We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

Congreve's _The Way of the World_ · 5 June 08

Ann Mitchell as Mrs Marwood in a 1984 production of Congreve’s The Way of the World (Greenwich Theatre), a potentially tragic figure

Dear Friends,

I find I am moved by an 18th century play enough to want to blog about it. William Congreve’s The Way of the World. A very few of us on my Eighteenth Century Worlds list at Yahoo have over the past 10 months or so (since September 2007) been reading through the drama of the long 18th century at the rate of about 2 a month. We began with a few Jacobean (by Beaumont and by Fletcher) and Caroline plays (by Shirley, by Brome) and since Christmas have been reading Restoration plays written after 1660—by Etherege, Sedley, Dryden, Wycherly, Vanbrugh, and Otway. And each week some few of us have posted about the play, and I have tried to offer some materials from the database at my college about the playwright or era as have others from online sources (sometimes others find much better material online than I have).

There’s a problem in writing about The Way of the World here in that I make references to playwrights, plays, and the era which many readers may not understand and I can’t take the space or time to explain—for then this would become a book. But I would like to write about this play in more public space than ECW because I think (like so much that is written about whatever), much of what is most important about this play never gets said clearly. This partly because the conventions of the scholarly argument preclude really presenting what is socially unacceptable to most people except indirectly and with so many qualifications, the ideas are counteracted by the time they are understood.

Reading these plays has been worth it even when I find some of them tedious or pernicious. At this point in my life because I’m no longer inclined to accept the cant explanations for them, the moralizing, normalizing and also the justifications.

Thus I can see why The Way of the World seldom succeeds on stage; there is very little interest in stage business or outward plot, action, and now rereading it I can see why my students were puzzled and didn’t like it. (I set this play once for a class). They are so used to, fed, finally upbeat and sentimental stories, and expect “positive messages” from “great” books. They will hunt for this in texts one sets for them.

On the surface Congreve’s Way of the World resembles Etherege’s early plays. We have a great woman monster: Lady Wishfort. She is an aging sexually hungry mean woman who coerced her niece, Mrs Fainall to marry Mr Fainall; she is now keeping another niece, Millamant, from marrying Mirabell because (apparently) she can’t stand anyone to have sexual fulfillment when she doesn’t or can’t. She is after one aging rich Sir Rowland or anyone who will have her. The misogny of this isn’t counteracted by a cruel man monster (which one finds in Wycherly who is more the justified misanthrope). On the other hand, since the issue is money, that is the way Lady Wishfort manages to control her nieces is through her control of their inheritance, and money rules the world of this play (the characters will do nothing to risk their incomes and spend much of the play trying to protect their incomes or cadge for money), the sexist caricature becomes less important in some ways. It’s what she can do to others, not what she is.

So Lady Wishfort reminds me of say the harridan women in Austen and later 18th century novels (Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Mrs Delville in Burney’s Cecilia, the hero’s poisonous mother in Amelie Mansfield). In fact it was men who inherited and controlled property 9/10s of the time, but let that pass. At any rate I didn’t find reading these scenes at all funny, but at moments really pathetic and thought perhaps that was because Congreve felt this too, but this was fleeting and perhaps I was reading something into the text that’s not there.

As in Etherege and Sedley, the characters basically have nothing to do. They are part of a class/order of people with no work and since the plays do not present court networking as part of life’s work which this class did do in order to get places and money and which we find them occasionally doing in later novels of the period, selling and buying their women for it, fawning over one another and so on (this especially in some of the mid-18th century French novels I’ve read), since this must be left out as it is precisely what is socially unacceptable to tell anything about, there is nothing left but to show us Jonson or Terence like tricks and patter to pass the time. The introduction to the New Mermaids edition has a scholar going on about how Congreve said the model for plays should be Jonson, never giving any reason for the kind of empty tricks we find in Terence or moral allegory stript of real life we find in Jonson, nor even mentioning how this is also meant to exclude Shakespeare whose romancing and inward values were beyond these playwrights. At any rate how people really spent their time is only seen in history plays or tragedies not just about jealousy, where we do see alliances set up—there’s an ironic joke there somehow.

Like these earlier Restoration playwrights and increasingly in the later ones, e.g., Vanbrugh, Congreve has idiot fools we are supposed to laugh at (Witwoud, and Petulant). The Way of the World has like Wycherly and Shirley and Vanburgh a fop we are supposed to despise (an anti-gay subtext is here) and a country bumpkin we are supposed to scorn. The equivalent of Wycherly’s Marjorie the country wife is Sir Wilfull Witwoud. All this is very unpleasant. But is redeemed for me because in fact what is awful about them is what is really awful in life: they are stupid, phony, pass the time saying and thinking cant, performative, insincere.

