The Way of the World by William Congreve

The Way of the World by William Congreve
Table of Contents
1. The Way of the World: Introduction
2. The Way of the World: William Congreve Biography
The Way of the World: Summary
¨ Act I Summary

¨ Act II Summary
¨ Act III Summary
¨ Act IV Summary
¨ Act V Summary
4. The Way of the World: Characters
5. The Way of the World: Themes
6. The Way of the World: Style
7. The Way of the World: Historical Context
8. The Way of the World: Critical Overview
The Way of the World: Essays and Criticism
¨ The Significance of Congreve's Play to Restoration Drama
Learning to Speak the English Language: The Way of the World on the Twentieth-Century
American Stage
¨ Games People Play in Congreve's The Way of the World
10. The Way of the World: Compare and Contrast
11. The Way of the World: Topics for Further Study
12. The Way of the World: What Do I Read Next?
13. The Way of the World: Bibliography and Further Reading
14. The Way of the World: Pictures
15. Copyright
The Way of the World: Introduction
In 1700, when The Way of the World was performed on the English stage at Lincoln's Inn Fields (a new
theatre that William Congreve managed), it was not a popular success. This was the last play Congreve was to
write, perhaps for that reason. Since that time, however, this play has come to be regarded not only as
Congreve's masterpiece, but as a classic example of the Comedy of Manners. The play is aptly named for two
reasons. First, its action takes place in the "present," which means it reflects the same social period during
The Way of the World 1
which the play was originally performed. Second, as a comedy of manners, its purpose is to expose to public
scrutiny and laughter the often absurd, yet very human, passions and follies that characterize social behavior.
It therefore transcends its time by holding a mirror to the fashionable world in all of its frivolity and
confusion, while posing something more precious and sensible as an antidote.
As with all comedies of this type, the principle comic material consists of sexual relations and confrontations.
Marriages are made for the sake of convenience and tolerated within precise social limits. Affairs are
conventional, jealousies abound, lovers are coy, and gallantry is contrived. Dowries are the coin of the
marriage realm, and therefore, they are of central concern in all contracts and adulterous intrigues. Congreve
makes clear that the general way of the world may be funny, but it is not particularly nice. In the way of all
romantic comedies the ‘‘marriage of true minds’’ is finally achieved, but humiliation, cruelty, and villainy
are the means by which the action goes forward. His comedy is not intended to remedy the world, of course,
but to offer an insightful and amusing view of both its seedy and sympathetic aspects.
The Way of the World: William Congreve Biography
William Congreve was born in 1670 in Bardsey (a village near Leeds), Yorkshire. When his father was
commissioned to command the garrison at Youghal four years later, the family moved to Ireland, where
Congreve was enrolled at a famous school in Kilkenny. In 1686, he attended Trinity College, Dublin along
with his contemporary, Jonathan Swift. In 1688, the Congreves moved back to England, where William began
writing his first play, The Old Bachelour, as he was recovering from an illness. Although he was sent to study
law at the Middle Temple in London in 1691, he was not a diligent student. He preferred writing.
The The Old Bachelour was an immature work and borrowed heavily from earlier seventeenth-century
playwrights, especially Wycherley and Etherege, but it was a popular success. Henry T. E. Perry writes in The
Comic Spirit of Restoration that when the play first appeared on stage in 1693, with the help of John Dryden,
‘‘literary London went mad over the new author.’’ Congreve wrote four more plays between 1693 and
1700: The Double Dealer, Love for Love, The Mourning Bride, and The Way of the World, which appeared in
1700 and is considered his masterpiece.
As Congreve's reputation grew as a dramatist, he began to enjoy the benefits of the literary establishment. He
counted Swift, Dryden, and Alexander Pope among his friends. When Parson Jeremy Collier wrote his
notorious attack on the English stage, Congreve answered it with The Way of the World. In William Congreve,
Bonamy Dobráee conjectures that the play's lukewarm reception may have been the reason that Congreve
stopped writing plays. At any rate, Congreve still maintained his connections with the stage, managing
Lincoln's Inn Fields and collaborating with Vanbrugh and Walsh in writing Squire Trelooby in 1704. He also
wrote two libretti.
As a man of letters, he also was rewarded with government sinecures. He was given a post in Customs and, in
1714, was made Secretary of Jamaica. With this patrimony, as well as revenue from theatre productions and
some royalties, he made a comfortable living. Congreve never married, but he was fond of the actress, Mrs.
Bracegirdle, who played leading roles in all of his plays, including the part of Mrs. Millamant in The Way of
the World. He was also the lover of the second Duchess of Marlborough and fathered her younger daughter,
Lady Mary, who became Duchess of Leeds. When he died in 1729 at the age of fifty-nine, he left most of his
estate to the Duchess of Marlborough.
The Way of the World: Summary
The Way of the World: Introduction 2
Act I Summary
In ancient Greek tragedy, a prologue conventionally set forth the subject of the drama to be enacted. It still
refers to the introductory material of a play that serves as a sketch of the characters or themes to appear. It also
can be an explanatory speech given by one of the characters, which is the case here. Spoken by ‘‘Mr.
Betterton,’’ the actor who played the role of Fainall in 1700, the Prologue takes the form of rhyming
couplets in iambic pentameter meter. Congreve adapts the classic ‘‘heroic" verse both to establish this play
as a serious dramatic offering, and also to add to the comic effect. The Prologue also acts as both a
tongue-in-cheek apology (in advance) and a taunt or challenge to the audience to find fault.
The speech begins with a comparison between "natural" fools and fools of "fortune." Those fools who
presume themselves poets and depend upon fortune have it the hardest, because audiences are so fickle,
whereas born fools are protected and even favored. Fortune is to born fools what surrogate mothers are to the
offspring of cuckoo birds, known to lay their eggs in the nests of other birds. Poets, on the other hand, are like
gamblers who get drawn into games with higher and higher stakes. Congreve therefore ‘‘pleads no Merit’’
from his past successes, a ‘‘vain Presumption’’ that might lose him his "Seat" in "Parnasus"—an allusion to
the mountain in Greece sacred to Apollo and the Muses. He throws himself on the mercy of his audience and
begs indulgence despite the "Toil'' with which he ‘‘wrought the following Scenes.’’
However, as the Prologue progresses, the tone changes. Congreve points the finger at ‘‘peevish Wits'' who
insist on the value of their work despite its reception. He playfully reminds his audience not to expect a satire
since everyone in ‘‘so Reform'd a Town’’ is already "Correct" and therefore beyond instruction. Likewise,
he claims no one should take it personally if he exposes a "Knave or Fool'' since surely no such person would
be found in this audience. He ends by referring to himself as a "Passive Poet’’ who will yield to audience
judgement, but clearly he believes his play to be worthy and able to please.
Act I
The major male characters appear in the first act, set in a chocolate house in London. Two young men,
Mirabell and Fainall, are playing cards, and Mirabell is losing. Fainall takes the opportunity to question
Mirabell about his ‘‘indifferent mood,’’ which leads to a confession that Mirabell's ardent love, Mrs.
Millamant, rebuffed him the night before in the company of others. Those others include two "coxcombs" or
conceited fools, Witwoud and Petulant, as well as several lady friends: Lady Wishfort (Millamant's Aunt),
Mrs. Marwood, and Mrs. Fainall. Fainall tells Mirabell that he must have come upon the women during one of
their "cabal-nights." when they meet expressly to "sit upon the murder'd Reputations of the Week,’’ and
from which pow-wow men are deliberately excluded, with the exception of the two fops mentioned above.
