Vanity Fea

The Way of the World

From The Oxford Companion to English Literature:

The Way of the World, a comedy by Congreve, produced 1700.

Mirabell is in love with Millamant, a niece of Lady Wishfort, and has pretended to court the aunt in order to conceal his suit of the niece. The deceit has been revealed to lady Wishfort by Mrs Marwood to revenge herself on Mirabell, who has rejected her advances. Lady Wishfort, who now hates Mirabell 'more than a quaker hates a parrot', will deprive her niece of the half of the inheritance which is in her keeping if Millamant marries Mirabell. The latter accordingly contrives that his servant Waitwell shall impersonate an uncle of his, Sir Rowland, make love to Lady Wishfort, and pretend to marry her, having, however, first married Lady Wishfort's woman Foible. He hopes by this deception to force Lady Wishfort to consent to his marriage to her niece. The plot is discovered by Mrs. Marwood, and also the fact that Mirabell has in the past had an intrigue with Mrs Fainall, daughter of Lady Wishfort. She [Mrs. Marwood] conspires with Fainall, her lover, and the pretended friend of Mirabell, to reveal these facts to Lady Wishfort, while Fainall is to threaten to divorce his wife and discredit Lady Wishfort, unless he is given full control of Mrs Fainall's property and Millaman's portion is also handed over to him. The scheme, however, fails. Mrs Fainall denies the charge against her and brings proof of Fainall's affair with Mrs Marwood, while Mirabell produces a deed by which Mrs Fainall, before her last marriage, made him trustee of her property. Lady Wishfort, in gratitude for her release from Fainall's threats, forgives Mirabell and consents to his marriage to Millamant.

Congreve enlives the action with a fine gallery of fools, including Sir Willful Witwhould, Lady Wishfort's boisterous and good-natured country nephew; they serve to highlight the central contrast between the passionate and grasping relationship of Fainall and Mrs Marwood and the delicate process by which Mirabell persuades Millamant that even in such a mercenary society, love can survive into marriage. The dialogue is exceptionally brilliant, and many critics also consider the play a study of the battle between good and evil, rather than of the characteristically Restoration conflict between the witty and the foolish.


On a recent production of  The Way of the World.

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