William Congreve, The Way of the World (1700)

Genre: comic or satiric drama (see "Prologue" ll. 30-40).

Form: prose with some inset lyrics.

Characters: Note the "Dramatis Personae"'s careful description of characters in terms of their love and friendship relations, as well as their kinships.  This play is founded upon the notion that love strives with and often overthrows the "natural" order of kin relationship, including that crucial artificial one that is formed by marriage.  Note that all female characters who are not servants are styled "Mrs." as a term of respect.  Only Mrs. Fainall is actually married.  Marriage, by contrast, is not a sweet sacrament, but rather a carnivorous battle for supremacy, first between the alpha-males, Mirabell and Fainall, and then between the future bride and groom, Mirabell and Millamant.  The "rake" (from "rake-hell") is a type of Restoration comedy character we have not yet encountered in early literature except for John Wilmot, the earl of Rochester and perhaps the living model for "Mr. Horner," hero of William Wycherly's The Country Wife (1675).  Since then, we have seen "rake" characters repackaged in the "loveable rogue" or "anti-hero" (or "mack-daddy") of Modernist and Post-Modernist literature.  To see a visual representation of the "rake" lifestyle by an artist who was Congreve's younger contemporary, click here to see William Hogarth's "The Rake's Progress."  (There are 8 engravings in the series--this one captures the Rake's disastrous loss at cards which precipitates his downfall.)  Click here to see a modern British production's costumes and set designs for William Etheredge's Man of Mode (1676), another Restoration comedy.
        The following list describes the characters by their type, since members of the same type often are either allies or opponents in the plot.

Summary: The plot of "Way" is so complex that it may be partly to blame for the play's lack of critical success when Congreve first put it on.  However, once mastered, the play begins to shed a glorious light upon the contemporary issues of courtship, truthfulness, and testing the quality of one's prospective mate and allies.  It's also enormously funny and prophetic.  (Like Petulant, the would-be society man, Lucienne Goldberg [Linda Tripp's "literary agent" and wiretapping guru] liked to have herself paged at trendy Washington restaurants in order to create the impression she was "in demand" among the fashionable set.)  Therefore, I lay out for you the basic lineaments of the plot.  The real stuff of this play is in its conversation.

  1. Lady W. resists Mirabell's marriage to her neice, Millamant, because Mirabell has previously pretended to love Lady W while secretly courting her ward, the much younger and wealthy Millamant.  She does not know that Mirabell also has had her daughter as his former mistress, before arranging secretly to marry her to the notorious rake, Fainall when it appears she has become pregnant (Act II).
  2. Mirabell schemes to arrange a marriage between Lady W. and "Sir Rowland" (his servant, Waitwell in disguise), which appeals to her vanity and to her desire for revenge. "Sir Rowland" is rumored to be Mirabel's uncle, a man who hates M. and who could, by having a male child of his own, disinherit Mirabell in M's father's will.  That Lady W. still believes herself capable of pregnancy is one of the play's running jokes.  The "Sir Rowland" rumor was started by Mirabell, himself, and he takes great pains to make sure it's spreading in his interrogation of Petulant in Act I.  Meanwhile, Mirabell makes sure Waitwell has already married Foible, their co-conspirator, so that Waitwell cannot play Mosca's part (see the Volpone reference!) and really marry Lady W.  When Lady W has made a bigamous marriage (Cf. Lady Anne Halkett!), Mirabell can threaten to expose her unless she relents to let him marry Millamant.  Mrs. Fainall aids M. in this fiction because she is disgusted with her husband's unfaithfulness with Mrs. Marwood.
  3. Mrs. Marwood sees Mrs. Fainall plotting with Foible, and tells Lady W. that Sir Wilfull Witwoud (Lady W's cousin) would make a good and safe match for Millamant. Millamant's inheritance will not allow her to refuse a reasonable match proposed by her guardian, Lady W. Also, all of that forfeited inheritance will go from Lady W's neice, Millamant, to Lady W's daughter, Mrs. Fainall, whose fortunes are controlled by her husband (who would then give it to Mrs. Marwood, she thinks (see Act II).  Mrs. Marwood, is motivated to aid Fainall, even though now she hates him, because she has been offended by Millamant's careless taunts about her age (imagine an unmarried 30-something being teased by a popular 20-something) and by overhearing Mrs. Fainall plotting with Foible.
  4. Mrs. Marwood tells Fainall he now can divorce Mrs. Fainall because she jealously presumes Mrs. F. is having an affair with Mirabell. Fainall foils the match Lady Wishfort plans between Millamant and Sir Wilfull by getting the Shropshire knight drunk.
  5. In Act V, Fainall springs his trap, demanding Lady W's estate, his wife's estate (Mrs. Fainall), and half of Millamant's inheritance (Lady W's neice) in return for Fainall's not charging his wife with adultery with Mirabell. Mrs. Fainall dares them to attempt prosecution because she has proof of innocence, but Mrs. Marwood convinces Lady W. that the press coverage of the trial would humiliate the family.
  6. Lady W offers to allow Mirabell to wed Millamant in return for his helping her escape (saving W's and M's fortunes, but apparently leaving Mrs. F. in deep trouble).
  7. Mirabell reveals that Mrs. Fainall, before her marriage, had signed all her possessions over to him to prevent their falling into Fainall's hands. Thus, Fainall has nothing to sue for.  Note his response to the news that his wife had outwitted him--the gesture is intended as a final revelation of the true danger of his character, formerly masked by wit and the hopes of an easy fortune.

