The Way of The World by William Congreve (1700)

FAINALL: If it must all come out, why let ’em know it, ’tis but the way of the world.

From a historical point of view, the most interesting thing about The Way of The World is that it was not well received. It was an attempt to continue the Restoration comedy conventions of aristocratic libertinage into what had become, by 1700, a new world of mercantile, bourgeois respectability. Its studied cynicism felt out of date.

MIRABELL: 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.

To quote the excellent Wikipedia article:

The tolerance for Restoration comedy even in its modified form was running out at the end of the 17th century, as public opinion turned to respectability and seriousness even faster than the playwrights did. Interconnected causes for this shift in taste were demographic change, the Glorious Revolution of 1688, William’s and Mary’s dislike of the theatre, and the lawsuits brought against playwrights by the Society for the Reformation of Manners (founded in 1692). When Jeremy Collier attacked Congreve and Vanbrugh in his Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage in 1698, he was confirming a shift in audience taste that had already taken place. [The Short View is actually mentioned by name in The Way of the World, act 3, scene 2]. At the much-anticipated all-star première in 1700 of The Way of the World, Congreve’s first comedy for five years, the audience showed only moderate enthusiasm for that subtle and almost melancholy work. The comedy of sex and wit was about to be replaced by the drama of obvious sentiment and exemplary morality. (Restoration comedy Wikipedia article)

The cast

The names, as usual, include some comic inventions which immediately raise a smile e.g. Petulant, Foible and Mincing. But the profiles are thin compared to some other cast lists I’ve read.

THE MEN
Fainall – in love with Mrs. Marwood
Mirabell – in love with Mrs. Millamant
Witwoud – follower of Mrs. Millamant
Petulant – follower of Mrs. Millamant
Sir Wilfull Witwoud – half brother to Witwoud, and nephew to Lady Wishfort
Waitwell – servant to Mirabell

THE WOMEN
Lady Wishfort – enemy to Mirabell, for having falsely pretended love to her
Mrs. Millamant – a fine lady, niece to Lady Wishfort, and loves Mirabell
Mrs. Marwood – friend to Mr. Fainall, and likes Mirabell
Mrs. Fainall – daughter to Lady Wishfort, and wife to Fainall, formerly friend to Mirabell
Foible – woman to Lady Wishfort
Mincing – woman to Mrs. Millamant

Overall plot summary

Mirabell and Mrs Millamant are in love. Mrs Millamant’s vain aunt and guardian, old (55) Lady Wishfort, is preventing their marriage as revenge on Mirabell for having pretended to be in love with her. Mrs Millamant is set to inherit a fortune from old Lady Wishfort, so long as she marries with that lady’s approval. Mrs Millamant loves Mirabell but pretends not to.

Mrs Millamant is also wooed by two silly lovers, Witwoud and Petulant, who cordially dislike each other and are the butt of countless jokes by the much cleverer Mirabell and Fainall.

Mirabell devises a plot (‘a matter of some sort of mirth’) to embarrass Lady Wishfort, who is eager to get a husband. Mirabell persuades his servant, Waitwell, to dress up as his uncle, Sir Rowland, and woo Lady Wishfort. (Waitwell has been married that day to Lady Wishfort’s waiting woman, Foible.) Mirabell hopes that when Lady Wishfort realizes how foolish she has been in a) nearly committing bigamy b) the social disgrace of being wooed by a servant – that she will give permission for the marriage of Mirabell and Mrs Millamant – and also part with the fortune she controls.

Money, as always, is a key element to the plot.

This is the main plot. There are other characters and incidents involving marriage and money. Lady Wishfort’s daughter is married to Fainall, Mirabell’s confidant and sidekick. Fainall, besides sparking off Mirabell, is having an affair with Mrs. Marwood.

Also dominating sections of the play is the sub-plot about the prospective husband who Lady Wishfort has selected for Mrs Millamant, namely her nephew Sir Wilfull Witwoud (half-brother to the other Witwoud).

