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The Way of the World

by William Congreve

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Historical Context

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The period in English history from 1670 to 1729, when Congreve lived and worked, was marked by a dramatic political event, which gave its name to the literary tradition known as Restoration drama. In 1660, Charles II came to the throne, and the monarchy, which had been in exile, once again ruled England. Although that restoration period was shortlived (Parliament regained power in 1688), it was important to western culture in that it provided a perfect milieu for the comedy of manners.

The English comedies of this time, Congreve's included, take the manners of high society and the aristocracy as material for satire, focusing their attention, as Henry T. E. Perry writes in The Comic Spirit in Restoration Drama ‘‘upon the surface of a highly polished and fundamentally insecure civilization.’’ The merry licentiousness that characterized the new court was itself a reaction against the civil war of the 1640s, which resulted in the dissolution of the monarchy and led to the subsequent Puritanical mood that settled over the country. As Joseph Wood Krutch observes in Comedy and Conscience After the Restoration, the court of Charles II

wished to make the time to come in every way the reverse of the time that was past, and the sin of regicide of which the preceding generation had been guilty made it seem a sort of piety to reverse all that had been done; to pull down all that had been set up, and set up all that had been pulled down; to hate all that had been loved and love all that had been hated.

King Charles loved the theatre, and the Restoration comedies that flourished in this period contain ample cultural evidence of the sophisticated decadence of the times during which he ruled. In the theatres, playgoers did their best to prove the point that the dramatic characters had indeed been modeled on them. High society gentlemen were loud and lewd, more interested in the appearance of their wigs than the play itself, keen to appear witty and cruel and willing to preserve their reputations as gallants by any means necessary, be they ever so barbaric. Krutch notes that it is no wonder that language and actions that would shock modern audiences would merely amuse a seventeenth-century audience. He writes,

‘‘Dramatists were not perverse creatures creating monsters to debase the auditors, but...were merely holding the mirror up to nature, or rather, to that part of nature which was best known to their fashionable auditors.’’

Of course, not all of England was peopled by creatures of fashion or high society. Plenty of Puritans lived among the middle and lower classes, and most of the literature written in this period was either religious in nature or scientific and philosophical. John Bunyan had published ‘‘Pilgrim's Progress’’ in 1684, and John Locke published his ‘‘Essay Concerning Humane Understanding’’ in 1690. The epistemology of Locke and the religious passion of Bunyan were far cries from the London stage. It is interesting to note that critics such as the Puritan moralist Jeremy Collier—whose criticism of the stage best expresses the dogmatic protest against it—led the charge to "reform'' the English theatre world. Collier's attack on the theatre came two years before the performance of The Way of the World. This play, then, can be read as an amusing retort to the criticism leveled against the stage as well as a symbolic maker at the historical juncture when Restoration comedy was giving way to the next incarnation of English drama, the so-called Sentimental comedy.

Literary Style

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Restoration Comedy
Congreve's plays belong to a genre known as Restoration comedy. The Restoration refers to the...

(This entire section contains 1815 words.)

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reestablishment of the monarchy in England with the return of Charles II to the throne in 1660 after a period of social upheaval. In English literature, the Restoration "age" parallels the political period, covering roughly the years from 1660 to the revolution in 1688, when Parliament regained power. The genre is characterized by its satirical view of the times, with its particular focus on the relationship between conventional morality and the individual spirit. Its comic characters are often reflections of the shallow aristocrats of court society; they are peopled with libertines and wits, gallants and dandies. The hero is usually sophisticated and critical of convention and fashion: InThe Way of the World, for example, Mirabell is able to out-rascal the other rogues, and thereby wins the love and prosperity he seeks as well as the respect and admiration of the other characters. The plays of George Etherege, William Wycherley, Sir John Vanbrugh, and George Farquhar also belong to the English tradition of Restoration comedy.

Congreve's play takes place in London, an apt setting since the play's action revolves around the ways of the fashionable world. Indeed, the play reflects the manners and customs of London life in 1700, when it was first performed. Within the play, Congreve contrasts the pretentious, artificial (and often reprehensible and barbaric) manners of "Town" life with the rough, untutored but more natural country manners reflected in the character of Sir Wilfull. The play's five acts include just three settings: a chocolate house, St. James Park, and Lady Wishfort's London house. Each setting allows a glimpse of the way in which characters comport themselves in public and private.