The following exchange reveals that half of Millamant's fortune depends upon her marrying with her Aunt's
blessings. However, Lady Wishfort hates Mirabell for having pretended love to her, while hiding his true
designs to marry her niece. Mrs. Marwood, who, as the name intimates, is a spoiler, exposes the sham for
reasons that appear later in the play. The misfortune of the lovers, the central conflict around which the action
will revolve, is thus established early on.
Halfway through the act, a servant to Mirabell appears on the scene to tell him that one Waitwell is married
"and bedded.'' While it is not yet clear who Waitwell is or why this is important, Mirabell tells Fainall that he
is ‘‘engag'd in a Matter of some sort of Mirth, which is not yet ripe for discovery.’’ The conversation then
turns to the character of Millamant, whom Mirabell mildly criticizes for suffering fools. But in a revealing
passage about the power of love, Mirabell confesses that he likes Millamant "with all her Faults’’ and even
because of them. They are precious to him since he has studied them and knows them by heart. They are "as
familiar to me as my own Frailties,’’ he says, and ‘‘in a little time longer I shall like 'em as well.’’
Act I Summary 3
A messenger appears next with a letter from Sir Wilfull Witwoud for his half-brother Witwoud, who is in the
next room playing cards. Sir Wilfull has come to London to ‘‘Equip himself for Travel’’ abroad, which
Mirabell finds outrageous since the man is over forty. Again the conversation between Mirabell and Fainall
reveals information about characters introduced later, in this case the bashful, obstinate, but good-natured Sir
Wilfull. He is compared to Witwoud, whom Mirabell describes as a meddling fool but completely
undiscerning about affronts directed at him. Enter Witwoud on cue, who then demonstrates the nature of his
wit in an amusing exchange among the three. Cajoled into revealing the nature of his friend Petulant's faults,
Witwoud reveals several, which he then turns to advantages. During the conversation, a coachman enters
calling for Petulant and the audience finds that he has paid three ladies of indistinct reputations to call upon
him to impress people with his own popularity. He also comes disguised in public places to call upon himself
and leave messages for himself for the same reason. When he enters the room, he is affecting to be put out by
the intrusion of the ladies and tells the coachman he will not come. Witwoud remarks, however, that the real
reason Petulant does not go out is because there is "no more Company here to take notice of him.''
Through Petulant and Witwoud, Mirabell learns that Lady Wishfort is hatching a plot to marry Millamant to
Mirabell's uncle, who has come to London for the purpose of disinheriting Mirabell. If Millamant and the
uncle marry and have a child, Mirabell will be disinherited, and he will lose his love. Throughout the
exchange, Witwoud admires Petulant, but Petulant proves himself oafish and ill-bred. The men decide to walk
in the "Mall'' where they are sure to meet the ladies. Mirabell asks the two "gallants" to walk by themselves
rather than embarrass him with their ribald remarks to women, whereby Petulant asserts that any lady who
blushes deserves the shame, since she has revealed in her understanding that either she is not innocent or not
discreet enough to turn away. The act ends with an imputation in the form of a rhyming couplet spoken by
Mirabell: the behavior that passes as fashionable wit is really thinly disguised impudence and malice.
Act II Summary
The action takes place in St. James's Park, where Mrs. Fainall and Mrs. Marwood are first seen discussing the
general depravity of men, a fashionable convention of the time; however, despite the assertions that men are
"Vipers," both ladies show that they are attracted to Mirabell. While they are talking, Fainall and Mirabell join
them. Mr. and Mrs. Fainall seem tender toward one another, but when the two couples split, Fainall with Mrs.
Marwood and Mrs. Fainall with Mirabell, it becomes plain that Fainall and Mrs. Marwood are having an
affair, and that Mirabell and Mrs. Fainall were once lovers. Mrs. Marwood intimates that Fainall's wife likes
Mirabell, but when Fainall responds, he accuses them both of being in love with Mirabell. Mrs. Marwood is
offended and they quarrel. She threatens to broadcast their affair to the world, and Fainall backs down. In
Fainall's ensuing attempt to make peace, Mrs. Marwood breaks into tears and to hide her face, dons a mask
just as Mirabell and Mrs. Fainall enter.
Mrs. Fainall tells Mirabell how much she despises her husband. At the same time, she remarks how she once
loved Mirabell ‘‘without Bounds.’’ Her marriage to Fainall, in fact, is one of convenience, made only to
save her reputation. Mirabell makes Mrs. Fainall privy to his plot to have his servant, Waitwell, pretend to be
his invented uncle (Sir Rowland). He has fixed it so that Waitwell has married Lady Wishfort's waiting
woman, Foible, to put them in league together. The plan is to have Waitwell, in the guise of the invented
uncle, profess love to Lady Wishfort. Once she is caught in a trap, she will promise her niece to Mirabell to
save herself from embarrassment. The plot thickens, so to speak, when Mirabell also tells Mrs. Fainall that he
deliberately directed Foible to have Lady Wishfort announce in public that she would try and make a match
between this invented uncle and Mrs. Millamant, his strategy being to secretly help Lady Wishfort keep her
own marriage plans to the uncle a secret.
The young lovers come together for the first time when Mrs. Millamant enters the scene with her maid,
Mincing, and her gallant follower, Witwoud. Witwoud bombards the gathered friends with a barrage of
Act II Summary 4
witticisms that demonstrate his tedious slavery to fashion and his silliness. Millamant then playfully satirizes
the convention of letter sending as she and her maid discuss how they have "pinn'd up her hair’’ with the
poetry, but never the prose. Mirabell cuts through the raillery by confronting Millamant about the previous
night, when she snubbed him. The exchange conveys a sense of the popular courting conventions that require
the façade of pretense, secrets, charm, and cruelty, but never the demonstration of true feeling. When Mirabell
gets Millamant alone, he questions why she spends time with such fools as Witwoud and Petulant. Millamant
accuses him of being tiresome and walks away, but not without first letting drop the hint that she knows all
about his plot. When she exits the scene, Mirabell is left alone pondering the "whirlwind'' of love.
As the act closes, Waitwell and Foible enter the scene, obviously enjoying their recent nuptials. Foible tells
Mirabell how his plot is progressing. She has supposedly gone out to show Sir Rowland the Lady's picture in
order to inflame his most ardent desires. She will then hurry back to her mistress to tell her how "he burns
with Impatience'' to see her. Mirabell is happy with the report and gives her money. He promises her that her
future will be secure if all goes well. Just as Foible is about to return to her mistress, she sees Mrs. Marwood
go by disguised in her mask. She suddenly panics and is in a hurry to get back lest Marwood tell her Lady she
has seen her talking with Mirabell, Lady Wishfort's sworn enemy. Mirabell now encourages Waitwell to
"forget'' himself and "transform into Sir Rowland.’’ In a comic last speech, Waitwell notes that it ‘‘will be
impossible’’ for him to remember his old self, since he has been married and knighted all in one day. He
speaks the amusing closing line (again in rhyming couplet) that feigns grief over the fact that he must lose his
title, and yet keep his wife.