There are other admirers of both Mirabell and Mrs Millamant. Possibly the least sympathetic character is Mr. Fainall, son-in-law of Lady Wishfort and lover of Mrs. Marwood, who goes from being Mirabell’s ‘friend’ to becoming his bitter vengeful enemy.

More detailed plot summary

Act 1 A chocolate house 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 Mrs Millamant, Fainall explains the ladies love meeting in a women-only ‘cabal’.

Witwoud appears and demonstrates what a fool he is:

WITWOUD: My dear, I ask ten thousand pardons. Gad, I have forgot what I was going to say to you.

Our heroes get Witwoud to insult his supposed friend, Petulant, in his absence. He reveals the extraordinary fact that Petulant sometimes arranges for himself to be ‘called’ by friends when he’s in a pub, so as to appear popular. Then Petulant appears and there is more comic business, but not before Petulant has announced he hears that Mirabell’s uncle, Sir Rowland, has arrived in town.

Witwoud and Petulant announce they will go for a stroll round St James’s Park and Mirabell draws out the uncouthness of their manners; they think being rude and coarse enough to gentlewomen to make them blush is an achievement, what they call being severe.

Act 2 St. James’ Park Mrs. Fainall and Mrs. Marwood are discussing their hatred of men. Fainall and Mirabell appear and while Mrs F and Mirabell walk ahead, Fainall accuses Mrs. Marwood (with whom he is having an affair) of loving Mirabell (which she does). They have a terrific argument, with her threatening to tell everyone and his wife that they’ve been having an affair – leading her to burst into tears and he to apologise profusely. Not very funny.

Continuing the theme of unhappy marriage, Mrs. Fainall (Mirabell’s former lover) tells Mirabell that she hates her husband, Fainall, and then they begin to plot to deceive Lady Wishfort into giving her consent to the marriage.

MRS. FAINALL: So, if my poor mother is caught in a contract, you will discover the imposture betimes, and release her by producing a certificate of her gallant’s former marriage.
MIRABELL: Yes, upon condition that she consent to my marriage with her niece, and surrender the moiety of her fortune in her possession.

Enter Mrs Millamant accompanied by the fool, Witwoud, and her servant, Mincing. Some funny lines:

WITWOUD: I confess I do blaze to-day; I am too bright.

and:

WITWOUD: Pray, madam, do you pin up your hair with all your letters? I find I must keep copies.
MILLAMENT: Only with those in verse, Mr. Witwoud. I never pin up my hair with prose. I think I tried once.
MINCING (her maid): O mem, I shall never forget it.

Mrs Millament is very angry and cynical about mankind, love etc. She perplexes Mirabell with a parting shot that she knows about his ‘plan’. How the devil does she know that?

Enter the newly-wed servants Waitwell and Foible. Congreve does write funny lines:

MIRABELL: Waitwell, why, sure, you think you were married for your own recreation and not for my conveniency!

Mirabell reminds them of their roles in the plan, namely Foible will tell Lady Wishfort that Mirabell’s rich uncle, Sir Rowland, has arrived in town, and Waitwell will then dress in disguise and pretend to be Sir Rowland.

Act 3 Lady Wishfort’s house We’ve had to wait till the third act to meet the ogre, Lady Wishfort. We are introduced in a comic scene with Lady Wishfort and the maid, Foible, who struggles to manage her hair, her makeup (and her booze). Foible exits while Lady Wishfort talks to Mrs Marwood, who mentions she saw Foible just now in St James Park with Mirabell.

Foible returns and commences the Mirabell’s plan – telling Lady Wishfort that the newly-arrived Sir Rowland is interested in her. Lady Wishfort brings up the matter of Foible being seen with Mirabell but Foible thinks quickly on her feet and says Mirabell was calling Wishfort a super-annuated old so-and-so which so infuriates Lady Wishfort that she ceases to be suspicious. Then regrets frowning and raging, has her makeup been affected? Foible has a funny line:

FOIBLE: Your ladyship has frowned a little too rashly, indeed, madam. There are some cracks discernible in the white varnish.
LADY WISHFORT: Let me see the glass. Cracks, say’st thou? Why, I am arrantly flayed: I look like an old peeled wall. Thou must repair me, Foible, before Sir Rowland comes.