Issues and Research Sources:

1) The Norton's page layout reproduces the "dramatis personae" (dramatic personas, or literally "masks"), which comes to us from the play's printed script.  It lists two columns of characters divided by gender and arranged in order of social rank. The men are listed first, from the "rakes," who are described in terms of which women they are in love with or "follow," to the servant, Waitwell. One oddity is "Sir Wilful Witwoud," who by rank should head the list, but here he ranks below even Petulant and barely above a servant. Why? Among the women, Lady Wishfort occupies the expected highest place in the list, but immediately below here is Millamant, described as "a fine lady"? What can that mean? Mrs. Marwood ("friend" of Fainall who "likes Mirabell") precedes Mrs. Fainall ("daughter" and "wife" and "formerly friend"--somewhat "used"?), and below them are servants, from the highest (Foible) to the lowest ("dancers, footmen, and attendants").
        In addition to what those relationship markers tell us about the women's relative social status, we also could redivide all the characters once again by another social marker, age. How might competition between generations explain the behaviors of Millamant and Marwood or Lady Wishfort, or Sir Wilfull Witwoud and "Tony" Witwould (and Petulant)? In Lear and Volpone, we saw some conspiracy among children against parents, but here we have three layers of "children," all trying to play the courtship game. Can you see how this marks one complex set of behaviors we know as "modern society"? Those are the "ways" of our "world."  These relationships would be very good evidence for a Structuralist or Post-Structuralist (e.g., Feminist, Deconstructionist) interpretation of the play.

2)  The plot's complexity is a significant hurdle for the first-time reader.   How could Congreve have expected his theater audience to follow such a plot?   Obviously, he is trading in a subgenre of this New-Comedy style drama that other writers have been working in for some time before, setting his audience's expectations for the behaviors of all the main character types.   Rakes will seduce, though wittily.  Fops will unconsciously parody themselves while imitating the behaviors of the rakes.  The youngest and prettiest female part will be the "prize" for which the rakes compete.  The older, more experienced women will be torn between their allies or opponents to defend their dwindling social power.   Wycherly, Etheridge, and Farquar all had produced satirical comic plays on these themes.   Nevertheless, this play was a failure on its first performance and marked the end of Congreve's career.   Could there be something in the play's satire of London society that caused its audience to reject it?  Compare it with Volpone, which similarly satirizes high society, but with certain major differences, especially its setting in Venice.  Could it also mark the waning of audiences' appetite for plays which mocked middle-class mores and institutions like marriage, friendship, hard work, education, and even love?

3)   Like Shakespeare's King Lear, Congreve’s play sets up a subplot and main plot in which servants mimic the behaviors of the aristocrats and their would-be followers.   How are the servants treated in this play, especially when they are detected in misbehavior, and what does this tell you about England's emerging class system at the beginning of the modern period?  Because Congreve's dialogue refers explicitly to Jonson's Volpone, you are openly invited to see Way as a successor to Jonson's view of the power of greed to change human character.  What else has been corrupted in this play, and if the love of money is not the cause, what is the corrupting agent?