Act III Summary
Finally Lady Wishfort appears. The scene is a room in her house. She is in a tizzy, asking her servant, Peg, to
fetch her a ‘‘little Red.’’ Peg mistakenly thinks she means "Ratifia," a kind of cherry brandy, but she means
her make-up or "paint." However, Foible has locked up the paint, and Peg can't get at it. In a fit of anxiety,
Lady Wishfort tells Peg to bring the Ratifia after all. The exchange shines a light on the silly vanity and
bawdy, colorful humor of the Lady. Enter Mrs. Marwood. She indeed has reached the Lady before Foible and
relates what she saw in St. James Park. When the Lady hears Foible entering, she bids Marwood hide in her
closet so she can sound out her maid.
Foible, however, is up to the task. She admits speaking to Mirabell, but only because he begged her. She
imputes to Mirabell's character a cruelty that readily disposes the Lady to hate him even more. Lady Wishfort
is especially incensed when Foible tells her that Mirabell has described her as "superannuated." Lady Wishfort
is ‘‘full of the Vigour of Fifty-five,’’ as Mirabell remarks in the first act. She has a difficult time keeping
her face together and must practically lay on the paint with a trowel. The truth hurts, and the Lady is ‘‘so
fretted'' that she needs to repair her face before Sir Rowland comes, which Foible promises will be soon. Their
exchange ends with Lady Wishfort pondering how best to receive Sir Rowland. She hopes he will be
somewhat "importunate,'' so that she will not have to advance and ‘‘break Decorums.’’ Clearly, while she
wants to preserve conventions, she is desperate for a husband and will not be too "nice" in the observance of
convention if it does not suit the purpose. Before the Lady exits the scene, Foible reassures her that Sir
Rowland is a "brisk man'' and will take her ‘‘by storm.’’ The Lady is pacified.
Mrs. Fainall enters and tells Foible that she, too, is privy to the plot against her mother, Lady Wishfort. They
discuss the details, not knowing that Mrs. Marwood is still hiding in the closet. Foible tells Mrs. Fainall that
she is afraid Mrs. Marwood is watching her, and so she must be careful. She hints at Marwood's motivations
when she tells Mrs. Fainall that Marwood ‘‘has a Month's mind’’ (meaning she likes Mirabell), but that he
"can't abide her.'' When they exit, Marwood enters the scene. She has overheard everything and is both angry
and resolved that she will ruin Mirabell's plans. Lady Wishfort enters and Mrs. Marwood puts it into her head
to match Sir Wilfull Witwoud with Lady Wishfort's niece, Millamant. The Lady thinks it a good idea and says
Act III Summary 5
she will ‘‘propose it.’’ Foible enters to announce that Witwoud and Petulant have arrived to dine. The Lady
and Foible exit to change for dinner.
Enter Mrs. Millamant and Mincing. The exchange between Millamant and Marwood exposes the
mean-spirited jealousy of Marwood as she advises Millamant that her love of Mirabell is no longer a secret,
and therefore not a fit subject for "Pretence.’’ Millamant accuses her of being "Censorious’’ and they trade
thinly veiled insults. Millamant accuses Marwood of revealing to her aunt the secret love between her and
Mirabell. Marwood taunts her, and Millamant pretends to be amused that Mirabell loves her so much that he
has no use for the rest of the world, including Marwood. Marwood says she hates Mirabell and Millamant
merrily agrees that she does, too, although this is just to have another go at Marwood, who is older than her
and still unmarried. Marwood warns Millamant: ‘‘Your merry Note may be chang'd sooner than you
think.’’ Millamant then calls for a song that satirizes the game of love by concluding that love is measured
by the ambition involved, and the only worthy conquest is the one that has been won after so many others
have tried and lost. Enter Petulant and Witwoud, who strive to showcase their combined wit in an amusing
sally that further proves the aptness of their names.
Millamant and Mincing exit while Sir Wilfull Witwoud, dressed in his ‘‘Country Riding Habit,’’ along
with a servant to Lady Wishfort, enter. In a nod to "fashion,'' which disdains country breeding, Witwoud
pretends not to know his half-brother. Sir Wilfull approaches the ‘‘two gallants’’ standing by, who still
refuse to speak. He speaks first: ‘‘No Offence, I hope.’’ Petulant and Witwoud are disgusted by his country
manners and Witwoud adjures Petulant to "smoke him'' or make fun of him. However, their attempts to
"unman'' him rebound, for Sir Wilfull is a match for them and answers them both honestly and artfully,
although somewhat coarsely. "The Fashion's a Fool; and you're a Fop, dear Brother,’’ he proclaims. He
roundly berates Witwoud for leaving the service of an attorney to become a professional dandy. Mrs.
Marwood inquires after Sir Wilfull's plans to travel, but he says first he will "tarry'' and "learn somewhat of
your Lingo.'' When Lady Wishfort and Fainall enter, the dialogue has established Sir Wilfull as somewhat
buffoonish and crude, but good-natured and honest.
Lady Wishfort and Fainall enter, and Lady Wishfort greets her guests. Mincing announces dinner and
everyone exits except Mrs. Marwood and Fainall, who have been talking apart. Mrs. Marwood acquaints
Fainall with Mirabell's plot to outwit Lady Wishfort, and Fainall is dumbfounded that he has been made a
cuckold. Mrs. Marwood pragmatically suggests that they prevent the plot and thereby spoil Mirabell's chances
at Millamant's fortune. She reassures Fainall that his wife had given up her affair before marriage, and that he
should be satisfied to stay with her as soon as he has got hold of all her money. Fainall is more outraged that
his wife has out-trumped him (‘‘put Pam in her pocket’’) than that she has been unfaithful. Mrs. Marwood
suggests a counter-plot: Tell Lady Wishfort that Mrs. Fainall has been unfaithful with Mirabell, and Lady
Wishfort will be so "enraged" she will do anything to save her daughter's reputation. Mrs. Marwood admits
that her idea of matching Millamant and Sir Wilfull may now be an obstacle to their plan, for if they should
marry, Millamant will claim her rightful fortune. However, Fainall promises to get him drunk so that he will
be unable to make proper advances. Mrs. Marwood determines to write an anonymous letter to Lady Wishfort
revealing all. Fainall is comforted by the notion that, in the worst case, he still has from his wife a "deed of
Settlement of the best part of her Estate; which I wheadl' d out of her.’’ There is both disingenuous conceit
and a premonition of truth in the closing couplet delivered by Fainall on the need for husbands to endure, to
be neither too wise nor too foolish, lest they suffer the consequences of pain or shame.
Act IV Summary
The action continues in Lady Wishfort's house as the Lady and Foible discuss preparations for Sir Rowland's
visit. In a moment of unself-conscious comic animation, Lady Wishfort ponders how best to effect the most
"alluring" pose and so take Sir Rowland's breath away. As they hear his coach approaching, Foible tells the
Act IV Summary 6
Lady that Sir Wilfull is on his way toward getting drunk and the Lady anxiously sends Foible to bring
Millamant and return so that she is not left alone long with Sir Rowland. They exit and Mrs. Millamant and
Fainall enter. Foible tells Millamant that Mirabell has been waiting to see her. She hesitates coyly and then
decides to receive him. All the while she is walking and repeating verses by poet John Suckling (an early
seventeenth-century poet perhaps best known for his ‘‘Ballad upon a Wedding’’), which shows her to be
deep in thought about the nature of sexual relationships. Meanwhile, Sir Wilfull enters terribly drunk, and
Mrs. Fainall intercepts him. She suggests that Sir Wilfull approach Millamant and ‘‘pursue his point,’’ and
when he hesitates, too bashful to proceed, she locks him in the room and exits. When Millamant says aloud
‘‘Natural, easie Suckling!’’ referring to the verses she has been quoting, Sir Wilfull thinks she means him
and once again his inability to grasp the "lingo" of London makes for an amusing exchange. He is unable to
make any headway with Millamant. It is clear that he is no match for her intellect or sophistication, and she
sends him away somewhat frustrated as Mirabell enters.
