenuous hatred of men. It is no accident that the Lady appears in the third act to take her place as the central comic figure of the play when the action reaches a climax. As the dominant matriarch in control of the purse...

(This entire section contains 2420 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

strings, she is also the character who best reflects the sworn enemies of comedy: hypocritical and self-righteousness, with a fashionable but overdeveloped appetite for the opposite sex. Finally, by relying on their intelligence and thoughtful common sense, the two heroes also deflect the tiresome banter of the self-proclaimed "wits," Witwoud and Petulant. These two dandies playfully engage the audience in amusing and often sophisticated dialogues, pointing up unpleasant yet honest insights into the way of the world. But they are essentially shallow, as is the fashionable world they represent, and as such they also serve as foils to the heroes.

In the opening of the first act, when Fainall and Mirabell are gambling (a foreshadowing of the suspenseful battle they will wage for love and money), Congreve establishes the prevailing cavalier attitude toward sexual encounters. Fainall's quip to Mirabell over cards that ‘‘I'd no more play with a Man that slighted his ill Fortune, than I'd make Love to a Woman who undervalu'd the Loss of her Reputation'' demonstrates the value both he and society place on conquests that will prove disastrous for the vanquished. Congreve would have the audience smile at the sentiment, to acknowledge its compelling force in the way of the world. But he also finally undermines Fainall and society's libertine attitudes toward adultery and scandal. Both Fainall's ‘‘Inconstancy and Tyranny of temper’’ have led Mirabell to protect Mrs. Fainall's fortunes from her husband by deeding them over in trust to him before she was married. In the final act, this precaution proves to be Fainall's undoing, for without the deed to Mrs. Fainall' s property he is without means. He cannot extort Lady Wishfort's estate by blackmail or make good on his promise to set his wife "a drift, like a Leaky hulk to Sink or Swim, as she and the Current of this Lewd Town can agree.'' He needs his wife's money (which he thought he had ‘‘wheadl'd out of her’’) to survive. Mrs. Marwood suffers a more ignominious fate for her role as a spoiler. She exits the play vowing revenge on Mrs. Fainall. My resentment, she swears, ‘‘shall have Vent, and to your Confusion, or I'll perish in the attempt.'' But her vow is an empty one. She has been revealed as a vicious, grasping adulteress, and she is left without husband or means. Fainall can return to his wife, and Mirabell promises to "Contribute all that in me lies to a Reunion,'' but Marwood has become, ironically and by her own hand, the ‘‘Leaky hulk’’ that risks perishing. She has exploited her wit, Congreve implies, at the expense of true feelings.

Congreve comically draws out the natural and enduring conflict between the sexes in order to make his audience laugh at human foibles and to poke fun at the posturing associated with romance and sexual intrigue. Early on, Mirabell expresses his mocking disdain of the romantic entanglements that drive the story. The night before the story begins, Millamant has rebuffed him. What can he expect, Fainall asks. The women had met on ‘‘one of their Cabal-nights...where they come together like the Coroner's Inquest, to sit upon the murder'd Reputations of the Week.’’ Men are excluded from the gossip circle, and their presence (with the exception of the "coxcombs" Witwoud and Petulant) would naturally stall all conversation.

Clearly Mirabell is too grave, too love-struck, to understand that he has breached "decorum.'' It is further learned that he cannot win Millamant without first pacifying her aunt, whom he has angered by playing the knave and pretending love to her. Fashion has dictated the rules by which men must pay court to women, and, in the case of Lady Wishfort, Mirabell has paid them only lip service. He has indeed engaged in the "last Act of Flattery with her, and was guilty of a Song in her Commendation.’’ He tells Fainall he even went so far as to "complement her with the Imputation of an Affair with a young Fellow...’’ But his attentions have been false. Throughout the exchange of dialogue in Act I, Congreve shines the light of truth on the way things are. The none too subtle implication is that fashionable women and men are victims of their own vanities, that they delight in the weaknesses of others, and that they are blind to their own defects.

For his gravity as a lover and his knavery as a gallant, Mirabell must temporarily suffer. He will be disappointed in his expectations of Millamant until it appears that his gallant efforts to win her have been in vain. For his ability to read the corrupt nature of the world and his desire to circumvent it, even while deploying its methods, he is victorious in the end. He is able to rise above the superficial manners of his peers; furthermore, his deceptions and undisguised attempts at blackmail have been wrought in the name of love rather than greed or artificial gallantry. He is, as Virginia Birsdall has pointed out in Wild Civility: The English Comic Spirit on the Restoration Stage, ‘‘a promoter of marriages.’’ The marriages he promotes and also helps to sustain suit his own interests. His arrangement of Foible and Waitwell's marriage secures him the co-conspiracy of Foible against Lady Wishfort. His arrangement of marriage between Mrs. Fainall and her husband and his consequent safeguarding of her estate enable him to foil Fainall, who wants to use his wife's fortune as leverage in the game of extortion. Yet, at the same time, Foible loves Waitwell and is made happy by the union. And Mrs. Fainall, who has been widowed and has indulged in an affair with Mirabell, protects her reputation by marrying Fainall. His ability to be both gallant and wise, both sophisticated and loving, render his plots harmless and instructive. It is later left up to Millamant to teach him how to be "enlarg'd" into a proper husband.

In the famous "prenuptial agreement'' scene in Act IV, Millamant outlines the conditions under which she will ‘‘by degrees dwindle into a Wife.’’ The gaiety, capriciousness, and arrogance that has characterized her behavior and conversation with Mirabell are offset by veins of gravity and intelligence, an energetic charm and a desire for profound love that culminate here in a style that reflects her power as a heroine. She has toyed with Mirabell unmercifully, snubbing and teasing him until, at the end of Act II, he can think of her only as ‘‘a Whirlwind’’ and himself unwittingly lodged in that whirlwind. While he allows passion to tyrannize him, she is in complete control. Her airy detachment is a challenge to the despotism of the old marriage code. Indeed, she wishes to establish a new marriage pattern that will look very much like a permanent courtship: ‘‘I' ll fly and be follow'd to the last Moment,’’ she asserts to Mirabell,

tho' I am upon the very Verge of Matrimony, I expect you should sollicit me as much as if I were wavering at the Grate of a Monastery, with one Foot over the Threshold. I'll be sollicited to the very last, nay and afterwards.

