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 Its studied cynicism felt out of date.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

The Plain Dealer by William Wycherley (1676)

‘I’ll have no leading-strings; I can walk alone: I hate a harness’
(Manly in The Plain Dealer, Act One)

William Wycherley wrote four comedies during the Restoration era. The Plain Dealer is the fourth and final one and is generally thought to be the best. It is a free adaptation of The Misanthrope (1666), one of the best-known plays of the French dramatist Moliere (1622 – 1673).

The protagonist, Manly, is a sea captain now returned to shore. His ship sank (he is said to have scuttled it after being trapped by Dutch enemy ships) and now he is back on land in lodgings. In any case, he only went to sea to get away from people, who he loathes:

You must pardon me, I cannot wish well to pimps, flatterers, detractors, and cowards, stiff nodding knaves, and supple, pliant, kissing fools

Manly prides himself on his plain-speaking and plain-dealing – in stark contrast to the society around him which he thinks is made up of fawning, lying hypocrites.

What, thou art one of those who esteem men only by the marks and value fortune has set upon ’em, and never consider intrinsic worth! but counterfeit honour will not be current with me: I weigh the man, not his title

Inevitably, his boasted plain dealing strikes others as rudeness and cruelty.

Manly has a friend or confidante, Freeman, who is the auditor of his extended soliloquies about society’s hypocrisies. Freeman is ‘a gentleman well educated, but of a broken fortune, a complier with the age’. I like that description, a complier with the age. Am I a complier with my age, I wonder.

In fact, Manly brusquely tells Freeman that the latter is not his friend; he (Manly) has only one friend, one true deep friend (and even as he says this, the reader suspects that this ‘friend’ is fated to betray him).

Manly is in love with Olivia, a wealthy woman who is tough and misanthropic in her own right. He is so confident of her love he has deposited with her some £6,000 of his fortune including a pile of jewels.

Olivia, also, purports to hate ‘the filthy world’. She has a cousin, Eliza, who is her confidante i.e. who she can confide in, and who is a sarcastic, ironic foil to her, in their first scene together listening to Olivia’s long description of how she despises the world and then, when Novel visits, embarrassingly proving that she is in fact an expert at all the hypocritical practices she has just condemned (gossiping, criticising etc).

OLIVIA: Hold, cousin, hold; I hate detraction. But I must tell you, cousin, his civility is cowardice, his good-nature want of wit; and he has neither courage nor sense to rail: and for his being always in humour, ’tis because he is never dissatisfied with himself.

Manly is beloved by Fidelia, who dressed up as a man to serve aboard his ship, won his trust and now, back on land, continues to dress as a man, all the time professing her love for Manly, declaring in an aside to the audience that she owes him her:

 love, faith, and duty to you, the bravest, worthiest of mankind

Then there’s a flotilla of secondary, comic characters, including a couple of sailors who sailed with Manly and now do him the office of doormen or bouncers, tasked with keeping all his callers at bay, plus:

  • Novel – ‘a pert railing Coxcomb, and an admirer of novelties’ who tries to woo Olivia
  • Major Oldfox – ‘an old impertinent Fop, given to scribbling’, who is wooing Widow Blackacre
  • Lord Plausible – ‘a ceremonious, supple, commending Coxcomb, in love with Olivia’
  • Widow Blackacre – ‘a petulant, litigious Widow, always in law, and Mother of Squire Jerry’
  • Squite Jerry – feeble, hen-pecked son of the Widow Blackacre

The scenes with Novel and Plausible are particularly funny. As the play progresses, so do the complications.

Act 2 starts with Olivia explaining at length how she also despises society, and rejects company and visits, to her foil Eliza. Which makes it funny when she is promptly paid lots of visits – by the dandies and fops, Novel and Lord Plausible, and indulges in the very kind of catty gossip she has just criticised to Eliza.