Mirabell finishes the Suckling verse that Millamant has been quoting, which alludes to the mythical romance
between Phoebus and Daphne and, by extension, the two of them. Here begins a "dance'' of love marked by
both conventional coy flirtation and true regard. They explore one another' s expectations and needs by setting
prenuptial conditions under which the marriage will be managed and tolerated. She wants to make sure of her
independence and privacy before she must "by degrees dwindle into a Wife." He also has his terms that must
be agreed upon before he is "enlarg'd into a Husband. ’’She must, primarily, not be involved in scandals or
become a slave to fashion. Millamant is outraged that he should think her capable of such behavior, and so
they agree as Mrs. Fainall re-enters.
Mrs. Fainall shares in their joy but hurries Mirabell out since her mother, the Lady Wishfort, is on her way in.
There's danger that if he is caught there, the Lady will fly into a rage and be distracted from the business at
hand; namely, Sir Rowland's pretended suit. Mirabell exits. Mrs. Foible comments on Sir Wilfull's
drunkenness and mentions that he and Petulant were ready to quarrel when she came away. Millamant admits
her love for Mirabell and conveys her disdain of Sir Wilfull. Enter Witwoud who tells them that Lady
Wishfort broke up the "fray'' and, soon after, a very drunk Petulant enters. He makes a rude, abrupt proposal
of love to Millamant, for which Witwoud offers hyperbolic and satirical praise (‘‘thou art an Epitomizer of
words...a retailer of Phrases’’).
Petulant responds by insulting Witwoud and calling him "half of an Ass,’’ Sir Wilfull being the other half.
Witwoud finds the insult wittily endearing and asks to be kissed ‘‘for that.’’ In the ribald dialogue that
follows, Millamant learns that the would-be quarrel has been about her. Apparently, Petulant has defended her
beauty and his claim to it, but moodily he relinquishes her by his next remark: "If I shall have my Reward, say
so; if not, fight for your Face the next time yourself.’’ He exits with a curt explanation that he's going home
to sleep with his maid. When Mrs. Fainall asks why everyone is in such a "pickle," Witwoud explains that it is
Fainall's plot to "get rid of the Knight'' (Sir Wilfull).
Lady Wishfort and Sir Wilfull enter arguing over his drunkenness, but Sir Wilfull is immune to the Lady's
reproaches. He is all merriment and pliability, willing and able in his drunken state to marry Millamant if that
is in everyone's best interests. He is singing popular drinking songs, talking ridiculously of traveling to the
"Antipodes" (the opposite poles of the earth), and making a fool of himself. Millamant and Mrs. Fainall find
his smell so offensive they exit the scene. When Lady Wishfort begs him to indeed travel, to travel as far
away as possible to the ‘‘Saracens or the Tartars, or the Turks,’’ he launches into a whimsical tirade on
traveling outside Christian lands. After a third round of song, Foible enters to whisper to Lady Wishfort that
her suitor is impatiently awaiting her. Lady Wishfort begs Witwoud to take Sir Wilfull away and the two exit,
Sir Wilfull still singing. Waitwell enters disguised as Sir Rowland and pretends to be mad with desire for her.
The Lady is taken in by his advances. Goaded on by her own desperation for a husband and Sir Rowland's
aspersions against ‘‘that Unnatural Viper,’’ Mirabell, she agrees to a quick arrangement, first having
secured that Sir Rowland suspects no ‘‘sinister appetite’’ or ‘‘scruple of Carnality" has prompted her to
Act IV Summary 7
marry. Sir Rowland, of course, is a gallant courtier, and he reassures the Lady that her honor is not suspect.
Foible enters to tell her a letter has come for her and she exits. Lady Wishfort soon reappears with the letter.
Foible recognizes Mrs. Marwoods's writing and enjoins Waitwell to get the letter from her. He pretends to
recognize the writing, and sensing his "Passion" by this show of jealousy, she has him read with her. The
letter uncovers Mirabell's intrigue and Sir Rowland as an impostor. Lady Wishfort nearly faints. Waitwell,
however, quick on his feet, denounces the letter as the work of Mirabell. He vows to revenge himself, but
Lady Wishfort pleads with him to act sensibly. He promises to give proof of his authentic intentions by
bringing her the "black-box, which Contains the Writings of my whole Estate.’’ Lady Wishfort acquiesces,
and Waitwell delivers the final couplet that promises her satisfaction and his immediate vindication. But
Foible has the last word. In a final provocative pun, she suggests that the "Arrant Knight'' is really an "arrant
Act V Summary
Lady Wishfort's house is the setting for the denouement. Lady Wishfort, in some of the most colorful
language of the play, is roundly dressing down Foible for her discovered part in the humiliating charade. She
threatens to send her back to the streets where she found her, and Foible is desperately trying to defend
herself. But Lady Wishfort is not taken in and announces that her "Turtle" is already in custody and that she
‘‘shall Coo in the same Cage.’’ She exits as Mrs. Fainall enters. Mrs. Fainall cheers Foible by telling her
that Mirabell is releasing her husband. Foible then reveals that Mrs. Marwood and Fainall have been having
an affair. She recounts that when she and Mincing caught them red-handed, she was made to swear secrecy on
a ‘‘Book of Verses and Poems,’’ an oath no one could take seriously. Mrs. Fainall is surprised, but quick to
understand the opportunity this discovery allows.
Mincing enters and tells them that Lady Wishfort is waiting to see Foible and that Mirabell has freed
Waitwell. Mincing delivers a message from Mirabell that Foible is to hide in the closet until Lady Wishfort
has calmed down. Fainall has upset her by demanding the Lady's fortune or threatening to be divorced.
Mincing reports that Millamant is ready to marry Sir Wilfull to save her fortune. Mincing agrees to "vouch"
for Mrs. Fainall when she calls her. Mincing and Foible exit.
Lady Wishfort and Mrs. Marwood enter. Lady Wishfort thanks Marwood for her friendship and her timely
discovery of the several plots against her. She questions her daughter's apparent fall from grace, all the more
deplorable since the Lady herself was a "Mold" and a "Pattern" for her. It is, of course, an ironic moment,
since by now it is clear how little virtue plays a role in the Lady's pursuits. Mrs. Fainall protests her innocence
and claims that they have both been wronged. She accuses Marwood of being a "Friend'' to her husband and
that she will prove it. Mrs. Marwood takes offense, and Lady Wishfort is embarrassed for her. However, Mrs.