While she is a genius in her manipulation of other characters, and while her playfulness borders on cruelty, she is intrinsically aware of her own follies, and she finally cannot deny her own natural inclinations. At the end of the scene she admits to Fainall, "Well, If Mirabell shou'd not make a good Husband, I am a lost thing; for I find I love him violently.’’

It is fitting to conclude with Lady Wishfort, whose declarations of piety and hatred of men have fooled no one, including herself. In Act III, Mrs. Marwood enters the Lady's house to tattle on Foible whom she has seen speaking with Mirabell in St. James Park. Lady Wishfort knows Foible has gone out with the Lady's picture to show Sir Rowland, the more to incite his passions for her. Of course, she doesn't know that Mirabell has invented the admiring uncle for his own purposes. She only fears here that her own passions will be found out and that she will lose her last chance at marriage, an unpleasant thought at the ripe old age of fifty-five. She laments to Marwood,

Oh, he carries Poyson in his Tongue that wou'd corrupt Integrity it self. If she has given him an Opportunity, she has as good as put her Integrity into his Hands. Ah dear Marwood, what's Integrity to an Opportunity?

Despite her willingness to take advantage of her own opportunity, especially at the expense of ruining Mirabell, she falsely insists on her disdain of men in general. Compare the very funny scene with Foible in Act IV, during which she readies herself for Sir Rowland:

‘‘In what figure shall I give his Heart the first Impression?...Shall I sit?...No I won't sit...I'll walk...and then turn full upon him...No, that will be too sudden...I'll lie...aye, I'll lie down...I'll receive him in my little dressing Room...with one Foot a little dangling off...and then as soon as he appear, start, aye, start and be surpriz'd, and rise to meet him in a pretty disorder...’’

to her soliloquy in the final act on the virtues of raising a daughter to despise men:

I chiefly made it my own Care to Initiate her very Infancy in the Rudiments of Vertue, and to Impress upon her tender Years, a Young Odium and Aversion to the very sight of Men ... she never look' d a Man in the Face but her own Father, or the Chaplain, and him we made a shift to put upon her for a Woman, by the help of his long Garments, and his Sleek-face...

Her unnatural parenting is not only hypocritical, it has by implication contributed to the unfortunate circumstances in which her daughter has found herself sadly married to a man she truly does hate. And it is Congreve's final "revenge" that she not only be humiliated in her romance with ‘‘Sir Rowland,’’ but be the butt of his general joke. For while her fortune is "saved" from Fainall, her reputation as a ‘‘superannuated Frippery,’’ a fate she fears most, has indeed come to pass. If Congreve took exception to the lewdness and over-elaborate artificiality of the times, he also clearly resented the Puritanical attacks upon it. Clearly, Lady Wishfort supplies his comic vehicle for demonstrating the weakness of both extremes. But perhaps the most unconsciously insightful remark belongs to the rude but kind-hearted country bumpkin, Sir Wilfull, who for all his misunderstandings of the "lingo" of London, speaks the great lesson of the play when he denounces Witwoud as a fop and declares that "Fashion" is indeed ‘‘a Fool.’’

Source: Kathy Smith, Critical Essay on The Way of the World, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2002. Smith is an independent scholar and freelance writer.

Learning to Speak the English Language: The Way of the World on the Twentieth-Century American Stage

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Opening in a small Greenwich Village playhouse in 1924, The Way of the World created a considerable stir among New York theatregoers. The play was a novelty to many, "so old,’’ one reviewer said, "that it is new.’’ The play, however, seemed fresh and unusual not simply because of its age, but because it had not been seen and heard for a long time. Considered too bawdy for public performances, most Restoration comedies had been banished from theatres in Great Britain and the United States for several generations. The necessary prelude to their twentieth-century return to the stage—and to the attention that return generated—was literary. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, men of letters such as Algernon Charles Swinburne and Edmund Gosse rehabilitated the comedies' reputations, convincing their readers that the plays were not tasteless, obscene works but brilliant and witty classics.

Restoration comedy seemed as new to theatre workers in the 1920s as to their audiences, for the plays had no performance tradition. An authentic or "authorized'' performance style for classic plays is, of course, unattainable, but there were no vital conventions on which theatre groups could draw. How, then, were the plays to be performed? This essay charts the answers provided to this question in the United States throughout the twentieth century. Although that performance history cannot be isolated from twentieth-century British revivals of Restoration comedies, I have chosen to foreground the American productions because their history is generally unknown. Reviewers of the American revivals still all too frequently invoke only British productions. Indeed, they do not always seem aware, when reviewing a particular comedy, that it was revived in the United States earlier in the century. But my aim is to do more than just fill in a gap. We can not adequately understand and assess the ways that Restoration comedies are currently being performed in the U.S. unless we historicize the production and reception of these plays.

I focus on the theatrical career of one play in order to make manifest long-term trends impossible to see in an essay surveying productions of several different plays. I have chosen William Congreve's The Way of the World because of its prestige and prominence on twentieth-century British and American stages. Often said to be not just the greatest comedy of its period but the greatest English language comedy, it was the Restoration play first offered in modern, commercial revivals in both London and New York. And it has been performed steadily over the course of the century, travelling the route taken by many other classic plays in the U.S.—from little theatres and semi-private theatrical clubs to off and off-off-Broadway and resident theatres after World War II, with an occasional British import offered on Broadway or in one of the larger resident venues. The Way of the World is regarded by many critics as the quintessence of Restoration comedy. Moreover, when staged, it concentrates the problems as well as the virtues of Restoration comedy. Its plot may be even more maze-like, its pyrotechnic wit somewhat more dense and topical, but these features in most Restoration comedies have challenged twentieth-century directors and theatre companies and have influenced the way Congreve's play and the other comedies of its period have been performed. It is not, to be sure, the quintessence of bawdiness. The Way of the World comes late—1700—in the corpus of Restoration comedies, and it is less ribald than many of its predecessors written during the reign of Charles II. But for most twentieth-century American theatre workers and theatregoers the reputed naughtiness of Restoration comedies has been more salient than the degree of ribaldry within any one of them.