Half-way through this scene Manly, Freeman and Fidelia arrive and, from a secret vantage point (one of the conventions of Restoration comedy) watch Olivia consorting with the fops. Manly overhears Olivia criticising him, a tone she continues once they’ve fully walked onstage and announced their presence. In fact Manly’s arrival prompts Olivia to make the shock declaration that she is married, a revelation which staggers all Manly’s hopes.

MANLY: I wish I never had seen you.

Olivia tells the assembled cast that she is married to an honourable gentleman and I, for one, immediately suspected this will be none other than ‘the one man’ Manly esteems as friend.

Manly and Olivia part with vehement curses of each other. But, during the visit, Olivia has taken a fancy to young Fidelia, dressed as a man, who was accompanying Manly.

When Lady Blackacre is announced, Freeman declares he will stay and woo her, impossible though she is, in order to inherit her money and to pay off his own debtors. Freeman’s bare-faced attempt to chat the Widow up turns into a comic scene as he competes with Lady Blackacre’s constant companion, a dried-up older man, Major Oldfox, who mostly exists to provide a comic foil to Freeman. The scene morphs into a parody of a courtroom confrontation, with either side flinging legalistic accusations at each other in order to prove their ’cause’, i.e. the widow’s hand and money.

The Widow is given a magnificent series of imaginative, long insults which match Falstaff at his finest:

WIDOW BLACKACRE: Thou withered, hobbling, distorted cripple; nay, thou art a cripple all over: wouldst thou make me the staff of thy age, the crutch of thy decrepidness?

Act III Westminster Hall Manly has been summonsed there to be a witness in Lady Blackacre’s law suit. There is a touch of Jarndyce and Jarndyce about a character entirely consumed by one never-ending law suit, and it gives Manly and Freeman the opportunity for conventional criticisms of the law and lawyers.

Enter Fidelia who says she’ll do anything for him, so Manly asks her to go and win back Olivia on his behalf. Obviously, Fidelia is appalled at being given a task which runs directly counter to her own wishes.

Enter Widow Blackacre surrounded by a flock of cavilling lawyers named Blunder, Quaint and Petulant, Buttongown and Splitcause, Quillit and Quirk. When the Widow exits, Freeman takes the opportunity to chat up her poor, put-upon son, Jerry, lending him money to buy a book, encouraging his hopes.

FREEMAN: Steal away the calf, and the cow will follow you.

To which the fabulous Widow replies:

WIDOW: What sir, d’ye think to get the mother by giving the child a rattle?

Anyway, Freeman arranges for one of Manly’s sailor-servants to pinch the Widow’s bags full of years of legal papers which she had left with Jerry to guard. When Jerry re-enter to say they’re all gone, the Widow is distraught, Jerry is mortified, and Freeman gets the sailor-servant to drag Jerry off to Manly’s apartments. I smell a scam!

Manly re-enters and tells Freeman that he has managed to get into three lawsuits already, just by candidly telling some lawyers and a poet what he thinks of them, before going on to dispense with a suite of other characters, Oldfox, various lawyers, an aldermen and a City merchant with withering humour, commented on by Freeman. You realise it is a deliberate gallery of London types, of men of the world – all of them fawning cheats, in Manly’s opinion.

Act IV Scene 1 Manly’s lodging: Dialogue between Manly and Fidelia (still dressed as a man). He hopes she has come back from Olivia’s to say she won her round to his cause. Instead Fidelia says the diametric opposite, that Olivia extravagantly insulted Manly and then took her (Fidelia) in her arms and showered her with kisses and would have done more but they were interrupted, and Olivia begged her to return for an assignation.

Manly leaps to the conclusion that Fidelia is in love with Olivia, and has made the story of her abusing him up and begins attacking her.

Freeman enters and joins in a philosophical trio about Love. Then the Widow Blackacre and Major Oldfox enter. Oldfox has penned some poetry to the Widow but she comically counters with her writs and lawyer’s letters, her preferred genre of writing.