In the chocolate house, the major male characters meet to drink and gamble in Act I. This is the domain where men seem to rule, and Congreve orients the audience to the social dictates by which they speak and act together. In Act II, the action moves to St. James Park, a more open and public place where men and women interact. In this setting, the intrigues of plot multiply. Couples are on display in the park, to see and be seen. The park is central to the plot because it allows Congreve to show the gap between the outward appearance of good manners and the scheming dialogue between couples in which slander, deceit, and trickery hold sway, and where reputations are being ruined or advanced. In the following three acts, the scenes shift to Lady Wishfort's house. Again, the setting is appropriate since it is Lady Wishfort's fortune and her central position as the matriarch of the family that drives the action of the play. The house plays an important role in the development of the action because it has both public and private spaces—closets where characters may hide and overhear; rooms that can be locked; chambers where the private habits of the characters come into sharp contrast with outward appearances. It is in the private world of the house where the management or mismanagement of domestic affairs—marriage, dowry arrangements, match-making, and sexual intrigues—most properly belong.

Five-Act Play
Congreve is following a long tradition of dramatists who, since the classical period, used a formula of dividing the play into five acts of approximately the same length and playing time. The action rises, where it climaxes in the third act, and falls to its denouement. Typically, and it is true in Congreve's play, the first act introduces the characters and sets up the plot, giving background information that helps the audience understand relationships between characters as well as thematic direction. For example, in the first act of this play, Congreve introduces the major male characters, sets up a romantic conflict, establishes the hero as antithetical to the shallow mannerisms of the times, and indicates that the dramatic action will revolve around the play of courtship. The second act complicates the action, increases the conflict, and leads the audience to the crisis of the third act, where the action reaches its most exciting turning point.

The women converge with the men in the second act where the park is the setting for intrigue, the revelation of extra-marital affairs, and the hatching of the plot to trick Lady Wishfort into agreeing to the marriage of Mirabell and Millamant. The action leads naturally to the third act where all characters meet in Lady Wishfort's house and where Fainall and Marwood plan their devious plot to exploit Lady Wishfort. It is in the third act that suspense is greatest. The action falls in the fourth act with the resolution of the various plots. The merriment is at its height here: Millamant and Mirabaell negotiate their famous prenuptial agreement; Sir Wilfull performs his finest drunken hour, and the fake Sir Rowland plights his troth to Lady Wishfort only to be undone by the evil machinations of Marwood and Fainall. In the fifth act, the various plots are unraveled, and the final event is a happy marriage contract between the two heroes.

Dramatic Devices
Congreve uses several dramatic devices to good purpose. Of particular importance here are impersonation (and disguise), the foil, comic relief, counterplot, and hyperbole. Without these devices, the action could not go forward and the comedy would fall flat.

Impersonation is, of course, a ploy by which Mirabell plans to trick Lady Wishfort into surrendering her niece. With Waitwell disguised as Sir Rowland, Mirabell hopes to inflame Lady Wishfort's passion, persuade her to marry Sir Rowland, and then, when the hoax is revealed, to force her into agreeing to his marriage with Millamant. Disguise is also used in two other instances—when Marwood dons a mask to escape attention in the park after her quarrel with Fainall, and when she hides in the closet and overhears Mirabell's plot. Pretense and disguise are the raw materials of comedy, and they abound in this play. Everyone is pretending, from Lady Wishfort, who must wear layers of paint to hide her age and layers of self-righteousness to feign her disinterest in men, to Mrs. Fainall, who appears to be a wife at the mercy of her husband and turns out to be a shrewd businesswoman. Mirabell plays at being Lady Wishfort's lover; Fainall appears to be an honest husband; Foible is not the loyal waiting woman she seems; and Sir Wilfull good-naturedly feigns his pursuit of Millamant, who, in turn, demonstrates that the shallow and capricious "femme fatale'' is in reality an intelligent, passionate, and worthy match to Mirabell.

A character may serve as foil to a protagonist or hero by representing unattractive traits or immoral behavior, thereby causing the hero to shine in a comparatively brighter, superior light. It's easy to see how Fainall, for example, acts as a foil to Mirabell. Both are gentlemen, both are scheming to achieve their own ends. However, Fainall's treachery, his willingness to sacrifice everyone to win, makes him a villain. From the shadows cast by Fainall's evil, Mirabell emerges as a true gallant, saving Mrs. Fainall and Lady Wishfort's reputation and fortune, winning his bride as a reward, and generally succeeding in bringing the action to a happy ending. A similar comparison can be made between Marwood and Millamant.