The revival history exemplified by The Way of the World has at its center a single performance style. When Restoration comedies came back to American theatres in the 1920s, a period style that had recently been devised for them in Britain was imported along with the plays. It included late seventeenth-century props and costumes and acting that mixed farce, parody, and "artificial'' or "high style’’ performance. The artificial acting, conveying the affectations and hauteur of the play's elite characters, was considered the most important and most characteristic element of this period style. In the interwar years, theatre companies appropriated the period style, but some of the most successful also adjusted it to suit the New York context. Early on, theatre workers and critics identified certain features of the style as "British" and certain as "American," and directors exploited these nationalistic constructions and comparisons to the enjoyment of their audiences. Such identifications and juxtapositions of stylistic elements expressed simultaneously a recognition of Restoration comedy as culturally prestigious drama and performance and an iconoclastic, nationalistic impulse—to mock British, highbrow culture and assert the superior vitality of popular American theatrical arts. By contrast, after World War II there was very little interest in adjusting or altering the 1920s period style. Theatre companies engaged in reverential conservation of the early twentieth-century style, which had come to be seen as entirely, admirably British and traditional.

These two phases in the performance of Restoration comedies we owe, of course, to theatre companies and, especially, to directors. But the institutional contexts for productions also constrain or enable performance styles or, in this case, alterations in the treatment of a single performance style. The cultural stature accorded to a theatrical production has an impact on its presentational features, and the development of diverse theatrical institutions has underwritten the creation of a hierarchy of cultural prestige. This variation in institutions has in twentieth-century America succeeded in establishing classifications of high and popular theatre, even though the boundaries between American theatrical institutions in this century have usually been weak. The type of theatre institutions, including the audiences they address, and the social and financial strains they experience have had an impact on the style of the productions.

My history of Restoration period style that follows will suggest the revivals offered in the interwar period were more interesting than those presented after World War II. Modern bodies, modern materials, and the modern mental lives of theatre workers and theatregoers make inevitable the mediating function of performance styles, suiting a play written in and for one culture to the culture in which it is staged. Between the two world wars, the period style was reproduced, but it was also challenged and altered with new "Americanized" elements. After World War II, however, the intercultural work of performance styles was denied, as directors and companies sought again and again to recapture a style devised in the 1920s.

Those years of denial appear to be coming to an end, for the question of how to perform Restoration comedies has recently been reopened. Distancing themselves from the theatrical Anglophilism so pervasive between 1945 and 1990, some directors have consciously rejected many if not all of the elements of the period style. While they have acknowledged Restoration comedies as classics, they have not given the plays' conventional performance style the same status. In the second section of this essay, I look at three of the revivals of The Way of the World that have pioneered new approaches to Restoration comedy. Although these recent productions have not all been critical or box-office successes, they have been important efforts to find new and compelling performance idioms. More than aesthetic achievement is at stake in these attempts. Their directors have sought to bridge the cultural chasm between Restoration comedy and late twentieth-century audiences in the United States.

Restoration Period Style in America During the interwar period, a handful of Restoration revivals were offered in New York. The institutional contexts for the majority of the American productions—the art theatre and the private theatre club—facilitated the inventiveness of their stylistic appropriations. The art theatre provided a venue for serious contemporary and classic European plays, new American plays, and experimental stagings. The Players' Club, in its annual spring productions, staged mostly classics. By presenting plays and productions not usually seen on Broadway, these two institutions contributed to the segmentation of theatre, to the creation of a "high'' as opposed to "popular" culture. But while they helped to create these categories, they enjoyed playing with this new distinction as well. Such play was possible because culturally elite audiences in this period were notable for their broad tastes, enjoying popular as well as high art. It was also possible because the institutional boundaries between the culturally prestigious and the popular were not yet firm. That transformation occurred gradually, between 1910 and 1940. Productions done initially under the aegis of the art theatre and the Players' Club did not always play only to small, culturally elite audiences. The Restoration revivals they sponsored were most compelling precisely when they mingled high and popular elements for audiences consisting not only of "longhairs'' with wide interests but also of those with less cultural capital.

An art theatre, the Cherry Lane Playhouse in Greenwich Village, first offered The Way of the World in twentieth-century New York. The immediate impetus for the production in the Village was a revival that had opened nine months earlier in February 1924. Directed by Nigel Playfair, Congreve's play was the first commercially produced Restoration comedy in twentieth-century London. Because of its great popularity with both critics and the theatregoing public, this and other Restoration comedies were deemed "playable'' again. The performance style that Playfair developed for The Way of the World was subsequently emulated in the United States as well as in Great Britain because British actor and director Dennis Cleugh presented not only the comedy, but also Playfair's performance style at the Cherry Lane.

What was it he appropriated? Nigel Playfair had chosen to do the play because he considered it ‘‘the greatest of all comedies of manners,’’ but he disliked reverential, scholarly, and theatrically dull approaches to classics. He believed that "one is reproducing old plays, not so much to give a replica (which is impossible) as to furnish a sort of review and criticism—a parody if you like, but a parody which expresses admiration.’’ He mocked many aspects of Restoration period manners. Doris Zinkeisen created brightly colored, poster style sets, whose overtly artificial strokes complemented the stage business he devised. As one reviewer summed up the production, ‘‘the servants had to light the candles in quartet formation, and everybody who was not speaking had to strike attitudes with arms raised or elbow stuck out, and all the dresses were as gorgeously polychromatic as could be, and the very ladies in the orchestra wore full-bottomed wigs. In a word, the play was fantasticated.’’ The actors were even instructed to give archaic pronunciations to certain words—"tay" for tea, for example, and "rallery'' for raillery—not for the sake of historical accuracy, but to give aural reminders of the "old-fashioned" character of this Restoration world.