Exit Lady Wishfort and enter Mrs Fainall who reveals to Foible that she knows about the whole plan. They both depart but they have been overheard in turn by Mrs Marwood, who now knows about the scheme and the parts everyone is playing.

Mrs Marwood and Mrs MIllamant both lie to each other about how much they hate men and Mirabell in particular.

MRS. MARWOOD: I detest him, hate him, madam.
MRS MILLAMANT: O madam, why, so do I.  And yet the creature loves me, ha, ha, ha!  How can one forbear laughing to think of it?

Sir Wilful Witwoud arrives, a booming 40-year-old countryman who embarrasses his would-be foppish brother and ridicules his foppish appearance and speech.

WITWOUD: Why, brother Wilfull of Salop, you may be as short as a Shrewsbury cake, if you please. But I tell you ’tis not modish to know relations in town. You think you’re in the country, where great lubberly brothers slabber and kiss one another when they meet, like a call of sergeants. ’Tis not the fashion here; ’tis not, indeed, dear brother.

Mrs Marwood has told The Plan to Fainall as well as the fact that Mrs Fainall was once Mirabell’s mistress. He is doubly angry at his ‘friend’ a) for cuckolding him b) if Mirabell marries Mrs Millamant, Fainall’s wife will be deprived of Lady Wishfort’s legacy, and so Fainall will be worse off. (I think.)

Fainall rants against his wife, declares he never loved her, tells Mrs. Marwood he’ll get his wife’s money and go off with her (Mrs M). He kisses Mrs Marwood.

Act 4 Mirabell and Mrs Millamant discuss in detail the conditions under which they would accept each other in marriage. This has become known as The Proviso Scene and a) the frankness with which they discuss marriage as a business arrangement and b) the equality with which they do so i.e. the man isn’t dictating to the woman, they both approach the negotiation as equals, has meant the scene is referenced not only in books about Restoration comedy, but is often referenced in social histories of the period.

In fact during the scene they also reveal their the depth of feeling for each other. The scene leads up to Mirabell finally proposing to Mrs Millamant and, with Mrs. Fainall’s encouragement (almost consent, as Mrs Millamant knows of Mirabell’s and Mrs F’s previous relationship), Mrs Millamant accepts.

Mirabell leaves as Lady Wishfort arrives. She is flustered by all these people arriving at her house, including Sir Wilfull Witwoud, and she wonders how to receive him. Witwoud and Petulant reel in having got drunk with the country cousin. Sir Wilfull is carrying on getting very drunk and, according to Mrs Millamant, stinks (‘He has a breath like a bagpipe’).

Drunk Sir Wilfull is led away in time for Lady Wishfort to receive the pretended Sir Rowland who is, of course, Mirabell’s servant in a disguise. He pretends to be a brave braggadochio and when he hears that Mirabell has in a little way been wooing Lady W, he threatens to draw his sword and run him through!

The scene is notable for the way Lady Wishfort uses comically elaborate diction and Sir Rowland is bombastic.

LADY WISHFORT: No, don’t kill him at once, Sir Rowland: starve him gradually, inch by inch.
WAITWELL: I’ll do’t. In three weeks he shall be barefoot; in a month out at knees with begging an alms; he shall starve upward and upward, ’till he has nothing living but his head, and then go out in a stink like a candle’s end upon a save-all.
LADY WISHFORT: Well, Sir Rowland, you have the way,—you are no novice in the labyrinth of love,—you have the clue.  But as I am a person, Sir Rowland, you must not attribute my yielding to any sinister appetite or indigestion of widowhood; nor impute my complacency to any lethargy of continence.  I hope you do not think me prone to any iteration of nuptials?

This leads into a clever comic sequence: Sir Rowland has just begun wooing Lady Wishfort when a letter arrives from Mrs Marwood which Lady Wishfort starts reading aloud – and it explains that the man claiming to be Sir Rowland is an imposter!

