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

A benign (!) _The Way of the World_ at the Shakespeare theatre · 16 October 08

Dear Friends,

Two nights ago the Admiral and I went to see the new production of William Congreve’s The Way of the World at the Lansburgh theatre (7th Street) performed by the Shakespeare Theatre Company, and I wrote a posting-review about it that I sent to C18-l and Eighteenth Century Worlds. Usually I take such a posting and polish and fix it, accompanying it with appropriate pictures I find on the Net; however, on the same day I sent the posting, an editor at Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Theatre Research asked me if I would fix and polish the posting and send it to her for publication in the journal. The journal regularly reviews productions of Restoration and 18th century plays. I agreed.

I still would like to share my more casual piece with those online in order to publicize the production and recommend that people go. The way to see more of these plays done is to go oneself and encourage other people to. My more polished and properly researched piece will appear in the later fall number of the journal and at that time I will cite where anyone who’s interested in the play and a more academic kind of approach with general applications may find it.

So, in the meantime (says she smiling):

I enjoyed it, especially the second half. The scene between Millamant and Mirabeau (Act 4, scene 1, lines 130-250) where Millament sets out the behavior she will demand he promise to keep to if she marries him, and he replies with the reciprocal behavior he will demand of her, was done with great verve.

Promotional still of Veanne Cox and Christopher Innvar—they are not in the green costumes of the play

I have to admit the production was also disappointing, and in a way that’s typical of productions of these Restoration and eighteenth century plays. What most US companies do is

1) make it into a slapstick romp where physical business is made to fill the stage in a misguided attempt to entertain the audience (the amusement of this goes only so far with me, at the third stomping of boots, I’ve had it, and I have a low threshold for the fun of women showing their breasts to be oogled at men; or

2) they soften and sentimentalize the play by the mood they create and the way some lines are read and others slide over (or simply cut).

Between the two I much prefer the latter, particularly if most of the lines or all are kept. And that’s what was done here by this director, Michael Kahn (and all his helpers in various capacities).

First, we were in an elegant never-neverland colored green. Pastoral. Everyone was dressed in green and the set was a sort of 1920s art deco scene rather like movies made from Agatha Christie or Graham Green mysteries. This is Charles Lamb view of the essential innocence and unreality of the world of these pays—which is not accurate for it’s not quite the same thing as showing libertinism de-contextualized (say in the way of Durfey’s Fond Husband—as outlined in Linda Payne Fisk’s edition of the play in her Four Libertine Plays).

Lady Wishfort was done by an actress who is well known in the DC area and well liked; Nancy Robinette. Ms Robinette is now old, but has a strong stage presence. She dominates the theatre space whenever she appears. She knows how to. Unlike the other women, she was given a white face of make-up (so immediately is not real or an artificial doll) and made good-natured in tone and gesture. As far as was possible she was not humiliated—beyond what the script called for. Her scenes with Waitwell as a false Witwood (Todd Schofield) were done with a kind of good-natured groping on her part and weak embarrassment on the male (all self-deprecation and emasculation he). Her desire for sex was seen as somehow natural, not vampirish. And at the end Ms Robinette was directed to play like some character out of Dickens smiling on her niece, Millamant, and so happy to forgive all.

Mirabeau (Christopher Invarr) was most white-washed of all. As Congreve’s play begins, Mirabeau has had Mrs Marwood (here played by Deanne Lorette) as his mistress, and still has Mrs Fainall (here Barbara Garrick) as his mistress. No wonder Congreven’s Mr Fainall (Andrew Long) is treacherous to him—the play opens with the two of them apparently great friends. The line about Mrs Marwood either wasn’t there or was slid over and Barbara Garrick was directed to play Mrs Fainall in a quiet passive kind of way, one where she showed little feeling. In Congreve’s play Mrs Fainall is a central loser: coerced into marriage with Fainall, she had been exploited (not protected as is implied in this production) by Mirabeau who has so good as to be the executor of her estates; here we are to imagine Mirabeau did this to protect Mrs Fainall from Fainall. Why then did Mirabeau marry her off to Fainall? In reading Congreve’s play the implication is to get rid of her as he’s tired of her, and he has not yet rescinded his control of her estates; here there is no apparent reason implied. Kahn’s Mirabeau just let Mrs Fainall marry Mr, or Lady Wishfort mysteriously (for Nancy Robinette seems so self-involved and good-natured we can’t think why) insisted.