Then Freeman enters with Jerry: he has successfully corrupted the boy, who now wants to escape his mother’s apron strings and live the London life of theatres, pubs and brothels. In a confrontation the boy demands his right to a life of his own (backed up by Freeman) – but the Widow reveals that Jerry was born out of wedlock, is a bastard and so shall not inherit her jointure

Jointures crop a lot. A jointure is: ‘an estate settled on a wife for the period during which she survives her husband, in lien of a dower.’

Act IV Scene 2 Olivia’s lodging: Novel and Lord Plausible compete with each other, claiming Olivia is vowed to them. Her servant gives them each identical letters, stating she despises their rival and loves only them… except that they swap and read them out loud and realise she is tricking both of them.They leave. Olivia enters, dispenses with her serving boy and prepares to meet Fidelia in the dark, as she had earlier arranged. Except that in the darkness a new character named Vernish arrives and embraces her, Olivia enthusiastically responding. He is, we discover, her husband!

After Olivia cleverly covers her initial mistake thinking of thinking Vernish was her secret lover, we learn that Vernish has been out of town five days; it is during that time that Manly rearrived in town i.e. after encountering the Dutch in the Channel, sinking his ship and making it back to shore; and that Olivia and Vernish have deliberately conned Manly out of his money, she persuading Manly to give her his £6,000 while he appears to have given Vernish some £1,000 guineas to be held at a goldsmith’s.

They now plan to be so cruel to Manly as to encourage him back to sea where, hopefully, he will drown. Vernish goes. Olivia soliloquises, making it clear she plans to swindle him, as well.

Enter Fidelia (still dressed as a man) trailed at a distance by Manly. Olivia instantly starts kissing her but when Fidelia asks about Manly, Olivia is crushingly honest, saying she never loved the brute, only wanted him for his money – which Manly, in hiding, hears.

Olivia says she’ll just pop into the other chamber and lock the doors. This gives Manly and Fidelia time to discuss Olivia’s treachery. Manly is initially for murdering her, which Fidelia talks him out of, but then comes round to a more savage revenge, and slips into the darkened room after Olivia, presumably to ravage her pretending to be Fidelia.

But just moments later he slips out of the room again and says his savage revenge would be pointless if no-one witnesses it. Therefore he tells Fidelia to tell Olivia that she (Fidelia) has to leave, but will return same time tomorrow night. By which time Manly will have set up his scam.

Olivia returns and Fidelia successfully feigns illness (‘the falling sickness’) and so says she must leave – but promises to return tomorrow night. But she has no sooner exited than she hurries back onstage saying a man is coming up the stairs with a candle. ‘Tis Vernish! Olivia disappears into the inner room – but Vernish catches Fidelia, thinking she is a male adulterer, draws his sword and threatens to stab her.

At which point Fidelia confesses she is a woman. Vernish pulls off her wig then squeezes her breasts. Yes, she is a woman! Still angry and puzzled, Vernish says he’ll have one final proof that Fidelia is a woman and drags her towards the bedroom, obviously to **** her. Fidelia starts screaming.

At which point a servant enters to tell Vernish that an alderman has sent his ‘cashier’ round with some money he had promised money, and the servant is is even now coming up the stairs. Forced to abandon his attempt at ravishment, Vernish gets the servant to help him push Fidelia into an adjoining room and lock the door.

Act V scene 1 Eliza’s lodgings Eliza is just telling Olivia off for the bad reputation she’s acquired when enter Vernish who promptly tells Olivia off for consorting with a woman dressed in men’s clothes.

Olivia is greatly confused, thinking Fidelia must have persuaded Vernish that ‘he’ is a woman. Then it begins to dawn on her that Vernish might be telling the truth, that Fidelia might be a woman in disguise!

Either way, Vernish lets slip that he terrified the girl by pretending he was going to ravish her – at which point Olivia finds an opportunity to accuse Vernish of being a heartless ravisher, and in the first month of their marriage, too!