Fainall is unfazed. She warns her mother that Marwood is ‘‘a Leach’’ who will ‘‘drop off when she's
full.’’ The comic irony is obvious when Lady Wishfort then soliloquizes about the irreproachable education
that her daughter has been given in the ‘‘Rudiments of Vertue,’’ taught from infancy to detest and avoid
men. Indeed, she talks herself out of belief in her daughter's guilt and agrees that Fainall should prove his
charges. But the clever and ambitious Mrs. Marwood regales her with scurrilous scenes of what will happen in
court. The Lady shudders to think of what havoc such a course will wreck on her reputation and she backs
Fainall enters and details the condition under which she must surrender her estate. First, she must not marry
unless, out of necessity, he chooses her husband, and second, his wife must settle her entire fortune on him
and depend upon him entirely for her "Maintenance." He finally demands Millamant's six thousand pounds,
which ‘‘she has her disobedience’’ in contracting a marriage against the Lady's will and by
refusing Sir Wilfull. The Lady asks for time to consider, and Fainall grants her the amount of time needed to
Act V Summary 8
draw up the papers. He exits and Lady Wishfort is left to the cold comforts of Marwood who, she thinks, is
still her friend. She calls Fainall a ‘‘merciless Villain,’’ a "Barbarian'' compared to Languish, her daughter's
first husband.
Millamant and Sir Wilfull then enter with the news that they will wed. Lady Wishfort is greatly comforted
that Millamant has nullified her contract with Mirabell, who waits to be admitted outside. Lady Wishfort can
not bear to see him, but Millamant persuades her by saying that he plans to travel with Sir Wilfull and never
trouble her again. Sir Willful corroborates her statement and Marwood, who senses another plot, exits. Sir
Wilfull and Mirabell enter. Mirabell apologizes, and Sir Wilfull acts as his supporter. Lady Wishfort
grudgingly agrees to ‘‘stifle’’ her resentment on account of Sir Wilfull if Mirabell relinquishes any contract
with her niece. Mirabell asserts that he has already done so. Despite her distrust of Mirabell, she is attracted.
She says in an aside, "his appearance rakes the Embers which have so long layn smother'd in my Breast.’’
Fainall and Mrs. Marwood enter together, Fainall with the papers for the Lady to sign. She tells him of
Millamant's decision to marry Sir Wilfull, which Fainall calls ‘‘a sham.’’ Sir Wilfull, his back up, threatens
to draw his "Instrument'' if Fainall does not withdraw his. But Fainall is undeterred. He insults Sir Wilfull and
again warns that if the Lady doesn't sign, he will set Mrs. Fainall "adrift, like a Leaky hulk to Sink or
Swim.’’ The Lady is beside herself, and when Mirabell offers advice, she accepts it. He asks for her niece in
"Compensation,'' but says he is willing to help her no matter what. The Lady is overwhelmed by his
generosity and agrees that he shall have Millamant if he can save her from Fainall. Enter Mrs. Fainall, Foible,
and Mincing. They expose the affair between Marwood and Fainall, but Fainall still will not back down and
stands on his threat to expose Mrs. Fainall's "shame." Mirabell, however, has one more ace up his sleeve.
Enter Waitwell with the black box and soon after Petulant and Witwoud. The box contains Mrs. Fainall's
settlement (witnessed by Witwoud and Petulant) signed over in trust to Mirabell before she married Fainall
precisely in order to avoid the very treachery now being enacted. Fainall is forced to admit that the settlement
he thought had been signed over to him is a fake. He tries to run at his wife with his sword but is stopped by
Sir Wilfull. He exits vowing revenge. Mrs. Fainall confronts Mrs. Marwood, who also warns that she will get
even. Marwood exits. Nothing remains but to celebrate the restored lovers and the truce between Lady
Wishfort and Mirabell. Mirabell reveals that Sir Wilfull has been a willing accomplice in Mirabell's plans and
so will suffer no pain at the loss of Millamant. The lovers embrace, and Mirabell quiets the Lady's last fears
that Fainall will "pursue some desperate Course.'' Fainall needs his marriage (and his wife's money) in order
to survive, and Mirabell promises to be the mediator of peace. He restores the deed of trust to Mrs. Fainall,
suggesting that "it may be a means well manag'd to make you live Easily together.’’ Her unhappy fate, then,
is to continue to live with Fainall, but with new knowledge and power. The act ends with a quatrain warning
against the evils of adultery.
Mrs. Bracegirdle, the actress who has played the part of Mrs. Millamant, speaks the closing lines of the play,
which, according to comic convention, takes a satirical punch at drama critics.
The Way of the World: Characters
Fainall is a faithless husband who depends on his wife's inheritance for his ease and livelihood. His ‘‘Wit
and outward fair Behaviour,’’ as his friendly acquaintance and rival, Mirabell, remarks, has allowed him to
enjoy a good reputation ‘‘with the Town,’’ but his true nature is greedy, false, and profligate. While he is
carrying on an affair with Mrs. Marwood, his wife's friend and confidante, he is plotting to wrest full control
of both his wife's and his mother-in-law's estates. As his name implies, he is a pretender, but one whose talent
for getting along serves him well in society. It is, in fact, this tractability that makes him a suitable man to be
The Way of the World: Characters 9
"sacrificed'' to ‘‘Arabella Languish’’ (Mrs. Fainall's name by her first, deceased husband) when this widow
is in need of an inoffensive second husband.
Mrs. Fainall
Mrs. Fainall is daughter to Lady Wishfort and heir to her fortune. Previously married to one "Languish,’’ she
was widowed and then remarried to keep her love affair with Mirabell safe from public scrutiny.
Unfortunately, her mother raised her to hate and revile men. Thus, while she can hardly bear her husband, she
has warm regards still for her former lover, whom she is compelled to relinquish before she is remarried to
preserve her good reputation. She is professed intimate friends with Mrs. Marwood until she learns that Mrs.
Marwood is her husband's lover. Mrs. Fainall is clever and cautious, having signed over a large part of her
estate in trust before her marriage because she suspected that her husband's greed would eventually force it
from her. She is a loyal friend to her cousin, Mrs. Millamant, whom she helps to obtain Mirabell as a husband.
In so doing, she is also generous: she not only willingly parts with her former lover, but she contrives to help
Millamant, who stands to gain a portion of the moiety of her aunt's (the Lady Wishfort's) fortune when she
Foible is a simple yet quick-witted, dissembling yet good-hearted waiting woman to Lady Wishfort. She
nonetheless helps dupe the Lady by means of a clever yet harmless ploy hatched by Mirabell. Since her
betrayal is in the cause of love, and since no one is injured (only mildly embarrassed), she is forgiven in the
end. Thought to be an obedient errand girl whom her Lady uses as an emissary to procure a husband for
herself, Foible guilelessly turns the tables and finds a husband for herself (Mirabell's servant, Waitwell) as
well as one for her Lady's niece, Millamant. It just so happens that Millamant's choice is Mirabell, her aunt's
sworn enemy, hence the necessity of Mirabell's ploy. As a servant, Foible has the means to come and go
throughout her mistress's home and is therefore privy to much that other characters would like to hide.
Through Foible's assistance, Fainall and Marwood's adulterous affair and their designs to steal her Lady's
fortune are found out and justly brought to closure.