Christopher Innvar played the part of Mirabeau as a good-natured ethical man wholly—very graceful and in love with Millamant, played too stiffly and stylized-like by Veanne Cox. She was not played as yearning or wanting sexual fulfillment, but rather insisting on her rights if she is going to do this rather unpleasant and counter-productive thing of marrying. The effect was to make the man, Mirabeau, seem powerless. The Bad Guy was apparently Lady Wishfort.

This does reflect Congreve: like many men writing in this era he
makes the female the allpowerful nemesis and ogre. Austen in part does this too in her S&S. As so many scholars have shown (a work of supererogation) men had all the power in this period most of the time, and people with power use it to fulfill their appetites. The apparent powerlessness of the men could also be implied by not showing the vulnerability and poignancy of Mrs Fainall.

The one younger woman who is the hardest one in Congreve (worse than Lady Wishfort because colder and less desperate and not funny) is Mrs Marwood. Played by Deenne Lorette, and (as in Congreve) now mistress of Fainall, Mrs Marwood did not come across as strong and vengeful, and this is the part as written by Congreve where a woman twisted into being evil or vengeful and power-mad, envious in the first place, could be shown. As in the case of Barbara Garrick’s Mrs Fainall, the character was played in a subdued way so that Foible (Colleen Delany), Lady Wishfort’s maid as Mirabeau’s main manipulator became a central protagonist of the play. The ultimate source for this kind of comedy is the trickster kind of mix-up and disguises found in Plautus and Terence, and on the English stage, Ben Jonson, on the French, Moliere. Beyond Foible, Lady Wishfort and a de-sexualized harder Millamant were the central female presences, with Mrs Marwood very much a secondary presence.

The male actors came across much more vividly because their parts were not muted. The strongest presence after Lady Wishford was Fainall himself as peformed effectively by Andrew Long. He’s a good actor (we’ve seen him before) and played the part with strength and panache—only one wondered why he was so mad since Lady Wishfort was such a good-natured creature at heart and Mirabeau a nice guy too. In Congreve he is a cheated cuckold who has married for money and lust, and his woman (Mrs Marwood) has as mean a nature.

Doug Rees’s Sir Wilfull Witwood (up from the country) was also a strong presence. Sir Wilfull whose name signifies his determination is (we discover) a good natured person, as Nick (and Judy too) said on Eighteenth Century Worlds when we read the play together: in this character in Congreve we had a valuing of the good kind heart over the intelligent head. Witwood uses disguises for kind purposes or because he’s bamboozled and at the end of the play is urging everyone to do the right thing. Clearly Kahn was comfortable with this character and (more to the point probably) thought the audience would be too. Indeed what emerged was a play thematized confusedly through the opposition of these two actors: Fainall and Sir Wilfull.

I don’t mean to be too hard. I liked the set and after a while all the green costumes (everyone was in green) grew on me. For example, the gay part of Anthony Witwood came with this scrumptious costume:

Floyd Jones, Witwood is the innocent Sir Wilfull’s fop-flunky brother

In the lobby were light green flowers. I wondered if as in Alice in Wonderland someone had dyed some of them :) For a lovely set of stills which does justice to some of the best moments in the production, click here.

I probably enjoyed it because I’m glad to see eighteenth century plays and interested in all productions of them that are at all accurate and intelligent (and this was). The same sort of softening was done to Richard Sheridan’s School for Scandal at the Folger last year, and the use of physical highjinks, stomping and jumping about was the way this Shakespeare company did George Farquhar’s The Beaux Strategem the year before last year (where Veanne Cox played Mrs Sullen; and Christopher Innvar, Archer). A few years ago at the Folger a production of George Colman and David Garrick’s The Clandestine Marriage was truer to that later 18th century play but then that is a far more benign play (as are many later 18th century plays), making the women in general more important as individuals and the men a lot kinder to them.


