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THE WAY OF THE WORLD
William Congreve (1670–1729), brought up impertinent and ill-bred, and Witwoud is a and highly educated in Ireland, passed his snob, but this is merely because they are still carly manhood in fashionable life in London, climbing. We may know that one of the fewhere he held small government offices and male characters, Millamant, differs from was made much of by the great; later he the others in the important point of being lived more retired. His four comedies and virtuous; in most of Congreve's plays there one tragedy were produced early in his life is one such part, which he always wrote for
the first, The Old Bachelor, when he was Mrs. Bracegirdle, many years his friend, but twenty or so, and the last, The Way of charming actress who stood out equally the World, when he was thirty. In spite of among actresses for her discretion. But his success as a dramatist, that of his last Millamant breathes the same atmosphere as play did not come up to his desires, and, his the others, and for the purposes of the play health failing, he withdrew from the stage. really differs only in being a little more fasci. He also wrote a novel, criticism, and poems. nating. In The Way of the World it may al
The Way of the World represents a large, most be said that all the persons, men and distinguished, and notorious body of drama, women, servants and all, under the same cir. Restoration comedy. The chief foreign in- cumstances speak alike and act alike. The fluence under which it arose is that of play represents the life and especially the Molière, though by no means all its traits standards of one of the most unified, limited, can be fathered on him. The type is well- conventional societies ever known. Under the marked as to its characterization, its plot- fascinating surface glitter, the people are all ting, its style, and its morals. The charac. alike hard and cold, and much as we delight terization is broad and slight, typical rather to hear them talk, Charles Lamb truly says than individual. As Congreve says in the we care not a farthing for any one of them epilogue to The Way of the World, in dis- (unless, like George Meredith, we cherish a claiming satire of real persons,
pious opinion that Millamant might grow
into a human being). as when painters form a matchless face,
The Way of the World is one of the most They from each fair one catch some different grace;
brilliant examples in English of the “comedy
of manners,” which gives an external picture So poets oft do in one piece expose
of social life, with all its activity, intrigues, Whole belles assemblees of coquettes and beaux,
and foibles. In the Elizabethan drama the Occasionally distinctive traits (superficial picture is a much broader one, taking in ones) are given the various persons, such as various social strata, the whole life of the Lady Wishfort's trick of asseverating As 1 community with its bustle and enjoyment.
a person,” and occasional low” lan- In some of Fletcher's and Shirley's comedies, guage spoken by the servants, like Mincing however, we find the same tendency to limit crips (II. i) and “I
the picture to " society” in the small sense; thought once they would have fit” (III. i). and this is the rule in the comedy of the ResUsually, however, the very servants talk like toration period. In other words it is what their betters and are almost as witty -- per- is now called high comedy. The matters at haps less so in this than in other Restoration issue are love and marriage (often rather, comedies; in striking contrast with the igno- love or marriage), and it is no accident that rant in Shakespeare's plays, who divert us in The Way of the World the dramatis perby their dialect and blunders. The contrast sonce are mostly women. The play may very strikingly illustrates the prevalence in the properly be called a picture of life, for the romantic drama of humor and the character- main interest in it is in seeing how things istic and individual, and in the classical' are, not in seeing what happens. True, it eighteenth-century drama of wit and the is unjust to censure the play, as has been typical. Sir Wilful Witwoud, the person who done, for lacking plot. After the earlier most conspicuously stands out among the part the action is constant, with abundance others, with his downrightness and coarse- of suspense and surprise, and our interest ness, would have melted into his social back- would be fairly maintained for the time beground if he had joined it as early as his ing even if there were nothing else. But the half-brother did. Petulant, unlike Mirabell first two acts consist mostly of talk and of and Fainall, who are to the manner born, is very leisurely exposition. When the compli
cated plot begins to unfold, it is not lifelike, we do not feel that by itself it brings us nearer the life of the time. It is fantastic and borders on farce, turning on the all but successful scheme to marry a dressed-up foot. man to a fine lady, in order to blackmail her into giving up her niece's fortune; it is also hardly likely that Fainall and Mrs. Marwood could squander her fortune between them under the nose of the gossips without arousing scandal. Congreve's claim in the prologue is barely true, Some plot we think he has, and some new thought; Some humor too, no farce. All that saves the plot from being farce is that there are no farcical situations. But eny plot would have been brilliantly carried off
. Long after we have forgotten the story, the impression of the whole play is almost as sharp as ever, the impression of a gay unscrupulous social life, and of unparalleled mental agility and cleverness.