Mrs. Marwood
Pretended friend to Mrs. Fainall and secret lover of her husband, Mrs. Marwood schemes to spoil the
happiness of others to enrich herself. She almost succeeds in foiling the hoped-for marriage between the true
lovers Mirabell and Millamant by exposing their love and so inciting the rage of Lady Wishfort, who scorns
Mirabell because he made false advances to her. Although she pretends she hates him and all men, Marwood
also likes Mirabell and is jealous of his attentions to Millamant. Of all the characters in this comedy of
manners, Mrs. Marwood is perhaps the least sympathetic: in fact, she is more than once referred to as "that
devil'' by both Mrs. Fainall and Foible. Because she deliberately sets out to destroy the happiness of others,
and because she is duplicitous in her friendships, she is finally despised as an adulteress and a traitor. Even the
trusting Lady Wishfort, who believes Marwood's loyal friendship has saved her from the disgrace and villainy
of others' machinations and plots against her, comes to see her as a ‘‘wicked accomplice.’’ While she is
clever, she is not nice; while she has wit, she is not funny.
Mrs. Millamant
Mrs. Millamant is a young, vivacious, pretty, and fashionable lady who loves Mirabell and, as niece to Lady
Wishfort, is heir to part of her fortune should she marry with Lady Wishfort's approval. She affects a coy
demeanor, as well as disdain for the opposite sex. She is often seen in the company of "fops," somewhat
tiresome and affected young wits who nonetheless are entertaining enough and whom she tolerates to hide her
true regard for Mirabell. She is willful and witty in her own right and adeptly manages to steer clear of the
convoluted plots and schemes that pack the action and threaten to undo most of the characters by their twists
and turns. Mrs. Millamant's nature is graceful, decorous, and confident; however, her tolerance for Witwoud
and Petulance show her to be a creature of the world and somewhat at the mercy of the dictates of fashion.
Despite her good breeding, she is not above abiding fools for her own mischievous ends.
The Way of the World: Characters 10
Mincing is a somewhat affected yet dutiful and loyal waiting woman to Mrs. Millamant. Together with her
friend, Foible, Mincing witnesses and corroborates Fainall's and Marwood's adulterous affair, and so helps
expose the deception of the two in plotting to exploit Mrs. Fainall and extort from Lady Wishfort her entire
estate. The two servant's testimony leads to Lady Wishfort's blessing of the marriage between Mirabell and
Mirabell is a clever, handsome, young, and headstrong gentleman of good manners who is the admirer of and
persistent suitor to Millamant. He also is the former lover of Mrs. Fainall, and he is liked by Mrs. Marwood.
While once the object of desire, he is now the sworn enemy of Lady Wishfort for pretending love to her. A
man of sense, he is also a clever and effective strategist who carries out his schemes to marry Lady Wishfort's
niece against her will and thereby secure his love and Millamant's dowry. While likeable, he is also ruthless in
his exploitation of both servants and peers to get his own way. But since nearly everyone benefits from his
schemes, no one seems to mind, except Fainall and Marwood, whom he exposes at the end as perfidious and
maladroit traitors. Mirabell is a proud, artful, and generous man of the world who knows he is suffering from
a love sickness from which he cannot and does not want to escape.
This dandy and follower of Mrs. Millamant is every bit as rude and ill humored, as peevish and capricious, as
the name would suggest. Friend to Witwoud, he is perceived by other characters to be the inferior wit of the
two. He is illiterate and proud, boorish and vain. To give the impression that he is popular, he pays ladies of
questionable virtue to call on him in public places, and he has also disguised himself precisely to call upon
himself in public. He likes Mrs. Millamant but really would just as soon sleep with his maid. His raillery is
pure brilliance to Witwoud, but he is barely tolerated by people of any sensibility. Petulant is endowed with a
brutal tactlessness but is unable to speak a truth since everything he says and does is a performance based on
his mood at the moment. As a fool, he is rather more dour than deft.
Servant to Mirabell, Waitwell is essential to furthering his master's marriage designs. Being loyal and eager to
please, he agrees both to marry Lady Wishfort's maid, Foible, in order to better secure the plan, and also to
impersonate Mirabell's uncle in order to profess love to Lady Wishfort. As Mirabell's invented uncle, Sir
Rowland, Waitwell gives a delightful performance that convinces the Lady of his ardent desire and his rush to
marry in order to foil Mirabell's hope for a marriage dowry. It is his gallant love act that places Lady Wishfort
in the embarrassing and precarious position of being fooled once again by a suitor, and, by helping to place
her at the mercy of her enemies, clears the way for Mirabell to extricate her.
Lady Wishfort
An aging grand dame, Lady Wishfort is as desperate to get a husband as she is unsuspecting of the plans afoot
to rob her of her fortune and her "virtue." Mother to Mrs. Fainall and aunt to Mrs. Millamant, she holds the
key to the money and the maid that will bring the action to its conclusion. Lady Wishfort's colorful language
and vehement expressions of emotion cause the greatest moments of amusement and liveliness in the play.
She is the dupe of nearly everyone close to her, including her own daughter, and while she is in danger of
losing her fortune, she is more worried about damaging her reputation. Her "paint'' is practically laid on with a
trowel to hide the wrinkles, but she fancies herself attractive to men the likes of Mirabell and the pretender,
Sir Rowland. While she raises her daughter to hate men, she cannot be reconciled to life without them. And
while she is at great pains to keep up appearances, her mighty constitution suffers all forms of indignities and
humiliation, yet she is able to recover with some modicum of good grace and in the end forgive all.
A man who prides himself on his never-failing wit, raillery, and charm, this "becravated and beper-riwig'd''
The Way of the World: Characters 11
fool (as Sir Wilfull calls him) is an admirer of Mrs. Millamant and a pretended favorite of the ladies. His chief
usefulness is entertaining with his droll wit, and he is taken into the confidence of the ladies' thrice weekly
"cabals" as they set about destroying reputations and professing their fashionable opinions on marriage, men,
and morals. By his good-natured affectation and unself-conscious methods, he allows the other characters to
disguise their true emotions; his superficial and careless remedy of jokes, similes, and puns relieves tension
and unwittingly exposes the foolishness of contemporary fashion and manners. While he is foolish, he is also
harmless, and he furnishes, despite his desperate attempts at wit, some very funny and insightful moments.
Sir Wilfull Witwoud
Bashful and obstinate by turns, feisty and deferential when necessary, a country bumpkin with a good nature
and a will to please, Sir Wilfull Witwoud, half-brother by marriage to Witwoud, would be a wit if he could.
He has come to town to look around before setting out on his travels and finds he doesn't understand the
"lingo'' of the fashionable world. He serves as a foil to the well bred. In contrast to their studied rudeness and
affectation, he is simple and matter-of-fact. Thus, he is an easy mark in the scheming game of matchmaking,
but a cheerful one, especially after a long bout of drinking. In a show of generosity and an imposture of
sincerity, he gladly agrees to marry Millamant as a last resort to save her fortune. However, he also
dissembles well. His is but another actor in Mirabell's clever ruse to catch Fainall and Mrs. Marwood in their
deception and to lure Lady Wishfort into his harmless trap.
The Way of the World: Themes
Social Convention
Congreve's ‘‘comedy of manners’’ takes the fashionable or conventional social behavior of the time as the
principle subject of satire. Conflicts that arise between and among characters are prompted by affected and
artificial social mores, especially with respect to relationships between the sexes. Social pretenses and plot
complications abound in The Way of the World. Women are compelled to act coyly and to dissemble in
courtship; couples deceive one another in marriage; friends are double-dealing, and conquests have more to do
with dowries and convenience than love. All moral principle is risked for the sake of reputation and money.
