William Congreve, THE WAY OF THE WORLD
The Way of the World (1700) — a comedy by the Restoration dramatist William Congreve.
On both sides of his family William Congreve was descended from well-to-do and prominent county families. His father, a younger son, obtained a commission as lieutenant in the army and moved to Ireland in 1674. There the future playwright was educated at Kilkenny School and Trinity College, Dublin; at both places he was a younger contemporary of Swift. In 1691 he took rooms in the Middle Temple and began to study law, but soon found he preferred the wit of the coffeehouses and the theater. Within a year he had so distinguished himself at Will’s Coffeehouse that he had become intimate with the great Dryden himself, and his brief career as a dramatist began shortly thereafter.
The success of The Old Bachelor (produced in 1693) immediately established him as the most promising young dramatist in London. It had the then phenomenally long run of fourteen days, and Dryden declared it the best first play he had ever read. The Double Dealer (produced in 1693) was a near failure, though it evoked one of Dryden’s most graceful and gracious poems, in which he praised Congreve as the superior of Jonson and Fletcher and the equal of Shakespeare. Love for Love (produced in 1695) was an unqualified success and remains Congreve’s most frequently revived play. In 1697 he brought out a tragedy, The Mourning Bride, which enjoyed great popular esteem. Congreve’s most elegant comedy of manners, The Way of the World, received a brilliant production in 1700. But it did not succeed with audiences, and subsequently he gave up the stage. He held a minor government post, which, although a Whig, he was allowed to keep during the Tory ministry of Oxford and Bolingbroke; after the accession of George I he was given a more lucrative government sinecure. Despite the political animosities of the first two decades of the century, he managed to remain on friendly terms with Swift and Pope, and Pope dedicated to him his translation of the Iliad. His final years were perplexed by poor health, but were made bearable by the love of Henrietta, duchess of Marlborough, whose last child, a daughter, was in all probability the playwright’s.
The Way of the World is one of the wittiest plays ever written, a play to read slowly and savor. Like an expert jeweler, Congreve polished the Restoration comedy of manners to its ultimate sparkle and gloss. The dialogue is epigrammatic and brilliant, the plot is an intricate puzzle, and the characters shine with surprisingly complex facets. Yet the play is not all dazzling surface; it also has depths. Most Restoration comedies begin with the struggle for power, sex, and money and end with a marraiage. In an age that viewed property, not romance, as the basis of marriage, the hero shows his prowess by catching an heiress. The Way of the World reflects that standard plot; it is a battle more over a legacy than over a woman, a battle in which sexual attraction is used as a weapon. Yet Congreve, writing late in the period, reveals the weakness of those who treat love as a war or a game: "each deceiver to his cost may find / That marriage frauds too oft are paid in kind." If "the way of the world" is cynical self-interest, it is also the worldly prudence that sees through the ruses of power and turns them to better ends. In this world generosity and affection win the day and true love conquers—with the help of some clever plotting.
At the center of the action are four fully realized characters—Mirabell and Millamant, the hero and heroine, and Fainall and Mrs Marwood, the two villains—whose stratagems and relations move the play. Around them are characters who serve in one way or another as foils. Witwoud, the would-be wit, with whom we contrast the true wit of Mirabell and Millamant. Petulant, a "humor" character, who affects bluff candor and cynical realism, but succeeds only in being offensive, and Sir Wilfull Witwoud, the booby squire from the country, who serves with Petulant to throw into relief the high good breeding and fineness of nature of the hero and heroine Finally there is one of Congreve’s finest creations, Lady Wishfort (’wish for it’), who though aging and ugly still longs for love, gallantry, and courtship and who is led by her appetites into the trap that Mirabell lays for her.
Because of the complexity of the plot, a summary of the situation at the rise of the curtain may prove helpful. Mirabell (a reformed rake) is sincerely in love with and wishes to marry Millamant, who, though a coquette and a highly sophisticated wit, is a virtuous woman. Mirabell some time before has married off his former mistress, the daughter of Lady Wishfort, to his friend Fainall. Fainall has grown tired of his wife and has been squandering her money on his mistress, Mrs. Marwood. In order to gain access to Millamant, Mirabell has pretended to pay court to the elderly and amorous Lady Wishfort, who is the guardian of Millamant and as such controls half her fortune. But his game has been spoiled by Mrs. Marwood, who nourishes a secret love for Mirabell and, to separate him from Millamant, has made Lady Wishfort aware of Mirabell’s duplicity. Lady Wishfort now loathes Mirabell for making a fool of her—an awkward situation, because if Millamant should marry without her guardian’s consent she would lose half her fortune, and Mirabell cannot afford to marry any but a rich wife. It is at this point that the action begins. Mirabell perfects a plot to get such power over Lady Wishfort as to force her to agree to the marriage, while Millamant continues to doubt whether she wishes to marry at all.