So Vernish finds himself having to apologise and gives Olivia 200 of the guineas he has just received from the cashier. He then asks Eliza to accompany i.e. take Olivia home. Vernish leaves, at which point Eliza teases Olivia about this woman dressed as a man who was no doubt the lover and gallant Olivia was boasting about, and this turns into an almighty argument, with both women ending up damning each other.

Act V Scene 2 The Cock pub in Bow Street Fidelia is back in her costume as a man explaining to Manly how s/he managed to persuade Vernish that s/he was a woman. Manly is now desperate to know what Olivia’s husband looks like, but Fidelia didn’t get a clear view (the room was darkened). So in a bid to find out, Manly insists that Fidelia send a note telling Olivia she will visit again, tonight, at seven.

Enter Freeman who asks Manly why, now that he’s poor (he gave Olivia all his money), he doesn’t call on old friends and old obligations. This is a prompt for Manly to give an extended explanation of his misanthropy.

Disappointed in Manly, Freeman leaves to carry on his schemes re. the Widow Blackacre.

Enter Vernish to meet Manly amid a great display of enthusiasm and, sure enough, he does turn out to be the One Good Friend In The World Manly thinks he has while the audience, of course, knows Vernish is gulling and robbing him.

The conversation turns immediately to Olivia and Vernish joins in hypocritically damning her for a mercenary… Until Manly claims to have slept with her, at which point Vernish (who we know is Olivia’s ‘secret’ husband becomes genuinely angry. Manly sends him, as his best friend, to ask if Olivia will give him even a little of his money back.

The buzzing fops, Novel, Lord Plausible and Oldfox barge into Manly’s room, leading to comedy at their pretensions and foibles, namely stupid Novel insisting it is a sign of great wit to make loud noises and break windows.

This is just business to pass the time during which Vernish is supposed to have gone and asked Olivia for some of Manley’s money. Now he re-enters the room, and Manly kicks the fops out. Vernish tells Manly that Olivia told him to go to hell.

Vernish is still uncertain whether Olivia’s slept with Manly or not but, in any case, in an aside, confesses he would gladly slit Manly’s throat. Some friend!

In a scene drenched in dramatic irony, Manly laughs with Vernish about what a poor, wretched cuckold Olivia’s husband must be, about how he has been sending a go-between to Olivia who persuaded the fool he was a woman, and how he – Manly – now has an appointment with Olivia, as the time is coming up to 7.30 at night.

Vernish is confused and angry, he’s sure Fidelia was a woman, why is Manly describing him as a man? (Because Manly doesn’t yet realise that Fidelia is a woman, that’s why.) Manly goes to keep his appointment and Vernish shares his bewilderment with us, his plan to catch them at it (whatever it is) and his abiding hatred of Manly. He is a genuinely bad man.

Cut to Manly arranging with Freeman for the latter to scour all the drinkers in the pub and bring them all to Olivia’s place in half an hour precisely. Manly wants as many people as possible to witness his humiliation of her.

Scene 3 another room in the Cock pub Widow Blackacre suborns some professional perjurers and lying witnesses she will need in her next court case.

She has barely finished and dispatched them before Major Oldfox appears with a waiter who overcomes the widow and ties her to her chair and gags her! Is Oldfox going to rape her? No. Worse! He is going to read her his poetry!!

But he hasn’t even started before Freeman, Jerry, three bailiffs a constable and his assistants all burst into the room. They untie the Widow, Oldfox scarpers, but they haven’t come for him, they’ve come to serve an enormous suit on the Widow for ten thousand pounds!

This has all been cooked up by Freeman who now tells the Widow there’s only one way out of it which is to marry him. But the Widow is a legal expert, and suggests instead that she pays all his debts and settle an annuity on him. Hmmm, Freeman throws in £40 a year for Jerry (and free access to the Widow’s maid’s bedroom) and it’s a deal. He has lawyers at hand to draw up a contract.

Scene 4 Olivia’s lodging Olivia has barely welcomed Fidelia (followed silently by Manly) into her darkened chambers and is leading her to the bed, than there are sounds at the door, which is locked and starts to be forced.