Posted by: Ellen

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  1. P.S. I remember, but not too accurately, a brilliantly hard production of Edward Ravenscroft's Restoration _The London Cuckolds_. done at the National Theatre about 9 years ago. A woman sitting next to Yvette (about 15 at the time) looked shocked that I had brought my daughter to such a ribald and amoral play. There they did do it too frivolously, but then I have a hunch Ravenscroft meant no more serious criticism of his period than Durfey. No Dryden, no Wycherly, not even a Shadwell (as in his strongly critical The Libertine) he.

    See http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/1294/productions/the-london-cuckolds.html E.M.
    Elinor    Oct 16, 3:13pm    #
  2. On Eighteenth Century Worlds Nick answered my first posting on the play itself as follows:

    Well! For the first time one of our plays has really surprised me – or surprised me in terms of plot and story (The Plain Dealer astonished me in terms of breadth and weight). I also read it very differently to Ellen for once.

    It is perhaps helpful to recount the actual experience of reading – as it began with Mirabell and Fainall gaming and chatting and discussing various fools and plots it seemed like a lot of the other plays (Etherege, Vanburgh, Sedley) which already blur together in my mind. Then slowly a tone of real bitterness, of festering hatreds emerge. There is genuine nastiness here, not just games.

    This nastiness is centred on Fainall who is the first really evil (I think the word is right) character I have encountered in the plays. In comparison to his malevolence foolishness, pretension, self-deception all appear quite trivial, harmless even. The other characters in the play, whatever their limitations (except for Marwood who is to a certain extent tragic as Ellen remarked, but is also a shadow of Fainall) are cast in a benevolent light by his very tangible rottenness. At the end both Fainall and Marwood are excluded from the happy ending but remain as a sort of threat to the harmonies which have been established, to a greater or lesser degree, for the rest of the cast.

    Those who have read Ellen’s brilliant exposition on the play will see that the first point on which we differ is that of Lady Wishfort whom Ellen calls ‘a great woman monster’. But I didn’t read her like that at all. I can see there is that generic misogyny directed towards an older woman with sexual desires which I wholly agree is both distasteful and tiresome. I find the comedy directed towards her very unfunny. But as the play progresses towards its climax I feel only great pity for her as she seems to be at the mercy of Fainall who is out to obtain complete power over her and her money. She is in fact not really a monster at all but a rather sad character. Even more startling is the transformation of Sir Wilful – again I expected a stock rustic boor, which is how he starts out; but then he is transformed as Holland points out in the article Ellen posted for us…

    >>Sir Wilfull Witwoud, the country cousin arriving in town wit mud on his boots and a rustic incomprehension of town manners, comes at the end of the play to be valued for his generosity and his humane compassion, so that Mirabell can say of him without the slightest trace of irony “Sir Wilfull is my Friend.” Nothing will make Sir Wilfull more intelligent, but his good nature matters far more.>It has no false sentiment whatsoever; the characters are all selfish (even our highly intelligent hero and heroine who play so entrancingly at being in love) and play at the game of life 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;

    Again I am not sure about this. It seems to me that some genuine prescription for a happy marriage (however bizarre we may find the prescription) is being proposed. At its centre is the idea that things shouldn't be taken too seriously which indeed fits in with exactly what Ellen says - the play/game aspect.

    Where we differ is that as far as I can discern Congreve genuinely endorses this as a way of living - to be serious is not merely about losing out, it is also the way to psychological destruction and indeed evil. There are rules for behaviour, moral rules, which have to be adhered to.

    One thing which once again fascinates me is that the plays which I like, which interest me, are those where the meaning can be contested, is debatable, where different readings emerge (so The Country Wife and now The Way of the World).

    Sometimes reading these plays seems like panning for gold! But this is another strike for me. I would really like to re-read it this time with Ellen's critique in mind but not sure I will have time (or for other Congreve plays which I would also like to sample).

    Elinor    Oct 16, 10:31pm    #
  3. I really enjoyed Nick’s posting and learned from it. I would say we are more in agreement than appears. Probably my own emphasis on the darkness of the play (a potential tragedy with characters whose passion is kept under control so they may survive through calculation and performance), my emphasis and rejection of the famous marriage contract seen also came from bitterness within me that day so I could not respond to the idea that somehow we can find happiness by controlled shared performances with one another. I want something more. Congreve is resigned to holding onto the smooth surface, to preserving it so that if there ends up nothing underneath you will nonetheless have courtesy and an ideal of fair play to cling to.