Playfair worried that audiences would find the plot of The Way of the World too confusing. His response was to mock the plot as well and, in general, to draw attention away from it and to the style of the production. Some reviewers thought that he was also trying to distract spectators from the sexual content of the already lightly expurgated script. In Great Britain, Victorian prudery had not yet entirely disappeared. His mocking approach also infused the acting, which was a mix of high style, parody, and farce. In Edith Evans, as Millamant, Playfair found an actress capable of brilliant high style playing. Nineteenth-century essayist and critic Charles Lamb had insisted on the artificiality of Restoration comedy, and early twentieth-century actors attempted to make themselves as highly mannered and affected, as polished and brittle, as possible. Writing in 1963, John Gielgud remembered Evans's performance as ‘‘probably the finest stylized piece of bravura acting seen in London in the last fifty years. Her economy and grace of movement, her perfectly sustained poses, the purring, coquetry of her voice with its extraordinary subtlety of range, was inimitably captivating.’’ As Gielgud's description suggests, high style acting could—and sometimes did—shade into the parody of camp. Playfair also encouraged farcical playing by a few of the actors. Next to Edith Evans, Margaret Yarde attracted the most attention in his production with her broad interpretation of Lady Wishfort. Some spectators objected, convinced that her performance was not in the spirit of Congreve's play, but most praised her performance.

Although a few reviewers thought that Playfair gingered up The Way of the World too much, this generally well-received production determined what became known as Restoration period style in early twentieth-century Britain. ‘‘The approach,’’ according to J. L. Styan, ‘‘was not that of 'Let's put on a Restoration comedy,' but of 'Let's pretend to put on a Restoration comedy.'’’ And the playfully ridiculed, campy world produced became "the Restoration’’ in British revivals for many subsequent decades. Playfair's work also set the perimeters for Restoration period style and the world that it conveyed in the United States through the medium of Cleugh's production in New York.

The actors at the Cherry Lane aimed for both high style and farce, giving their performances parodic touches as well. Cleugh steered the actors to silly sounding pronunciations such as "obleeged'' for obliged, for example. Playfair's style also influenced the visual look of the production: "beribboned and bewigged, flaring linings, lace cuffs, tight bodices, fans and monocles; the world of fashion did not spare color.’’ This review in the New York Times suggests not just elaborate but also comically exaggerated period dress. The sets too, another reviewer noted approvingly, were ‘‘quaintly and amusingly done,’’ no doubt, referring particularly to the scenery for Act II, signifying St. James's Park. The backdrop offered a row of townhouses, painted only one or two feet high to indicate their distance. Because perspective was only suggested and not realistically represented, the residences looked like doll houses.

The successful commercial production between the wars had 100 performances, and Cleugh's revival topped that number by twenty. So popular was it that part way through the run the production was moved uptown to the Princess Theatre near Broadway at 39th Street. The Way of the World was so successful at least in part because it offered theatregoers an opportunity to demonstrate their cultural sophistication. The play had high status as a British dramatic classic. But it was also known as a risqué work, and spectators could display their cultural capital by responding aesthetically rather than morally, by remaining unperturbed by what they heard. Reviewers let it be known that they were unfazed by the play's bawdiness and observed no ‘‘moral agitation’’ among audience members.

Moreover, culturally sophisticated New Yorkers appreciated popular and mass culture as well as high culture, and they took pleasure in comparing the ribaldry of the Restoration with homegrown, widely enjoyed versions. Critics proudly asserted that American entertainment was at least as bawdy as what had been produced long ago about a British social elite. For Variety's reviewer burlesque was the relevant comparison. In the slang that writers for the weekly liked to affect, he announced: "I heard it was very 'dirty' before I cum down, but it's as tame as a Sunday night with the wife...if this mob think this is a peppy opera I would just like to see a flock of them long-haired guys sittin' in rail seats up at the Prospect when the ‘‘Hot Water-Bag Babies’’ strut bare-legged out on that runway.’’

It was not just the ribaldry of the play, however, but the performance as a whole to which New York theatregoers responded. Although the American production revealed small alterations in Playfair's composite of acting styles, it did not dispense with high style playing. Most reviewers thought that the actors failed to convey its polished artifice, but high style was apparently already understood to be an aspect of the Restoration period style too crucial to reject. Critics attributed the difficulties that the cast had with it to their modernity: "It is of course impossible in this year of grace,'' noted one,"to bring back to the stage the full flavor of aristocratic comedy. The grand air must be acquired for the occasion, and the grand air does not flourish on Broadway or even on Shaftesbury Avenue.’’ The actors' national identity, however, and, in particular, their location in a polyglot and poly-accented American city, was thought to be an even greater handicap, preventing the players from achieving an Anglo-Saxon standard. ‘‘The actors,’’ he continued, ‘‘must learn to speak the English language. This is a particular difficulty in New York.’’

If being American was deemed a cultural liability for performing high style, it was an asset for performing farce and parody, the other components of Restoration period style acting. Americans were considered very adept at low comedy, as the vaudeville and burlesque industries were demonstrating. Sir Wilfull Witwoud was apparently the character most farcically rendered, and the critics loved him. Bruce de Lette and Lawrence Tulloch, as Witwoud and Petulant, also won praise for presenting the parody of camp. Indeed, references to the ‘‘slapstick’’ and "buffoonery" in the production as well as to Witwoud and Petulant as "female impersonators" suggest that the actors borrowed from vaudeville and burlesque—and perhaps from the drag balls and "Pansy'' acts, popular at that time in New York—for their "low turns.’’ The Way of the World's performance style may have been appealing enough to fill the uptown Princess Theatre not only because the farcical and parodic elements compensated for the technical deficiencies of the high style playing, but also because the farce and parody incorporated elements from other New York entertainments.

