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Oxford Playhouse production of The Way of the World; 13 to 17 April 2004

The Way of the World is a play written by British playwright William Congreve. It premiered in 1700 in the theatre in Lincoln's Inn Fields in London. It is widely regarded as being one of the best Restoration comedies written and is still performed sporadically to this day.

Contents

Characters

The play is based around the two lovers Mirabell and Millamant (originally famously played by John Verbruggen and Anne Bracegirdle). In order for the two to get married and receive Millamant's full dowry, Mirabell must receive the blessing of Millamant's aunt, Lady Wishfort. Unfortunately, she is a bitter lady, who hates Mirabell and wants her own nephew, Sir Wilful, to marry Millamant.

Other characters include Fainall who is having a secret affair with Mrs. Marwood, a friend of Mrs. Fainall's, who in turn once had an affair with Mirabell.

Waitwell is Mirabell's servant and is married to Foible, Lady Wishfort's servant. Waitwell pretends to be Sir Rowland and, on Mirabell's command, tries to trick Lady Wishfort into a false engagement.

Plot

Act 1 is set in a chocolate house where Mirabell and Fainall have just finished playing cards. A footman comes and tells Mirabell that Waitwell (Mirabell's male servant) and Foible (Lady Wishfort’s female servant) were married that morning. Mirabell tells Fainall about his love of Millamant and is encouraged to marry her. Witwoud and Petulant appear and Mirabell is informed that should Lady Wishfort marry, he will lose £6000 of Millamant’s inheritance. He will only get this money if he can make Lady Wishfort consent to his and Millamant’s marriage.

Act 2 is set in St. James’ Park. Mrs. Fainall and Mrs. Marwood are discussing their hatred of men. Fainall appears and accuses Mrs. Marwood (with whom he is having an affair) of loving Mirabell (which she does). Meanwhile, Mrs. Fainall (having previously been his lover) tells Mirabell that she hates her husband, and they begin to plot about tricking Lady Wishfort to give her consent to the marriage. Millamant appears in the park, and angry about the previous night (where Mirabell was confronted by Lady Wishfort) she lets him know her displeasure in Mirabell’s plan, which she only has a vague idea about. After she leaves, the newly wed servants appear and Mirabell reminds them of their roles in the plan.

Acts 3, 4 and 5 are all set in the home of Lady Wishfort. We are introduced to Lady Wishfort who is encouraged to marry ‘Sir Rowland’ – Mirabell’s supposed uncle – by Foible so that Mirabell will lose his inheritance. Sir Rowland is however Waitwell in disguise, the plan being to arrange a marriage with Lady Wishfort, which cannot go ahead because it would be bigamy, not to mention a social disgrace (Waitwell is only a serving man, Lady Wishfort an aristocrat). Mirabell will offer to help her out of the embarrassing situation if she consents to his marriage. Later, Mrs. Fainall discusses this plan with Foible, but this is overheard by Mrs. Marwood. She later tells the plan to Fainall, who decides that he will take his wife’s money and go away with Mrs. Marwood.

Mirabell and Millament, equally strong-willed, discuss in detail the conditions under which they would accept each other in marriage, showing the depth of feeling for each other. Mirabell finally proposes to Millamant and, with Mrs. Fainall’s encouragement (almost consent, as Millamant knows of their previous relations), Millamant accepts. Mirabell leaves as Lady Wishfort arrives, and she lets it be known that she wants Millamant to marry her nephew, Sir Wilful, who has just arrived from the countryside. Lady Wishfort later gets a letter telling her about the Sir Rowland plot. Sir Rowland takes the letter and blames Mirabell of trying to sabotage their wedding. Lady Wishfort agrees to let Sir Rowland bring a marriage contract that night.

By Act 5, Lady Wishfort has found out the plot, and Fainall has had Waitwell arrested. Mrs. Fainall tells Foible that her previous affair with Mirabell is now public knowledge. Lady Wishfort appears with Mrs. Marwood, whom she’s thanking for unveiling the plot. Fainall then appears and uses the information of Mrs. Fainall’s previous affair with Mirabell and Millamant's contract to marry him to blackmail Lady Wishfort, telling that she should never marry and that she is to transfer all the money over to him. Lady Wishfort tells Mirabell that she will offer consent to the marriage if he can save her fortune and honor. Mirabell calls on Waitwell who brings a contract from the time before the marriage of the Fainalls in which Mrs. Fainall gives all her property to Mirabell. This neutralises the blackmail attempts, after which Mirabell restores Mrs. Fainall’s property to her possession and then is free to marry Millamant with the full £6000 inheritance.