Waitwell/Sir Rowland panics but his wife (and Lady Wishfort’s maid) Foible, tells him to seize the letter and face down the situation – so Waitwell/Sir Rowland seizes the letter from Lady Wishfort in mid-reading, and claims it is a hoax sent by Mirabell, a vain attempt to discredit Sir Rowland and retain his legacy, and – still in character – Waitwell/Rowland threatens to cut his throat, damn his eyes etc, and storms out to get a marriage contract for himself and Lady Wishfort to be married that night.

The interaction of the three, and especially Foible’s whispered asides to Waitwell, and then her spoken and feigned shock to Lady Wishfort, are all very funny. Incidentally an example of a woman (Foible) being far more quick-witted and clever than her man (Waitwell).

Act 5 There’s a sudden jump in the plot. Somehow Lady Wishfort has found out about The Plan and the act opens with her furiously denouncing Foible for her part in it and threatening to send her back to the slums where she found her.

And in fact she is entirely justified in being furious at discovering that her own pampered servant was exploiting her and exposing her to ridicule.

Lady Wishfort exits and Foible explains everything to Mrs Fainall i.e. Mrs Marwood revealed The Plan to Lady Wishfort who has sent to have Waitwell arrested. It was Mrs Marwood who revealed to Mrs Fainall that Mrs Fainall had once been unfaithful with Mirabell. But in this conversation, Foible also reveals that the servants once caught Mrs Marwood in a night of passion with Mirabell. Aha!

Enter Lady Wishfort with Mrs. Marwood, whom she thanks for unveiling the plot, but Mrs Fainall argues fiercely that she is not guilty and not to blame. There is an extended passage where Lady Wishfort describes Mrs Fainall’s childhood and how they took extreme care to make sure she was never exposed to boys or men or any kind of temptation (the theatre etc). I didn’t quite understand what it is Mrs Fainall is supposed to have done which is so ruinous: is it to have had some kind of fling with Meribell?

Enter Fainall who uses the information of Mrs. Fainall’s previous affair with Mirabell, and Mrs Millamant’s contract to marry Mirabell, to blackmail Lady Wishfort. Mr Fainall orders Lady Wishfort that a) she is forbidden to marry b) her daughter i.e. Mrs Fainall, shall immediately make over to him the remainder of her fortune.

MR FAINALL: Lastly, I will be endowed, in right of my wife, with that six thousand pound, which is the moiety of Mrs. Millamant’s fortune in your possession, and which she has forfeited (as will appear by the last will and testament of your deceased husband, Sir Jonathan Wishfort) by her disobedience in contracting herself against your consent or knowledge, and by refusing the offered match with Sir Wilfull Witwoud, which you, like a careful aunt, had provided for her.

Fainall exits to give Lady Wishfort time to consider his demands.

Enter Mrs Millamant who declares that she has heard that The Plot is revealed, apologises for her part in it and is ready to marry Sir Wilfull. They call in Mirabell who throws himself at Lady Wishfort’s feet and abjectly asks, not even for forgiveness, but for Pity.

Re-enter Fainall still insisting on his demands; the blackmail threat is otherwise he will tell all the town about Mrs Fainall’s infidelity. But Lady Wishfort has been a little touched by Meribell’s pleading (and so has drunk Sir Wilfull who threatens to draw his sword and chop up Fainall’s document.)

At this critical juncture, Mirabell hints that he might have a way of saving Lady Wishfort’s fortune and her daughter’s reputation. Lady Wishfort says she’ll give anything, anything for that to happen; even the hand of Mrs Millamant in marriage.

Mirabell then presents two witnesses. First Mincing and then Foible confirm that Mrs Marwood is in love with Fainall, and that they conspired this whole thing together, Mincing adding that they found them in bed together. But this doesn’t address the main point – it discredits the pair but is no solution.

Then Mirabell presents his second trick. Waitwell brings in a black box which contains a legal document, witnessed by Witwoud and Petulant, whereby Mrs Fainall, while she was still a widow and before she married Fainall, signed “A Deed of Conveyance of the whole estate real of Arabella Languish, widow in trust to Edward Mirabell“.