Cleugh' s production set precedents not only by introducing Restoration comedies to the twentieth-century American stage and not only by introducing Playfair's performance style for that comedy, but also by introducing acting tagged according to nationality into Restoration comedy. The propensity to treat high style acting as British and farce and parody as American shaped both the production and consumption of some of the most successful of the American revivals in the interwar period. In a more pronounced way than Cleugh's, subsequent productions exploited the hybrid of high and low, British and American. Play fair had lightly parodied the world of Restoration comedy. In the United States additional parodic effects were achieved through the juxtaposition, and by that means the creation, of "national" styles. These revivals simultaneously offered high art fare and took advantage of Playfair's parodic approach to make fun not just of the early eighteenth century but also of highbrow and British art.

To see this, we need to turn to the other institution that showcased Restoration comedy, the Players' Club. Established by Edwin Booth in the late 1880s as a men's club for actors and others interested in the theatre, the Players' began offering annual spring productions in 1922 and continued until 1940. During that time it presented three Restoration plays. Its productions can not be readily characterized as either art or commercial theatre. The club usually performed classics for an audience that contained a strong contingent of artists and others in the theatre industry. It ran productions for only one week and gave some of the profits to charity. But it also performed in Broadway theatres and used all-star casts who donated their services. Moreover, successful productions sometimes got picked up by producers who sent them on tours. The ambiguity or even liminality of the club's position in the emerging cultural hierarchy for theatrical productions could make for dramatizations of surprising, audience-pleasing incongruities.

The Players' Club's production of The Way of the World in 1931 was the flop that proves the rule. No one quarrelled with the look of the production. ‘‘Bewigged, becravatted, beflounced and also bedevilled with amorous intrigue,’’ noted New York Times reviewer Brooks Atkinson about the characters, ‘‘they make a fine pictorial showing as they strut across the stage." "There are singers and dancers and musicians,'' another critic enumerated, "and no end of silks and satins and furbelows and wigs upon the players.’’ Critics grumbled once again, however, at the high style acting. Walter Hampden, famous for his appearances in costume dramas, knew how to express elegance and artifice in his stage posturings. But he had so much difficulty with diction that it was impossible for the audiences to understand him much of the time. The other cast members too had substantial difficulties with technique, so much so that they were unable to give the impression of a common, lacquered playing style. What sunk the production, however, was not poor high style playing but a dearth of the broad, "Americanized" comedy that could offset it. Although he commended Ernest Cossart for his performance as Sir Wilfull Witwoud, Percy Hammond, writing for the New York Herald Tribune, thought the part "cries out for Mr. James T. Powers to play it.’’

Famous for hamming it up in musical comedies and comic operas, Powers had played Scrub in the Players' Club's revival of The Beaux' Stratagem in 1928. He and Raymond Hitchcock—star of vaudeville, musical comedies, and revues and in The Beaux' Stratagem playing the role of Boniface— delighted audiences with their improvised antics. Both took liberties with the text, inventing a good deal of "horseplay." One reviewer thought the production lacked "cohesion,'' but most critics and the audiences in general did not care. With its combination of high style and shtick, The Beaux' Stratagem played to standing-room-only crowds.

The Players' Club's production of The Way of the World failed because American actors were not deemed capable of carrying a Restoration revival on the strength of their high style playing alone. But more problematic than that, the production took a reverential approach to a Restoration classic (Playfair knew that he couldn't sell that approach even to British theatregoers, to whose national dramatic heritage the play belonged). New York theatregoers were ready to acknowledge the cultural prestige of the play as long as they weren't asked to attend exclusively to its performance metaphor—high style playing—or to watch American actors defeated by that playing. The other Players' Club revivals of Restoration comedies succeeded not just because they included irreverent acting, but because they relied on indigenous versions of irreverence.

Theatre workers and audiences understood and enjoyed the incongruities of putting twentieth-century vaudevillians and musical comedy stars into Restoration comedy. Funnier still were productions in which the encounters between high and low, British and American, old and modern did not seem incongruous. When Bobby Clark played Ben in the Players' Club's revival of Love for Love in 1940, he brought his well-known vaudeville and burlesque routines to Congreve's comedy. As one reviewer explained, he ‘‘abandoned the painted spectacles and immense cigar, which are his trademarks, but he played the part with all the abundant spirit of burlesque, the lusty, gusty, leering magnificence that makes his modern clowning supreme in its field.’’ The play had become an exhilarating showcase for American popular culture."All those years ago William Congreve was really writing a vehicle for Bobby Clark,’’ declared one amused—and gratified—reviewer.

After World War II, with the exception of an occasional British production imported to Broadway, Restoration comedies were performed in the U.S. by off-Broadway and resident theatres and, only in more recent years, by off-off-Broadways. The impetus for off-Broadway originally was "more economic than artistic.’’ It provided outlets for plays produced more cheaply than they could be on Broadway, though a few off-Broadway companies, such as Proscenium Productions, which performed The Way of the World in Greenwich Village in 1954, were dedicated to classic revivals or to new plays without commercial appeal. By contrast, the not-for-profit resident theatres, in general, did aim at least originally "to be an independent channel for presentations of a more adventurous, if usually less popular, nature.'' But they and an increasing pool of non-profit off-Broadways, while supposedly protected from the whims of the marketplace, needed to take into account the tastes of their subscribers, their boards of trustees, and the private foundations and government agencies that began providing financial support in the late 1950s and mid-1960s respectively. The regional and many of the off-Broadway theatres settled on a repertoire of culturally prestigious high art mixed with some entertaining Broadway-like and, beginning in the late 1960s, Broadway-bound fare.