Panicking that it is her husband, Olivia tells Fidelia they’ll climb out the window down a rope made of curtain.

In the dark Olivia just has time to give Manly – thinking he is Fidelia – her purse and cabinet (presumably containing all the money she took from Manly) and disappear out the window, before Vernish forces the door and charges at Manly with his sword out.

In the pitch black, Manly unswords Vernish and throws him to the floor, Olivia returns and embraces Manly thinking him Fidelia, at which point Freeman, Novel, Plausible, Jerry and Widow Blackacre all barge in carrying torches.

So it is finally revealed that Vernish, pinned to the floor – Manly’s best friend – is Olivia’s husband. Manly is appalled.

In the struggles Fidelia’s wig has fallen off and she is revealed as a woman! She makes a speech about how she has loyally loved and followed Manly everywhere. Realising the depth of her loyalty, Manly pledges his love to her, too, and gives her the cabinet and purse.

Olivia and Vernish exit after being admonished, and now condemned to live as faithless man and wife in poverty.

Fidelia announces her family name is Grey and her father left her £2,000 a year. Money money money is always the ultimate subject of Restoration comedy.

The philosophy of Love

For thousands of years writers have been anatomising, categorising and philosophising about Love. Huge swathes of these Restoration comedies are devoted to this subject of apparently endless fascination and are stuffed with sweeping generalisations about men, women and Love.

MANLY: Why, what did you hear me say?
FREEMAN: Something imperfectly of love, I think.
MANLY: I was only wondering why fools, rascals, and desertless wretches, should still have the better of men of merit with all women, as much as with their own common mistress, Fortune.
FREEMAN: Because most women, like Fortune, are blind, seem to do all things in jest, and take pleasure in extravagant actions. Their love deserves neither thanks, nor blame, for they cannot help it: ’tis all sympathy; therefore, the noisy, the finical, the talkative, the cowardly, and effeminate, have the better of the brave, the reasonable, and man of honour; for they have no more reason in their love, or kindness, than Fortune herself.
MANLY: Yes, they have their reason. First, honour in a man they fear too much to love; and sense in a lover upbraids their want of it; and they hate anything that disturbs their admiration of themselves; but they are of that vain number, who had rather show their false generosity, in giving away profusely to worthless flatterers, than in paying just debts. And, in short, all women, like fortune (as you say) and rewards, are lost by too much meriting.

I find this stuff quite exhausting to read. It is tempting to skim over this eternal opinionising about men and women and Love in order to get to the plot, where people discuss actual events and plans and schemes, and where there is a lot more comedy.

Anti-women propaganda

  • MANLY: Yes; for she is not (I tell you) like other women, but can keep her promise
  • MANLY: for women’s wants are generally the most importunate solicitors to love or marriage.
  • OLIVIA: Well, we women, like the rest of the cheats of the world, when our cullies or creditors have found us out, and will or can trust no longer, pay debts and satisfy obligations with a quarrel, the kindest present a man can make to his mistress, when he can make no more presents.
  • FREEMAN: Well, you see now, mistresses, like friends, are lost by letting ’em handle your money; and most women are such kind of witches, who can have no power over a man, unless you give ’em money: but when once they have got any from you, they never leave you till they have all. Therefore I never give a woman a farthing.

Insulting servants

Olivia calls her servant, Lettice, ‘you dowdy’, ‘insatiable creature’, you buffle-headed stupid creature you’, and the boy who serves her ‘you little unthinking fop’, ‘you heedless little animal’ and so on. Manly curses his sailor-doormen as rogues

The Widow Blackacre

Is a quite marvellous comic creation. All the scenes with her come vividly to life. Her language is supercharged with vitriol and imaginative insult. She is a kind of female Falstaff, and a magnificent invention. Voltaire, himself a playwright, considered her ‘the most comical character that was ever brought upon the stage’ (Letters Concerning The English Nation, 1733).


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