    I hope I do not sound like a broken record or fanatical Janeite, but as with The Man of Mode I saw direct contacts with Austen’s work. In Persuasion which is a non-finished work so we have more direct statements (unqualified, not embedded in plot so revealing) than is usual, there we find a Mrs Smith who says of family life and friendship”even the smooth surface of family union seems worth preserving, though there may be nothing durable underneath.” Mirabell and Millamant cannot break their relationship once they marry (an underlying theme in all these plays is how there is no divorce for most people) so they will weather time and chance and egoism and fend off domination by performance and keeping distance.

    The valuing of Sir Wilfull Witwood’s good nature over someone else’s intelligence is also found in Austen: in Emma more than once Emma says Harriet is really worth several of her—- though at the same time she’d never change places to lose her understanding to have a kind heart. No Little Mermaid bargains (the little mermaid traded in her fins for feet on the agreement she could never speak and would feel like she was walking on knives) for Emma.

    I loved the idea that Fainall is a kind of Iago let loose in a Oscar Wilde play. This one does remind me of Wilde, but he is also a strong rendition of Dorimant. The way Dorimant humiliated Mrs Loveit reminds me of how Fainall and Mirabell too treat older women. Mirabell you see to me is not much better than Fainall; he makes an exception for Millamant because she’s lovely and witty, as Dorimant does for Harriet. But what happens 10 years from now?

    As for Lady Wishfort, I did find a still from a recent production which presented her as pathetic:


    In my last two paragraphs of my blog I talk about how a director could present both Lady Wishfort and Mrs Marwood more sympathetically:


    But when we do this we are doing what people have done since the 18th century on Don Quixote. Cervantes did not mean to show us a poignant dreamer, but to make us laugh hard at nonsensical illusions. It’s we who read into Lady Wishfort the pathos more than Congreve meant to give us.

    The play is not unified and it’s not at all realistic. This last is probably the sort of thing that allowed Lamb to justify these plays as Cloudcuckooland. As we’ve seen the better ones are not wispy idyllic play-dreams.

    Elinor    Oct 16, 10:32pm    #
  4. Nick responded:

    “I think we are :). I have been re-considering the play in the light of Ellen’s comments. There is something disquieting about the marriage contract and it is very much based on ‘controlled shared performances’. There is a sense in which all the deep emotions in the play are malevolent, cruel. What I think threw me was the depth of that malevolence and cruelty as expressed primarily in Fainall. So emotion is something to be distrusted and suppressed.

    But I do also think that running alongside this and perhaps slightly contradictorily is the idea that good nature is more valuable than intellect. This is something which does seem to me to represent a shift from the earlier Restoration plays where to be a fool is generally the worst thing. In The Way of The World there are much worse options – to be malevolent and cruel. I think this is one reason why despite its faults – which are many – I quite like the play.

    Elinor    Oct 16, 10:33pm    #
  5. From Judy:

    “My favourite part was the discussion between Mirabell and Millamant about their conditions for marriage – I feel that Ellen and Nick are both right about this section, that it does point out the problems with contemporary marriage and yet at the same time we are supposed to think that this couple may have a chance of happiness. One condition I noticed was that Millamant still wants to be wooed even after marriage – she doesn’t want it assumed that she has given her consent for sexual encounters at times of his choosing for evermore. “I’ll be solicited to the very last, nay and afterwards.”

    I also liked the fact that Congreve himself seems to get bored with the farcical Sir Rowland plot and abruptly ends this before Lady Wishfort has been humiliated to any very great extent. I wasn’t sure how sympathetic she is – her name seems to suggest she is sex-mad, but at times she seems to be less of a caricature than her name suggests.

    This is yet another one that I would love to see on stage.”
    Elinor    Oct 16, 10:35pm    #
  6. I’m slightly dismayed to realise just how much of this play I have already forgotten! Glad to hear about this production, and glad you enjoyed it, Ellen – I do suspect that the softening and sentimentalising you mention would appeal to me more than slapstick, too, if you have to have an element of one of these two. I’d like to see it on stage myself, too. Maybe I will do so someday.
    Judy    Oct 18, 2:41pm    #

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