However, what makes the action comic is the subterfuge. What one says is hardly ever what one really thinks
or means. To judge by appearances, for example, no one could be happier in his marriage than Fainall, who in
reality disdains his wife and is carrying on an adulterous affair with his wife's close friend. Congreve
intimates that, in fashionable society at the turn of the eighteenth century, it is crucial to preserve the outer
trappings of beauty, wit, and sophistication no matter how egregious one's actions and words might prove.
Dowries, Marriage, and Adultery
In the male-dominated, patriarchal society of Congreve's time, a woman was little more than property in a
marriage transaction. Her dowry (money, property, and estate) was relinquished to her husband at marriage
and she became, by law, his chattel. In the upper classes, women had little voice in their own fate, and
marriages were usually arranged according to social status, size of fortune, and family name. In the play,
Millamant's dowry is at the center of the struggle that pits Mirabell, her true lover, against Fainall and Mrs.
Marwood, the two adulterers plotting to gain control of Millamant's fortune as well as Fainall's wife's.
Cunningly, Mrs. Fainall has had a large part of her estate signed over in trust before her marriage to prevent
her husband from acquiring it.
While marriages are important economic contracts, they are also convenient vehicles for protecting social
reputations. Mrs. Fainall has made such a marriage, which is socially acceptable and even expected, as long as
the pretense of civility is maintained. However, getting caught in an adulterous relationship puts both
reputation and fortune at risk. Hence, when the relationship between Fainall and Mrs. Marwood is discovered,
the two become social outcasts. Fainall has staked his reputation on a plot to disinherit his wife. As
punishment, he will have to bear the humiliating exposure, continuing to live with his wife and depend on her
The Way of the World: Themes 12
for his livelihood. Mrs. Marwood's reputation is ruined, her future hopes destroyed. Congreve's intent is to
reflect the way of the world in all its manifest greed. The lesson is that those who cheat get their just desserts
in the end.
Decorum and Wit
Congreve invents several characters who, as fops, dandies, and fools, provide fitting foils to the romantic hero
and heroine. He pits these purported "wits'' against Mirabell and Millamant to comment on the social decline
of manners. Since the play is a comedy, audiences are to take it both as serious social satire and also as an
amusing romp. No one, of course, escapes Congreve's satirical pen entirely. All people are sometimes fools,
Congreve suggests, or sometimes too earnest or too busy inventing counterfeit personas in order to hide their
own moral turpitude. Petulant and Witwoud make good fools for they epitomize the shallowness and silliness
of fashionable society, but they both also are capable of voicing through their wit the real motivations behind
people's actions. They mistake fashionable behavior for decorum and good manners, but they are basically
harmless. The comic hero, Mirabell, unscrupulously uses blackmail and trickery to promote his own interests,
yet he also represents what is wise and decent in society, and he protects and thoughtfully provides for his
friends. Millament, while she acts capriciously and spends time with fops, is inherently thoughtful and able to
distinguish between fashion and principles. Lady Wishfort is perhaps the most sympathetically comic
character in that, for all her desperate attempts to preserve decorum and for all the power she wields as the
wealthy matriarch of the family, she is at heart a lonely widow who will do anything for a husband.
Passion and Puritanism
It has been noted that this final Congreve play was, in effect, a dramatic answer to Puritan Pastor Jeremy
Collier's vilification of the theatre world, in which he publicly denounced the English stage as morally
bankrupt. As comic heroes, Millamant and Mirabell represent characters who are most in touch with their own
natural passions and creative spirits, free of both a fashionable sexual freedom and overwrought piety. Lady
Wishfort symbolizes the tyranny and hypocrisy with which society constrains these natural, creative passions
in the name of Puritanism. In contrast to the true lovers, she pretends to an elegance and pretentious demeanor
at odds with the emotions and passions raging inside her. In a strict and amusingly eccentric Puritanical
education in the ways of the world, she has served as a "model" by which to teach her daughter to despise men
and lewd behavior, including "going to filthy Plays.’’ It is no coincidence that, in order for the two lovers to
finally come together, they must reduce Lady Wishfort's logic and principles to the transparent artifice that it
has so clearly become by the end of the play.
Sexual Politics
The war between the sexes in this dramatic comedy is played with wit and artistry, treachery and complex
design, tenderness and teasing, passion and charm, and, above all, precise timing. In Congreve's play, it is safe
to say that in this particular struggle—the high stakes of which are love, money, and social survival—men and
women are equally proficient and powerful. Gender behavior is proscribed within the limits of social
convention. Thus male and female attitudes and actions are expected to be very different and those differences
are to be strictly maintained. The prenuptial "negotiation’’ scene between Mirabell and Millamant
amusingly, yet sincerely, establishes the rules by which the couple will manage their marriage, preserving
independence and privacy as well as intimacy and love. While the conditions of their agreements seem petty
at first glance, it is clear that they reflect prohibitions against the "evil" tendencies of each sex. The bottom
line is that Millamant will not be unduly dominated or possessed by her husband and her husband will not be
vexed with the wiles of intrigue or the vain fashions of the time. It is a good exchange: it preserves the respect
of each party as well as the distinctions and charms perceived to be natural and unique to men and women.
Mirabell and Millamant's union is certainly intended as a corrective to the deceitful adultery of Fainall, the
pathetic loneliness of Lady Wishfort, and the emptiness and debauchery of the life of the dandy.
The Way of the World: Themes 13
The Way of the World: Style
Restoration Comedy
Congreve's plays belong to a genre known as Restoration comedy. The Restoration refers to the
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: In The 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 Way of the World: Style 14
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
The Way of the World: Style 15
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.’’
The Way of the World: Historical Context
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
The Way of the World: Historical Context 16
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.
The Way of the World: Critical Overview
The Way of the World is considered one of the finest examples of late seventeenth-century Restoration drama
during the period when the comedy of manners flourished in England. Congreve had written two extremely
popular dramas before this, Love for Love (1695) and The Mourning Bride (1697), which received rave
reviews in London and cemented his reputation as a major playwright. However, his next and final play, The
Way of the World, was only a marginal success when it was performed in 1700. Several theories have been
forwarded as to why audience reaction at the time was lukewarm. One of Congreve's biographers, Bonamy
Dobráee, speculates that, while Congreve's masterpiece must be appreciated for ‘‘depth and sympathy of its
characterisation...together with the general sense of what is precious in life, and the magnificent handling of
language,’’ the play might have been ‘‘too subtle.’’ A character like Witwoud, he notes, is "indeed a
coxcomb,'' but he was also "no idiot.’’ Dobráee also characterizes the resolution of the plot as ''abrupt and
Several studies of late seventeenth-century drama make the claim that Congreve was writing fora "coterie"
audience (fashionable high society) that disappeared at the turn-of-the-century. The argument is that new
playgoers were middle class or bourgeois in their tastes, and they demanded a new style, hence the rise of
"sentimental" comedy popular after 1700. As Virginia Ogden Birdsall writes in Wild Civility, The English
Comic Spirit on the Restoration Stage, the ‘‘conditions and circumstances in which English civilization had
to grow'' led to ‘‘a new and not inconsiderable ally in the cause of repressive sobriety—namely, an
increasingly influential middle-class mentality almost invariably hostile to the comic or play spirit.’’