4)  The characters of Congreve's play often quote (and misquote) literature from earlier eras.  Millamant is especially careful to test her suitors' literary taste in the course of generally discouraging their efforts.  In Act IV, she tests Sir Wilfull Witwoud and Mirabell with lines by the Cavalier poets, Sir John Suckling and Edward Waller (see samples of Suckling's work in the Norton and the Waller poem she offers and Mirabell "caps" by completing the quotation.  Here is a link to the University of Toronto web site's text of "The Story of Phoebus and Daphne Applied." 5)  If bad literary taste is one sign of a "bad person" in Congreve's universe, the resort to violence or the threat of it appears to be an even worse indicator of character.

6)  Restoration theater audiences were extremely well-to-do, and witty (or so they considered themselves).  It was common for them to call out jests to each other and to taunt the actors while the play was being performed.  Since the house lights were not dimmed for the performance, the play was less of a "sacred ceremony" and more of a social event, even a social contest between the actors and the audience.  How might this shape your sense of the play's long-running theme of "public performance," with its women in masks, its reading of blushes and paleness, its ritualized use of comic speech, and its in-jokes about the complex language for popular fads?  Note that Congreve's first great success in the theater (The Old Bachelor, 1693) was considered unusual for running as long as fourteen days in performance.  How does that fit into the newly emerging codes of middle-class consumerism which you see in the play's content, and how might that affect the play, itself, as something audiences "consumed"?  To see illustrations of the Drury Lane Theater stage and audience seating, click here and here.  You'll note that the audience in the well-lit box seats are easily as "on stage" as the actors and far more numerous.

7.  Congreve sets The Way of the World's acts in places of iconic importance to London society, especially with respect to the new social mores and minor (and major) vices which had become more acceptable in Restoration English culture.  Though the countryside remained largely committed to values and ways of living that had changed little since Medieval times, city-dwellers sought new sights, sounds, sensations, and modes of social contact in the chocolate houses, St. James's Park, and the "salons" of wealthy women.  Chocolate and coffee drinking were marginally acceptable aristocratic sources of intoxication, pursued by males alone (except for female servants), and often accompanied by gambling.  These institutions later were transformed into the "gentlemen's clubs" of London, fraternities which formed the hidden inner circle of the power structure for politics, business, science, and the arts.  In the late 1600s, however, these were much less tame places.  What does it mean when the elite males of a nation find these activities a major part of their daily activities?  St. James's Park's "Mall," allowed men and women to mingle in socially acceptable circumstances, though it also made possible socially risky behavior. The "Mall"'s familiarity to English readers was such that, when Behn wants to tell her readers how big her citrus garden was in Guyana, she says it was "about half the length of the Mall here."  The Mall was the canvas upon which aristocratic Londoners showed off new fashions and new relationships, traded gossip and rumor, and plotted with/against each other.  The "salon" or private room in a house devoted to social engagements offered women a chance to rule a social space that could compete against the male domains of the chocolate and coffee houses.  A rural visitor, like Sir Wilful Witwoud, might find these three domains as strange as an alien planet, but to insiders they are "the World" of Congreve's title.  Think about the way that centralizes all importance within a few square miles of the imperial capital, and what it does to the rest of the planet, especially England's colonial possessions.  Keep in mind that, while Congreve's characters are pursuing their intrigues, the Triangular Trade continues to supply slaves to the American colonies, who trade tobacco and sugar cane for manufactured goods and imports, like tea, from the rest of England's colonial possessions.  That trade is what underpins the lavish spending and the personal fortunes which the play's characters fight to control.  

8.  If you want to write your final paper on Congreve's play, you need to consult your "insight detector" for scenes or lines of dialogue that seem to you excellent or puzzling or infuriating, etc.  In any case, calm down and reread the passage or lines with a detective's eye, looking for what you have not yet noticed, the non-obvious pattern in the textual data that will give you something to say about the play.  If your "insight detector" is not functioning very well for Congreve, but you still want to write about the play, I can offer you a page of my favorite passages from Acts I and II, with some reasons why they appealed to me as possible paper topics.  Click here for some similarly thematic passages in Acts III, IV, and V.