Resident and off-Broadway productions throughout this period had to please audiences that were notably homogeneous—white, affluent, and well-educated. Theatre historians and critics were lamenting the absence of multi-class audiences by the mid-1960s, and though some theatres, often with the help of government and foundation support, sought out new, more diverse audiences in that and subsequent decades, they had little success. Audiences did become somewhat more racially diverse over the course of the 1980s, but the multi-class audience remained an unattainable goal. In 1965 Richard Schechner enumerated the stultifying effects that resulted from resident theatres addressing the interests of middle-class subscribers—‘‘little truly adventurous drama’’ and productions that "have a museum quality." "A resident theatre that has systematically retreated into the middleclass is doomed to a monotony equivalent to an Ohio highway,’’ he complained. It was a monotony that Jack Poggi found particularly in the major resident theatres. In their schedules, he observed, ‘‘the same plays crop up over and over again. The directors, the managers, and the actors can move easily from one company to another—an indication that there really is not much difference in style among the theaters.’’ The predominance of an upper middle- and middle-class audience, and the consequently monotonous fare of the theatres that catered to them, help to explain why the style of Restoration revivals was so unvarying in this period.

And yet, within these staid off-Broadway and resident venues, the revivals were more unvarying than productions of other classic plays. These institutions did make excursions off the bland Ohio highway, choosing unusual plays or performance styles. Off-off-Broadway, which emerged in the 1960s, was a likely source of their experiments with style. Conceptual directors working in unconventional performance spaces were occasionally invited into off-Broadway or resident theatres to essay boldly avant-garde productions of plays by, for example, Euripides, Shakespeare, and Molière. The plays of Congreve and other Restoration writers, however, did not receive similarly innovative treatments.

In addition, even the alternative Restoration period style seen in London theatres by the early 1960s had little impact on the American revivals. William Gaskill, directing The Recruiting Officer at Britain's National Theatre in 1963, did most to transform the style of performance. He replaced high style and its camp extremes with naturalistic acting. There were bits of farce in the production, but Playfair' s parodic approach to period and play was banished. Gaskill steered the actors away from ‘‘coy archaisms’’ in pronunciation and rejected ‘‘lisps, huge wigs, canes and fans.’’ He tried, as he later explained, "to make the text sound as if it was being spoken by real people in recognizable situations .'' The result was a dark and biting vision of the period, whose cynicism seemed quite relevant to late twentieth-century audiences and critics. But while that performance style quickly spread to most subsequent Restoration revivals in Great Britain, including most of the major productions of The Way of the World, only one American production in this period, staged at New Haven's Long Wharf Theater in 1972 by British director Malcolm Black, adopted a naturalistic style.

The lack of change can be explained by considering the function of Restoration revivals within resident and off-Broadway theatres. These institutions justified their non-profit status and established themselves more firmly through the interwoven public services of cultural conservation and instruction. They helped to maintain dramatic canons through productions, educating theatregoers and theatre workers in older plays. And they were sometimes able to win government and foundation grants specifically earmarked for gathering student audiences or improving the skills of their companies. Such public service extended to performance styles as well as to play—when possible. Many artistic directors included a Restoration comedy in their seasonal offerings in order to introduce audiences and actors not just to a dramatic classic, but also to that classic's "classic" performance style. And it was the 1920s version of period style, rather than the alternative devised by the early 1960s, that reigned in the non-profits. It was older, of course. But, ironically, it also had the stature of a tradition precisely because of its strangeness and greater difficulty for those used to naturalistic acting.

Some directors with reputations as specialists in Restoration period style were invited in those years to train American theatre companies. Norman Ayrton and Anthony Cornish, for example, both known for that expertise, staged two of the resident theatre revivals of The Way of the World in the postwar period, Ayrton for the Acting Company and Cornish for the Intiman Theater Company. Ayrton acknowledged in a newspaper interview, just before the Acting Company's production opened in 1976: "I'm very often called upon for Restoration drama...I don't like to be typed any more than an actor does. But I feel compelled to accept Restoration assignments to help keep the style alive and well.’’

Within institutions that needed to offer culturally prestigious as well as popular art, Playfair's performance style became highbrow not only because it was supposedly traditional, but also because it was British. That national identity was encoded now not just in high style acting but in the composite of acting styles and in late seventeenth-century costume. It was expressed in the impression produced by these period elements: at best ‘‘brightly quaint figures flitting about, sparkling and remote, in an unfamiliar world.’’ And it was reinforced through publicity that stressed the nationality of the director/specialists. ‘‘London Expert Here for 'Way of the World,'’’ was the title of a local newspaper article featuring Cornish, a few days before the Intiman Theater Company began its run of Congreve's play.

Directors who viewed the preservation of Restoration period style as a cultural mission found support among theatergoers. ‘‘Ever since the end of World War II,’’ Robert Brustein has observed, ‘‘American audiences have been in thrall to the theatre emanating from Great Britain...Our admiration for British playwriting, directing, composing—and particularly acting—has begun to resemble something of a national inferiority complex.’’ Those who disliked sacralized and Anglo-identified styles, however, were, no doubt, repelled by the style and the silly, self-mocking—and irrelevant—world it constructed. The wonder is that the dominance of this reified period style in the postwar era did not permanently inhibit new approaches. In the early 1990s some directors did finally begin to see in late seventeenth-century comedies possibilities for innovative performance styles and new Restorations.

Source: Deborah Kaplan, ‘‘Learning 'to Speak the English Language': The Way of the World on the Twentieth-Century American Stage,’’ in Theatre Journal, Vol. 49, No. 3, October 1997, pp. 301-21.