Recent studies by such scholars as Emmett Avery, Harold Love, and Pierre Danchin have demonstrated that
the late seventeenth-century London theatre-going audience (at the time only two theatres, Drury Lane and
Lincoln's Inn Fields, were in operation in London) was perhaps more heterogeneous than modern audiences.
Robert Hume calls the audiences of the period between 1697 and 1703 "cranky" and for reasons not
completely understood, they "damned'' the new plays of the Restoration while continuing to enjoy the older,
stock dramas of the period that expressed similar sentiments. In the 1697-1698 season, writes Hume, "fifteen
out of seventeen new plays failed.'' Jeremy Collier's attack on the theatre and the consequent controversy over
the theatre world's morality probably added to the troubles that plagued the theatre at this time, but as Hume
The Way of the World: Critical Overview 17
observes, audiences were "revolting" prior to Collier's scathing denouncements. Here, it is worth quoting
Hume at length:
Why audiences were so difficult in the years around 1700 we frankly do not know. Authors
were baffled: in prologue after prologue they lamented the fickleness of the audience, and in
prefaces and dedications they tended to blame actors and managers for their misfortunes. If
authors were puzzled and indignant, managers were frantic. They imported foreign singers at
inflated prices, tried entr'acte dancers, animal acts, acrobats, and vaudeville turns. They
cannibalized favorite scenes from plays and popular operas. They kept changing the starting
time of performance.
Whatever the reasons for the minimal success of The Way of the World in 1700, it was revived to popular
acclaim in the eighteenth century: it was performed over two hundred times in London. Professor Avery,
writes Hume, concluded that Congreve's play flourished and ‘‘gained popularity steadily over a period of
some forty years, achieving his greatest share in the repertory around 1740.’’ When Garrick, who was
indifferent to Congreve, took over management of Drury Lane, performances of the play diminished. During
the nineteenth century, as Herbert Davies notes in The Complete Plays of William Congreve, it was performed
‘‘with considerable cuts and alterations to suit the taste of the times.’’ It was revived in 1904 and continues
to be performed today.
The Way of the World: Essays and Criticism
The Significance of Congreve's Play to Restoration Drama
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
The Way of the World: Essays and Criticism 18
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 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
The Significance of Congreve's Play to Restoration Drama 19
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
The Significance of Congreve's Play to Restoration Drama 20
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
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
Learning to Speak the English Language: The Way of the World on the Twentieth-Century Americ2a1n Stage
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.
Learning to Speak the English Language: The Way of the World on the Twentieth-Century Americ2a2n Stage
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
Learning to Speak the English Language: The Way of the World on the Twentieth-Century Americ2a3n Stage
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.
Learning to Speak the English Language: The Way of the World on the Twentieth-Century Americ2a4n Stage
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,
Learning to Speak the English Language: The Way of the World on the Twentieth-Century Americ2a5n Stage
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
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
Learning to Speak the English Language: The Way of the World on the Twentieth-Century Americ2a6n Stage
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
Learning to Speak the English Language: The Way of the World on the Twentieth-Century Americ2a7n Stage
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
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
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
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
Games People Play in Congreve's The Way of the World 28
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.
Games People Play in Congreve's The Way of the World 29
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
Games People Play in Congreve's The Way of the World 30
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
Games People Play in Congreve's The Way of the World 31
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.
The Way of the World: Compare and Contrast
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.
The Way of the World: Compare and Contrast 32
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
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.
The Way of the World: Topics for Further Study
The seventeenth century was a time of great political upheaval in England. Research the period dating from
the Civil War in the 1640s, which led to the dissolution of the English monarchy, to the "Restoration" of
Charles II in 1660. In what ways did political change help shape ‘‘Restoration Drama?’’ In particular, how
did political realities contribute to the rise and popular appeal of the "comedy of manners?''
Lady Wishfort is a central comic figure in The Way of the World. As the aging but still amorous dowager, the
capricious yet tenacious holder of the purse strings, and the twice-duped lover so desperate to marry and so
patently superficial in her disapproval of men, she amuses by the very nature of her naïve yet bold heart. How
would you direct the pivotal opening of Act III, when we are introduced to Lady Wishfort for the first time?
This will involve her interaction with Peg, Foible, and Mrs. Marwood up until her exit from the scene.
John Dryden is a major literary figure of the seventeenth century, and he was one of the most vocal supporters
of Congreve's work. It was Dryden who helped Congreve polish his wildly popular first play, The Old
Batchelour for the London stage. Research the life of Dryden and discuss the significance of his relationship
to Congreve, in particular, and Restoration literature in general.
Read William Wycherley's The Country Wife. As an early example of Restoration comedy, how does it
compare to Congreve's The Way of the World, written twenty-five years later? What are some common
themes and comic devices? What are some essential differences?
Choose a major character in The Way of the World. Say why that character is important to the theme and plot.
How is that character significant in relation to other characters in the play? How does the character's role add
to the overall comic effect? Refer directly to dramatic lines of the text in your analysis.
It has been said that every good comedy contains an element of tragedy. Describe the tragic elements in The
Way of the World. Does the play have a happy ending?
The Way of the World: What Do I Read Next?
The Mourning Bride was Congreve's only dramatic tragedy. Performed in 1697, it was a triumphant success
and ran for thirteen days at Lincoln's Inn Fields. Set in the south of Spain, it dramatizes earlier historical
conflicts between Granada and Valencia and the part played in this struggle by Moorish expeditions from the
north coast of Africa. But the plot is fictional and characters are drawn not from history, but from earlier
heroic plays.
When The Old Batchelour, Congreve's first play, was printed in 1693, it was an immediate success and its
author hailed as John Dryden's successor. Indeed, Dryden helped Congreve, who was only twenty-three years
old at the time, prepare the play for the theatre. This first play, like his later comedies, mirrored the manners
of fashionable society. It can be enjoyed for its sheer gaiety and youthful energy, but it also provides a
contrast to later works where maturity affords him a more original style and a more discerning attitude to the
The Way of the World: Topics for Further Study 33
society he evokes.
William Wycherley's play The Country Wife is one of the best examples of early Restoration comedy. Born in
1640, thirty years before Congreve, Wycherley is often regarded, along with Sir George Etherege, as one of
Congreve's most important literary predecessors. Although there is disagreement about when Wycherley's
play was first performed, most scholars put it between 1672 and 1675. The play takes a satirical look at the
jealous husband, concluding that jealousy is indeed a monster that consumes those who suffer from it most.
More than any other English playwright, Ben Jonson probably had the most influence on the comic tradition
of which Congreve is a part. He was a primary force in the rise of the comedy of "humours" during the
Elizabethan period. His play Volpone, or The Fox, first performed in 1606, provides one of the best examples
of comedy at work in the service of social satire.
When Jeremy Collier's Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage was published in
1698, several playwrights of the period, including Congreve, responded to this attack. Indeed, Collier's book
is one of several popular works of Puritan piety that Lady Wishfort tells Mrs. Marwood to entertain herself
with when she hides in the closet in the third act of The Way of the World. Collier's book is considered one of
the most articulate expressions of the Puritanical attempt to reform the stage and purge it from the perceived
evils and corruption of the day.
The Way of the World: Bibliography and Further Reading
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,
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.
The Way of the World: What Do I Read Next? 34
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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