March 4, 2017
The Premier of The Way of the World
The premier of what many consider the greatest comedy of manners in English theatre history occurred sometime in March of 1700 when William Congreve’s (1670-1729) The Way of the World first took the stage at Lincoln’s Inn Fields in London. It was to be the last of Congreve’s plays. After the poor initial reception Congreve abandoned theatre for more profitable ventures.
If you don’t remember the details of the plot, nobody can blame you. It’s complicated even by Restoration comedy standards. Here’s a short synopsis from Martin S. Day:
Lady Wishfort, in addition to her own estates, controls the property of Mrs. Fainall, her daughter, and Millamant, her niece. Mrs. Fainall’s former lover, Mirabell, is now interested in Millamant. Mirabell disguises his servant Waitwell (already married) as a nobleman, hoping for his marriage to Lady Wishfort. Then, on the threat of telling the world how he was duped, Mirabell can blackmail Lady Wishfort into giving him Millamant and her property.
Learning of his wife’s former relations with Mirabell, Fainall threatens full revelation unless all property is signed over to him. The sweethearts, Millamant and Mirabell, come to an agreement, but it appears that their fortunes are ruined. Mirabell, however, produces a deed from Mrs. Fainall before her marriage that conveys all her property to Mirabell. Triumphant in law and in the ways of the world, Mirabell is united to Millamant.
Maggie Smith with Jerermy Brett, “The Way of The World”, Stratford, Ontario, 1976.
Here is a short piece I wrote for Salem Press years ago about the physical world of The Way of the World:
William Congreve’s The Way of the World is the quintessential English comedy of manners. As such, the world of this play revolves around the values of fashionable seventeenth-century London.
London, England. The world of the play is a world of coffee-houses and periwigs and elaborately formal dress. It is an upper-class world of gallants, fine ladies, and would-be gallants and attractive ladies. The world of trade and agriculture surrounds this world but is not a part of it except by way of contrast.
A Chocolate-house. Act One takes place at a chocolate house. Such houses as Will’s near Covent Garden and White’s near St. James Park were fashionable meeting places of young gallants and wits. Often gaming was associated with them.
St. James Park. Act Two occurs out of doors in the fashionable Mall area of St. James Park. The Mall was a long tract in St. James that was formerly used for playing paille-maille, or pall-mall. By the time of this play it was known as a fashionable park used for walking, for meeting lovers, and for displaying one’s fashion. It is often confused with Pall Mall, another park close by to the north.
The Country. Although no scene in the play occurs in the country, the country always is in the background. Sir Wilful Witwoud is a country booby who serves as a butt of ridicule for all. His half brother, Witwoud, has done all he can to eradicate traces of the country from his manners, dress, and speech, but without success. No character in the play is associated in a positive way with the country. Millamant, perhaps the most normative character of the play loathes the country, saying, “I loathe the country and everything that relates to it.”
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