In other words – it is not in Lady Wishfort’s power to give her daughter’s money to Mr Fainall, it is already legally pledged to Mirabell – and so Fainall’s blackmail scheme collapses!

He makes a rush as if to attack Mrs Fainall, but bold Sir Wilfull steps between. Fainall and Mrs Marwood depart, utterly crushed and vowing revenge.

MRS. FAINALL: Thank Mr. Mirabell, a cautious friend, to whose advice all is owing.

Lady Wishfort forgives her maid, Foible, and Mirabell’s servant Waitwell. And Mirabell is thanked by getting the hand in marriage of Mrs Millamant and the full £12,000 inheritance.

The way of the world

Congreve sprinkles references to the title throughout the text, using various incidents in the play to justify it.

FAINALL: Why, then, Foible’s a bawd, an errant, rank match-making bawd. And I, it seems, am a husband, a rank husband, and my wife a very errant, rank wife,—all in the way of the world.

FAINALL: If it must all come out, why let ’em know it, ’tis but the way of the world.

FAINALL: Very likely, sir.  What’s here?  Damnation!  [Reads] ‘A Deed of Conveyance of the whole estate real of Arabella Languish, widow, in trust to Edward Mirabel’l. Confusion!
MIRABELL: Even so, sir: ’tis the way of the world, sir.

But things are not so just because a writer says so. The claim that the way of the world involves adultery and faithless spouses or the humiliating revelation of embarrassing secrets or the overthrow of all your plans in ‘confusion!’ is neither a proof nor a truth.

It is just a rhetorical reinforcement of the cynical worldview the Restoration comedies demanded. In a way, the more his characters claim that that kind of behaviour is ‘the way of the world’, the less it feels like it. The more it feels like the outdated worldview of a bygone era.

Conclusion

For some reason I liked this play. I warmed to the rural boisterousness of Sir Wilfull Witwoud, and the scene where Sir Rowland is found out is very well done. The squabbling between Witwoud and Petulant is mildly diverting. Lady Wishfort’s pretentious diction when being wooed by the fake Sir Rowland is funny.

The way the entire play revolves around one Great Plan gives it simplicity and purity. But there are, I think, two objections:

1. The Great Reversal in the last act shares the weakness of all Restoration comedies, that it feels contrived. Right at the very very end it turns out that the fate of almost everyone depends on that one legal document, the deed of conveyance, a deus ex machina, a rabbit pulled out of a hat.

In the theatre it may work well as a sudden and dramatic revelation – but as you go away and think about it, it is an extraordinary vision that an entire set of human lives and loves are made to hang on one legal document. And that Mirabell knew about it all along and didn’t tell anyone he had this one-stop solution!

The more you think about it, the more contrived and unsatisfactory this feels.

2. I can’t overcome a nagging sense that the characters are all unpleasant. Fainall is meant to be Mirabell’s friend but quickly becomes an unpleasant, exploitative enemy. Mrs Marwood is just a graceless Iago, a fount of hate. Lady Wishfort is a crabbed, pretentious old lady. Mrs Millamant, for me, never comes to life. Maybe part of the reason the Provision Scene is remembered is because it’s one of the few scenes where she comes to life. They’re just not a very likeable crew.

Restoration clichés

Restoration comedies are all stuffed with the same old cynical clichés about men, women, marriage, poets, fops, lovers, cuckolds, mistresses and so on. Rather than ‘the way of the world’, they present an endless iteration of a small number of ideas about a narrow range of persons. A few of them are given more than usually memorable expression in this play:

Men

MRS. FAINALL: Is it possible? Dost thou hate those vipers, men?
MRS. MARWOOD: I have done hating ’em, and am now come to despise ’em; the next thing I have to do is eternally to forget ’em.

The country

MRS MILLAMANT: I nauseate walking: ’tis a country diversion; I loathe the country and everything that relates to it.


Related links

Reviews of other Restoration plays

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