Games People Play in Congreve's The Way of the World

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

The opening chocolate house scene of Congreve's last comedy, The Way of the World, informs the rest of the play, establishing gaming as the playwright's metaphor for life and love. The comedy's prolific gaming imagery provides a thematic and structural emphasis on gaming as the world's way, and, finally, every character is at one time or another playing a game that may be a singles or doubles match, but that is usually part of a team effort. The audience of The Way of the World would, of course, has been familiar with the circumstances of the scene that begins with Mirabell and Fainall "rising from cards.’’ We learn that Mirabell, though he has lost to Fainall, will ‘‘play on’’ if his competitor insists on further entertainment. Fainall demurs:

No, I'll give you your revenge another time, when you are not so indifferent; you are thinking of something else now, and play too negligently. The coldness of a losing gamester lessens the pleasure of the winner. I'd no more play with a man that slighted his ill fortune than I'd make love to a woman who undervalued the loss of her reputation.

This speech of Fainall's is a most significant passage, not only because it is pregnant with dramatic irony, for reasons to be discussed later, but also because it establishes the motif on which the play's structure, theme, and much of its language build and introduces the idea that life is a game in the world of the play and elsewhere, with love, money, and their concomitant pleasures as reward to the winners.

Congreve introduces his gaming imagery in the Prologue, first describing poets as the unluckiest of fools, and then as

. . . bubbles, by the town drawn in, Suffered at first some trifling stakes to win; But what unequal hazards do they run! Each time they write they venture all they've won.

The word "bubble" acquired in the seventeenth century the meaning of "dupe" or "gull" and was frequently used to describe one easily victimized at cards. An attaché at the British Embassy in Paris had warned his countrymen against gaming with the French because ‘‘Even the ladies do not want tricks to strip a Bubble.'' About 1700, English manufacturers of cards began issuing decks with propaganda depicted on the backs; one such set entitled ‘‘All the Bubbles’’ warns against investing in spurious business ventures. Congreve intimates in the Prologue that poets are gulled into writing plays by some ‘‘trifling stakes,’’ despite the ‘‘hazards.’’ The word "hazard," as it is used in two prologues by Congreve, would have been a gaming pun familiar to the audience, as the game of hazard is described in The Compleat Gamester as the ‘‘most bewitching game that is plaid on the dice.’’ Congreve's suggestion that poets ‘‘venture all they've won’’ is perhaps an oblique reference to Jeremy Collier's celebrated Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage, a pamphlet that appeared in 1698, the year before the actual writing of The Way of the World, and to which Congreve later wrote a "vindication." Undoubtedly, the playwright found the Puritan divine a threat to his security in the dramatic world, and much of the criticism of the play contains conjectures about the effect of Collier's attack on Congreve's decision to retire from the stage world after 1700. Interestingly, Collier fired a later salvo in 1713, entitled ‘‘Essay on Gaming,’’ in which he deplored the bloodthirsty instincts fed by gaming: "When your bubbles are going down the hill, you lend them a push, though their bones are broken at the bottom.’’

The Prologue continues with another gaming pun: ‘‘Should he [the poet] by chance a knave or fool expose, / That hurts none here, sure here are none of those.'' The word "knave'' by the sixteenth century carried a double meaning—an ‘‘unprincipled man given to dishonourable and deceitful practices," and also the "name given to the lowest court card in the deck, bearing the picture of a soldier or a servant." "Expose" is a gaming term used to describe an inadvertently overturned card; an exposed knave in a whist game, for example, would result in a redeal, or if the exposure occurred during play, a penalty.

In Act I of The Way of the World, Witwoud relates that he has lost money to his fellow gamester Petulant, but Fainall consoles Witwoud with the remark:

You may allow him to win of you at play, for you are sure to be hard of him at repartee; since you monopolize the wit that is between you, the fortune must be his of course.

To Mirabell, Witwoud explains,

Petulant's my friend, and a very honest fellow, and a very pretty fellow, and has a smattering—faith and troth a pretty deal of an odd sort of a small wit.

Witwoud continues the gaming motif with his pun on the word "deal'': Petulant has been "dealt'' a small amount of wit, or he has a great "deal'' of it. Cotton describes a card game called plain-dealing as being ‘‘a pastime not noted for its ingenuity.’’ Mirabell later remarks to Millamant,

I say that a man may as soon make a friend by his wit, or a fortune by his honesty, as win a woman with plain dealing and sincerity.

The delightful ambiguity here allows the choice between the card game or a straightforward manner as a means of winning the lady and is also a commentary on the times: devious means seem to be required for almost any undertaking, Millamant, well aware of her value as the prize in their game, urges him,"Well, Mirabell, if ever you will win me, woo me now.’’

Also in Act I, Petulant "calls for himself" at the chocolate house, and then refuses to go, with the words, ‘‘Let it pass,’’ and ‘‘pass on,’’ phrases that he might have used at the whist table. When Mirabell threatens him, Petulant replies, ‘‘Let that pass. There are other throats to be cut.'' He is so casual in his suggestion that he might be offering a deck of cards to be cut, but what he is actually offering is information, which is Petulant's only contribution to the game of intrigue. Petulant, who is the witless fop, repeats the word "pass" so frequently that it seems to be a refrain associated with him, and he inquires ‘‘whose hand's out?’’ when Waitwell arrives with the black box.

In Act II Witwoud, who has been observing the game of wit in which Millamant and Mirabell are engaged, observes to the lady, "Very pretty. Why, you make no more of making of lovers, madam, than of making so many card-matches,’’ an expression that carries the dual meaning of cardboard matches and the holding of a pair or three of a kind in a game like gleek or picket. Witwoud later compares himself and Petulant to two battledores—or to participants in an early eighteenth-century version of badminton; what they bandy back and forth is witless banter instead of shuttlecocks. Shortly afterwards, Mrs. Marwood, in speaking to Fainall about his wife's virtue, remarks, ‘‘I dare swear she had given up her game before she was married,'' to which Fainall replies, ‘‘Hum! That may be. She might throw up her cards; but I'll be hanged if she did not put Pam in her pocket.'' The imagery here is that of the then popular gambling game of loo, or lanterloo, in which the Pam is the jack of clubs. Lynch's note indicates that ‘‘Fainall implies that although his wife might have given up other lovers, she has an 'ace' up her sleeve—Mirabell.’’