There’s at long last a very 18th century theme here. One not found in the Restoration much (we have been reading these plays for 10 months now if desultorily and only a couple a month): affectation. But Congreve really goes beyond Henry Fielding in his presentation of this in say Joseph Andrews. Congreve is perceptive enough to reach a general level so what is presented is more penetratingly about social life today too. It’s not just that people are hypocrites; it’s that it’s a norm, not an exception, not a something to burlesque as outrageous. Congreve is sending up how as a matter of corse people pretend to be what they are not, higher, smarter, richer, and fashionable. He says in his dedication to the play that he prefers to satirize affectation because that’s realer than the gross fools we are asked to laugh out in earlier (Restoration) plays whose stupidity he says we should feel sorry for. We should not feel sorry for hypocrites. This is the sort of thing Fielding hits at, only (as I say) Congreve is ever so much really angrier and sick at this as the norm of life.

The chief characters who carry the meaning that matters in the play are three couples. There’s Mr and Mrs Fainall, married and they loathe one another. He married her for her money and she because her aunt pushed her into it (Lady Wishfort). Mr Fainall has been having an affair with Mrs Marwood and it seems he is passionate for her; meanwhile, Mrs Marwood desires Mirabell. Mirabell and Mrs Fainall have been having an affair too. It seems all the women in the play desire Mirabell for the heroine, Millamant, is in love with him we are told, and they have a remarkable scene where they tell one another they will only consent to marry one another if the other does not behave in the usual domineering, selfish, controlling ways of husbands and wives. The purpose of the speeches is to describe married life in these terms.

This is as anti-marriage a play as I’ve ever read. It makes Dryden’s pairs in Marriage at La Mode (which we read on ECW) seem innocent—partly because the characters are really having affairs with one another offstage. At long last real sex is happening—and not in a china scene to titillate, but seriously. (In just about all the 17th century comic plays we read thus far sex never really does come off; in spite of all the talk about these plays being modern and sexually free, they are not.) Mostly though because money is involved. Dryden’s also pairs did not worry about money. Congreve’s characters do. They are desperate about inheritance and the tricks played in the play are forms of blackmail to force the play’s monster woman, Lady Wishfort to give them money.

The Way of the World has no false sentiment whatsoever; the characters are all selfish, even Mirabell, our highly intelligent hero, and Millamant, our supposedly lovely entrancing heroine. They play wittily and at moments even emotionally at being in love and the game of life in a famous courtship scene, but like everyone else in the play they are continually acting performatively, in guarded ways because if they did not, they would lose out in competition for money, be ridiculed without mercy, taken continual advantage of, dominated. One of the acts ends on one of the fools saying how the problem in life is everyone is continually lying. But how else protect yourself? Human impulses as presented here seem to me more adult than those in Wycherly because Wycherly’s perception of life’s experience is very crude in comparison to Congreve’s.

I could tell the characters in this play apart pretty quickly. I agreed with one of the people on our list that one problem with many of the plays thus far is it’s hard to tell the characters apart; at the same time they are all seething with resentments, with anger at how they have been deceived by others (all the while they are deceiving others themselves); they are above all vexed by boredom.

This to me is the core of the play. There seems no meaning in life; it’s like Becket’s Waiting for Godot except that while one is waiting, it’s not just clowning about, rather the people are filling time with affairs, they have to listen to the nonsensical talk of affectation. Fainall and Mirabell have to listen to one Witwoud and Petulant all the livelong night because there are so many of wooden wits and petulants around. There are just endless cruelties happening: Mirabell is simply tired of Mrs Fainall and Marwood so he drops them (like is very like Dorimant in the Man of Mode only in Etherege’s plays the women reveal their vulnerability and openly protest). Endless betrayals: Mrs Fainall of Fainall whose incensed murderous feelings about this are fascinatingly human because he seems to forget that he has been having an affair with Marword, but that’s okay it seems as it’s him.

It seemed to me closer to modern plays than any play we’ve read thus far. Perhaps Sheridan’s School for Scandal wanted to be this, but it’s feeble shadow of it; Sheridan’s characters are altogether too benign, and the plot-design makes all meaning good in the end. In Congreve’s play when people spread ugly rumors about one another and play tricks, they succeed in hurting one another for real and for good and we see the results in real pain kept hidden from others (Congreve resorts to soliloquys to show this—the voice-over of the stage).