Comic relief signifies precisely what its name suggests—the introduction of laughter to break the tension over a conflict arising in the action. Paradoxically, comic relief is designed both to ease emotional intensity and to heighten the seriousness of the potential crisis or action. In Congreve's play, as in all good dramatic comedy, tragedy figures largely. It is the reverse side of the coin, the tension, that makes the comedy work. In this play, a funny remark or observation relieves many serious moments of suspense. For example, in Act V Mirabell first enters Lady Wishfort's presence having been cast out as an object of scorn. His future depends on this moment. He must complete his scheme to liberate Lady Wishfort from her foes and win Millamant. Enter Sir Wilfull by his side, and stepping into the serious breach between them offers words of encouragement:

Look up Man, I'll stand by you, 'sbud an she do frown, she can't kill you;—besides—Hearkee she dare not frown desperately, because her face is none of her own; 'Sheart an she shou'd her forehead wou'd wrinkle like the Coat of a Cream-cheese.

Sir Wilfull has managed both to remind the audience of the seriousness of the undertaking and to immediately relieve any prospect of danger by alluding to Lady Wishfort's by now generally-acknowledged vanity and her desperate attempts to maintain her looks.

Using counterplots or subplots, Congreve echoes the themes being played out in the main drama. Subplots complicate the drama and are intended to further engage the audience in the action, vary the theme, and convey the sense of a real and larger world beyond the life of the heroes. Marwood and Fainall conspire in a subplot to ruin Lady Wishfort that provides a counter to Mirabell's own scheme to win the hand of her niece. Lady Wishfort also secretly plans to marry her niece to Sir Wilfull while she herself marries Sir Rowland (Mirabell's pretended uncle), hoping at one and the same time to foil Mirabell's prospects of marriage and have him disinherited.

Hyperbole (deliberate and obvious exaggeration) works together with understatement (deliberately restrained and therefore ironic expressions of reality) to make comedy potent. Such devices also serve to expose cultural stereotypes and, especially in this play, deeply held assumptions about male and female behavior. Examples of hyperbole and understatement abound in Congreve's play. The two "experts'' are Witwoud and Petulant, although each character is endowed with a witty energy that is often employed to insult or outsmart a foe. In Act III, Petulant hopes to insult Sir Wilfull by remarking how obvious it is that he's been traveling. ‘‘I presume,’’ he says, ‘‘upon the Information of your Boots.’’ Petulant's attitude and speech are patently silly and pretentious. But Sir Wilfull is not taken aback. He matches Petulant at his own game by replying in just as exaggerated and deliberate a fashion, "If you are not satisfy'd with the Information of my Boots, Sir if you will step to the Stable, you may enquire further of my Horse, Sir.’’ In the same act, a servant entering the scene with Sir Wilfull conveys the deliberately understated information that Lady Wishfort is growing so old that it takes her all morning to prepare herself for public examination. It is afternoon, and Sir Wilfull has asked the servant if he would even recognize the Lady, since he has only been in her employ a week. The servant replies, "Why truly Sir, I cannot safely swear to her Face in a Morning, before she is dress'd. ‘Tis like I may give a shrew'd guess at her by this time.’’

Compare and Contrast

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1600s: The patronage of a wealthy aristocrat or noble is an important source of income as well as inspiration for artists of all kinds. In his dedication of The Way of the World to "The Right Honourable Ralph Earl of Mountague,’’ Congreve acknowledges his gratitude and respect to the earl for his "protection" of the play. Congreve started work on it soon after summering with the Earl and taking inspiration from the company he met at his home.

Today: The work of artists is often supported by public grants and residencies, and young writers are often championed by older, more experienced ones. The system of patronage has been replaced by professional agents, and authors depend upon publishers to buy and promote their work.

1600s: The theatre is a raucous place in Congreve's time. Prostitutes and people of questionable character jammed the "pits," while fashionable ladies and gentlemen busied themselves in boxes making loud, "witty'' observations and exchanging malicious gossip, while the actors strove to be heard above the audience.

Today: The theatre audience is polite and attentive. Although critics still yield as uncompromising a pen as they did in Congreve's day, it is not considered either fashionable or agreeable to hiss, boo, or demonstrate obnoxious behavior at any time during the performance of a play.

1600s: The theater is one of the few forms of public entertainment available, but during Congreve's time, no more than two theatres are in operation in London. Because plays are written for a general audience, the price of theatre tickets is affordable to almost everyone.

Today: The various kinds and forms of public entertainment are numerous. While cinema has replaced the theatre as the most popular and affordable medium for drama, plays, especially in urban areas, still represent an important cultural outlet. Generally, however, they are expensive and must be booked far in advance.