Epigraph of the 1700 edition

Facsimile of the original title page for The Way of the World published in 1700

The epigraph found on the title page of the 1700 edition of The Way of the World contains two Latin quotations from Horace's Satires. In their wider contexts they read in English:

  1. "It is worthwhile, for those of you who wish adulterers no success, to hear how much misfortune they suffer, and how often their pleasure is marred by pain and, though rarely achieved, even then fraught with danger."
  2. "I have no fear in her company that a husband may rush back from the country, the door burst open, the dog bark, the house shake with the din, the woman, deathly pale, leap from her bed, her complicit maid shriek, she fearing for her limbs, her guilty mistress for her dowry and I for myself."

The quotations offer a fore-warning of the chaos to ensue from both infidelity and deception.

Historical context

In 1700, the world of London theatre-going had changed significantly from the days of, for example, The Country Wife. Charles II was no longer on the throne, and the jubilant court that revelled in its licentiousness and opulence had been replaced by the far more dour and utilitarian Dutch-inspired court of William of Orange. His wife, Mary II, was, long before her death, a retiring person who did not appear much in public. William himself was a military king who was reported to be hostile to drama. The political instabilities that had been beneath the surface of many Restoration comedies were still present, but with a different side seeming victorious.

One of the features of a Restoration comedy is the opposition of the witty and courtly (and Cavalier) rake and the dull-witted man of business or the country bumpkin, who is understood to be not only unsophisticated but often (as, for instance, in the very popular plays of Aphra Behn in the 1670s) either Puritan or another form of dissenter. In 1685, the courtly and Cavalier side was in power, and Restoration comedies belittled the bland and foolish losers of the Restoration. However, by 1700, the other side was ascendant. Therefore, The Way of the World's recreation of the older Restoration comedy's patterns is only one of the things that made the play unusual.

The 1688 revolution concerning the overthrow of James II created a new set of social codes primarily amongst the bourgeoisie. The new capitalist system meant an increasing emphasis on property and property law. Thus, the play is packed with legal jargon and financial and marital contracts. These new legal aspects allow characters like Mrs. Fainall to secure her freedom through an equitable trust and for Mirabell and Millamant's marriage to be equal though a prenuptial agreement.

This shift in social perspectives is perhaps best shown in the characters of Fainall and Mirabell, who represent respectively the old form and new form of marital relations: sexual power at first and then developing into material power.

Further points of consideration

Several aspects of the play give rise to critical discussion:

  1. The love expressed in the play tends to be centered on material gain rather than the love of the partner. This can be seen in the scene where Millamant and Mirabell effectively carry out a pre-nuptial agreement, Millamant insisting on having all manner of liberties and powers, quite unusual for the time.
  2. None of the characters in the play can really be seen as 'good', and as such it is difficult to find a hero or heroine, or indeed anybody whom one would find deserving of sympathy.
  3. Although often regarded as a satire on the lives of the idle-classes in 1700, it is worth considering that the play itself might simply be constructed from this.

References

  • Congreve, William (2000). The Way of the World. London, England: A & C Black Limited.

External links

  1. The Way of the World at Project Gutenberg .
  2. The Way of the World at the Internet Broadway Database
  3. Oxford Playhouse Review of The Way of the World on the BBC website.
  4. Daily Info review of the play.

Source material

Up to date as of January 22, 2010

From Wikisource

The Way of the World
by William Congreve
The Way of the World is a play premiering in 1700 widely regarded as being one of the best Restoration comedies written and is still performed sporadically to this day.
Excerpted from The Way of the World on Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
Facsimile of the original title page of The Way of the World
THE

WAY OF THE WORLD,
A
COMEDY.


As it is ACTED
AT THE
Theater in Lincoln's-Inn-Fields,
BY

His Majeſty's Servants.



Written by: MR. CONGREVE


Audire est operae pretium, prcedere recte
Qui maechis non vultis— —HOR. Sat. i. 2, 37.
—Metuat doti deprenſa.— —Ibid.

LONDON:
Printed for Jacob Tonſon, within Gray's-Inn-Gate next
Gray's-Inn-Lane. 1700.

Contents

The Way of the World

PD-icon.svg This work published before January 1, 1923 is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.







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