Congreve’s language is rich with metaphor and dense with intricate wit and insights. I’ve no time to quote, but this is the sort of thing scholars do talk about—without of course giving the full context for it as I’ve done. I’ll confine myself to saying the lines from contemporary poems quoted by Millamant are harsh and cynical (they see through the hypocrisies of life and expose it). From “natural, easy Suckling” we learn: “There never yet was woman made/Nor shall but to be cursed. The poem by Edmund Waller she alludes to dramatizes the hopelessness of an emasculated male following a nymph (“The Story of Phoebus and Daphne, Applied”). As so many of the critics I’ve quoted on ECW say, these plays by men of the Restoration and early 18th century are rooted in male sexual anxiety and fear of women. Most unOvidian (except of course where they get back at their female characters, he turns them to stone and trees).

I know the gross philistine religious fool, Jeremy Collier attacked all the playwrights of the era, but Congreve especially and on grounds of smut. This is the sort of crass stupidity which Congreve couldn’t bear in life—as the play shows (Congreve quit the stage after 7 years and spent the rest of his life living off the sinecures his own ability to network got him). But it seems to me even if Collier couldn’t explain what he didn’t like especially in Congreve with any intelligence, this is a play that would deeply offend someone like Collier. Yet more than Wycherly, Congreve questions what we exist for.

Oh I know there is the pretty talk between Millamant and Mirabell but I have (above) suggested what their sweet-toned duels come down to. Mirabell is also right to say she spends her life surrounded with fools currying favor and bored, and what has his life been. What does she really do anytime anywhere that’s kind? Nothing I can see. She doesn’t indulge in the cruel plots Mirabell (for money) and Mrs Marwood (for revenge and spite) set up. But I can find no good she does, no friend she trusts (just Mincing her woman who she likes for doing her hair so well). Mirabel is a Dorimant without the nasty tongue; he’s too cool to insult the women he wants to get rid of; he puts them to work for him.

As Etherege identified with Dorimant, so Congreve identifies with Mirabel, but there is more distance here. Congreve’s is a play about ennui, very melancholy and bitter about the way social experience works, & how one must pass one’s time, and how aspirations for beauty or love (as Mirabel and Millamant and both Fainalls had) when realized are sordid and end in spending time with someone who irritates you unless you set up rules to keep them at a distance.

I end on Mrs Marwood, another cruel portrait of women. In love with Mirabell, mistress to Fainall, she is the excluded of the play, the Malvolio of this underlying tragic-feeling comedy She has a bully feel, looking forward (to my mind) to Austen’s Mrs Elton (Emma). The way Austen keeps her vision of the world apparently benign is she doesn’t allow treacherous sexual affairs to be central, and she doesn’t allow really ugly things to happen at the end of her books. Mrs Elton doesn’t manage to ruin Jane Fairfax’s life because in the nick of time Frank Churchill (a cad though who will continually impregnante Jane once they marry) marries her. It’s hard to like Mrs Marwood but I can see how a perceptive director might make an actress play her sympathetically.

There’s no way one could do this for Lady Wishfort, and now I realize why in a recent 18th century conference I heard a woman scholar giving a paper criticizing the humor of the typical Restoration play, particularly as seen in the presentation of Lady Wishfort. Mrs Marwood really has good reason for hating—as do a number of the cruelly mocked women who run after Dorimant in The Man of Mode. I’m with Catherine Trotter (a female playwright of the era) who characterized Etherege’s The Man of Mode as a play where “Deceit’s a jest, false vows are gallantry,” and means it when she advises the aspiring poet: “Let ev’ry Dorimant appear a knave.”

Susan Tracey as sympathetic Lady Wishfort in a 2007 Royal Theatre production in Northamptonshire; she could just as easily be the neice, Mrs Fainall

But I’m beginning to ramble altogether so shall stop here.


Posted by: Ellen

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  1. The theme of attacking marriage as it was then practiced so common in the finest plays of the era is more than about the abuses of socially-accepted practices, because after all this is the way marriage was done. By the end of the century the ideal of companionate marriage had taken hold, but it was as yet an ideal (no norm) and it was a couple of centuries further before it became possibly easily to dissolve a marriage.

    Elinor    Jun 7, 10:16am    #

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