1660s: The Stuart courts regain power after an English civil war that temporarily dissolved the monarchy. Plays of the time reflect the restoration of the aristocracy in their comic attempt at mirroring the high society world of immorality and decadence.

Today: Contemporary comedies also mirror the times and lives of real people. As in the late seventeenth century, popular modern comedies offer similar subject matter. Neil Simon's plays, for example, revolve around marital relationships or antagonism between the sexes.

1600s: In the late seventeenth century, reform of the theater world is pursued by critics who find it too licentious. Much of the impetus for this reform comes from the fact that England is still, by and large, a Christian land with strong Calvinist leanings.

Today: The National Endowment for the Arts, a federally-supported grant agency, comes under attack for its sponsorship of art that is perceived by the government to be pornographic and without artistic merit.

1600s: Women possess few political rights and little or no economic independence. Upon marriage, women of means are obliged to relinquish their property to their husbands' control and depend upon them for their livelihood.

Today: Women are, by law, politically equal with men and control their own property and financial affairs. In contemporary marriages, joint ownership of property and money is common, and most women work to help support the household.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Birdsall, Virginia Ogden, Wild Civility: The English Comic Spirit on the Restoration Stage, Indiana University Press, 1970, pp. 227-52.

Congreve, William, The Complete Plays of William Congreve, edited by Herbert Davis, University of Chicago Press, 1967, pp. 386-79.

Dobráee, Bonamy, William Congreve, Longmans, Green & Co., 1963.

Hume, Robert, The Rakish Stage: Studies in English Drama, 1660-1800, Southern Illinois University Press, 1983.

Krutch, Joseph Wood, Comedy and Conscience after the Restoration, Columbia University Press, 1949.

Perry, Henry Ten Eyck, The Comic Spirit in Restoration Drama, Russell & Russell, Inc., 1962, pp. 56-81.

Wilcox, John, The Relation of Moliére to Restoration Comedy, Benjamin Blom, 1964, pp. 154-201.

Gardiner, Samuel R., History of the Great Civil War, 1642-1649, London, 1886-1891.
Gardiner discusses the Civil War that temporarily ended the reign of the monarchy in England and replaced it with a parliamentary form of government. The "Restoration'' of the monarchy took place when Charles II came to the throne in 1660.

Holland, Norman, The First Modern Comedies: The Significance of Etherege, Wycherley, and Congreve, Harvard University Press, 1959.
Holland provides a thorough study of the three Restoration playwrights, their influences, and their heirs.

Johnson, Samuel, ‘‘Preface to William Congreve’’ in Lives of the English Poets, 1781.
It is a token of Johnson's eminence that the later eighteenth century is often called the "Age of Johnson." His collection of biographies on the lives of the poets from Cowley to Gray are amusing, often disparaging, but always insightful glosses on the literary giants of the age. The language of the "Preface" is singularly witty, urbane, and acerbic. He outlines the life and work of Congreve from his vantage point only fifty years after Congreve's death.

Loftis, John, Comedy and Society from Congreve to Fielding, Stanford University Press, 1959.
As its title would suggest, this critical work reviews the relationship between social history and culture in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The book is particularly appropriate in its study of moral matters, social customs, and theater values.


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Holland, Norman. The First Modern Comedies. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1959. This remains required reading for any student of English comedy written between the Restoration and the eighteenth century. Holland’s discussion of The Way of the World does justice to the play’s many complexities. Highly recommended.

Muir, Kenneth. The Comedy of Manners. London: Hutchinson University Library, 1970. A handy little book that provides an overview of the principal writers of stage comedy in England between the Restoration and the early eighteenth century. The chapter on Congreve contains a fine discussion of one of his best-known plays, The Way of the World.

Novak, Maximillian E. William Congreve. New York: Twayne, 1971. Probably the best general introduction to Congreve, with an act-by-act discussion of The Way of the World and an extensive annotated bibliography.

Powell, Jocelyn. Restoration Theatre Production. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984. A delightful and very readable account of Restoration drama—from a “production” angle. Powell discusses music, acting styles, and scenery, provides many wonderful illustrations, and concludes with a particularly sensitive and informed discussion of The Way of the World.

Williams, Aubrey L. An Approach to Congreve. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1979. Williams stresses the “common ground” of Christian belief shared by Congreve and his audience. Controversial, but clearly and persuasively written. The chapter on The Way of the World focuses on Mirabell, the play’s hero, whom Williams would exonerate of the charges of Machiavellianism so often brought against him.




Critical Essays