Fainall tells Mrs. Marwood how he will dispose of Sir Wilfull: ‘‘He will drink like a Dane; after dinner I'll set his hand in.’’ Here Fainall may mean ‘‘I'll start him in his drinking,’’ or ‘‘I'll take his 'hand' in whatever game comes up.’’ And in referring to his wife's reputation, Fainall muses, "Bringing none to me, she can take none from me. 'Tis against all rule of play that I should lose to one who has not wherewithal to stake.’’ In this instance, Fainall cruelly notes that his wife has nothing in the way of a good reputation to lose; therefore convention decrees that he should not allow her in the game. In the parlance of poker, or its four-hundred-year-old antecedent, brag, she has no ante to put up, so she cannot play. This statement recalls Fainall's line from the chocolate house scene in which he indicates he will not "make love to a woman who undervalues the loss of her reputation.’’

In addition to its language, a further indication that The Way of the World is a consciously devised metaphor for gaming is Congreve' s choice of quotations from the poets Waller and Suckling. First of all, the two poets represent opposing views about how to play the game of love and life—one arguing against, the other for, premarital or extramarital fruition. Millamant uses their poems, which deal with inconstancy in love, to prove that Sir Willful is incapable of playing any of the sophisticated games of wit that she enjoys; he not only cannot complete the couplet she offers him but does not even recognize it as poetry. Suckling, a writer for whom, according to Lynch, Congreve had a ‘‘more than casual esteem,’’ had established a dialogue pattern in his play Agalaura that was much like a conversational game. In the play, Agalaura's lover, at her request, and without knowing her reasons, agrees to give up his favorite diversion of gaming; yet she is required to assign him a new sin to replace this one. The poet Suckling himself, known as ‘‘the most skillful and reckless player of his time'' is the only man credited with singly inventing a major card game—cribbage. He was a gambler who, according to rumors, arranged for the importation from France of specially marked decks for his own personal use and advantage. Waller, who may have been present when Queen Catherine tore the celebrated card at ombre, wrote a delightful little epigram to celebrate that occasion:

The cards you tear in value rise; So do the wounded by your eyes. Who to celestial things aspire Are by that passion raised the higher.

Interestingly enough, the lines Sir Willful fails to recognize are those of the inconstant lover, Suckling, while Mirabell completes a couplet by Waller, the more idealistic poet.

In order to observe the structure of the play as a game, it is helpful to determine the kinds of partnerships involved. Millamant and Mirabell are silent partners who work toward the same end, have the same desire, and have the same reluctance to acknowledge their desires publicly. Mr. Fainall's ostensible partner is Mrs. Fainall, who is actually allied in sympathy with Mirabell and Millamant. Mrs. Marwood is Mr. Fainall's actual confederate, and the one for whom he is scheming; at one point, Marwood intimates to Lady Wishfort that they (the two ladies) might escape to some rural, idyllic spot, but Marwood actually continues to work with Mr. Fainall because of their common aim, which is the frustration of all of Mirabell's plans. The Marwood-Fainall relationship should parallel that of Mirabell and Millamant but cannot, because it is extramarital and because Fainall and Marwood are selfish and completely unscrupulous. While there is some evidence that Mirabell abides by the rules in the game of life in this world, there is no rule that Fainall will not break if he can advance himself by doing so. Witwoud and Petulant are partners of a sort. They complement, but do not compliment, one another, and there is definite evidence that the pair of them would represent but a single entry in any game. They are habitual, ineffective, halfhearted competitors for the game prize of Millamant and her fortune. Lady Wishfort wants a marital partner and refuses to admit that she has nothing to contribute to a connubial relationship. Even her fortune cannot outweigh the fact that she is no longer attractive as a marriage prospect; she is so blind to reality that she for a time has accepted Mirabell's advances as proof of her desirability. Foible and Waitwell appear to be a minor partnership—the second team necessary to support Mirabell in his game plan—but Foible, when examined carefully, is indeed, as Marwood calls her, the passe-partout. Sir Willful, a loner who serves as bumpkinlike contrast for his half-brother, and an involuntary contestant for the first prize, willingly relinquishes it once Millamant is within his grasp, so that he can travel to find for himself ‘‘another way of the world.’’

Partnership understandings vary, as do audience understandings of partnerships. In the chocolate house scene, the audience impression is that Fainall is a good sport who is willing to terminate his game during a winning streak in order to give his opponent a chance on a luckier day. Later developments show, however, that although Fainall never acts from benevolent motives, he speaks the truth when he says, ‘‘The coldness of a losing gamester lessens the pleasure of the winner.’’ He enjoys the winning more when his victim writhes; a listless Mirabell affords Fainall no joy. The irony of Fainall's statement lies in the fact that he is actually expressing the sentiments of Mirabell, who is the same kind of competitor. Several critics have wondered why Mirabell holds for so long his ace-in-the-hole in the form of Mrs. Fainall's deed, when he could have produced it earlier. The reason is that, like Fainall, Mirabell finds no thrill in competing with a "cold gamester,'' or one who "slights his ill fortune,'' and he does enjoy toying with an overconfident Fainall. He wants to let Fainall believe himself to have won Millamant's fortune and then stymie the villain with one master stroke. Doubtless, Mirabell had dreamed early in the game of having everyone present for his revelation, as proves to be the case. The idea of delight in resistance is also reiterated in the song requested by Millamant in Act III:

Then I alone the conquest prize, When I insult a rival's eyes; If there's delight in love, 'tis when I see That heart, which others bleed for, bleed for me.

As do Fainall and Mirabell, Millamant thrives on spirited competition.

Source: SueL. Kimball, ‘‘Games People Play in Congreve's The Way of the World," in A Provision of Human Nature: Essays on Fielding and Others in Honor of Miriam Austin Locke, edited by Donald Kay, University of Alabama Press, 1977, pp. 191-207.


Critical Overview