If Congreve is not the most brilliant English writer of dialogue certainly none is more brilliant. His dialogue is a series of flashes so close together that they impress one as a continuous radiance. Nothing can surpass the combination of sheer inventive cleverness with good breeding, restraint and literary polish of style. Among the best passages are that with Lady Wishfort at her toilet (III. i), and above all Mrs. Marwood's picture of the consequences of divulging the family scandal (V. i). Nobody ever talked as well as Congreve's people; we have here a conversational idealism more genuine than the moral idealism of The Conquest of Granada. Vituperation has become a fine art. The cleverness of the talk actually gives us somewhat the same heightened sense of the value of life and the dignity of human nature that
Millamant's malice for the sake of her high spirits; and after all Mrs. Marwood is fair game. Aside from the occasional license of the language, which is that of its age, the air of cynicism is inevitable; even Congreve could not have written five acts of incessant splendor without an occasional joke at the expense of virtue, or the pose that marriage is bondage, or the like. Wit being his commodity, we have to pay for it. But we are paying merely imitation money; we are sacri. ficing no real convictions. In other words, the cynical wit is no more to be taken seriously than the cynical wit of a good talker in a club. Whether there is anything worthy under the attractive outside we are not supposed to ask, either in the play or in the society it represents. We are to eat such meat as is set before us, asking no questions for conscience' sake.
But if the moral issue will not stay down, if we must allow the much-debated question as to the moral effect of Restoration comedy in general, what then? Few persons have : been able to accept Charles Lamb's theory that the life represented in it is a purely imaginary life with which morality has nothing to do. In such plays as those of Wycherley we are asked to follow with sympathetic interest deep-laid plans, to debauch ignorant and innocent women. (If a play has sufficient reanty to interest us aside from the interest of its wit, it cannot escape the moral question which is so important a part of reality.) The greater part of Restoration comedy from this point of view is brutal and repulsive; it surrounds us, in the words of Macaulay, “with foreheads of bronze, hearts like the nether millstone, and tongues set on fire of hell." But even Voltaire esteemed Congreve as more decent than his predecessors. There is nothing brutal or repulsive in the ethics of The Way of the World, unless it be so to scheme light-heartedly to outwit a stingy and tyrannical old coquette, and to associate with people who have been no better than they should be. We are not asked to give our sympathy or liking to anything or anybody whatever; nor even to watch with interest anything which involves moral turpitude. The play does not make vice attractive, though it grants that vicious people may be. It does not sentimentalize over illicit passion; there is no passion in it. No one can carp at the morality of the ending. The Way of the World is therefore in the fortunate position of being one of the most characteristic specimens of the type on its best side, with but little of the qualities that have made the type notorious.
play of a different sort.
And all this in spite of the frivolous, heartless, and vicious set of people who do the talking. But the picture may easily be misunderstood. The dramatist's purpose is to show the surface and the surface only of a fashionable society. “Good Mirabell,” says Mrs. Millamant, * don't let us be familiar or fond, nor kiss before folks; but let us be very strange and well-bred: let us be as strange as if we had been married a great while; and as well-bred as if we were not married at all”; to which he replies, “ Your demands are pretty reasonable."" To conceal deeper feeling, and to turn everything into mirth, are two of the ten commandments of such a society. We must forgive, too, even
THE WAY OF THE WORLD
Audire est operæ pretium, procedere recte To build on that might prove a vain preQui mạchos non vultis, (ut omni parte sumption, laborent].
Should grants, to poets made, admit re-HORAT. Lib. i. Sat. 2. [37-38).
And in Parnassus he must lose his seat, [Hæc] metuat, doti deprensa.-Ibid., Lib.
If that be found a forfeited estate. i. Sat. 2. .
He owns with toil he wrought the fol
lowing scenes; PROLOGUE.
But, if they're naught,* ne'er spare him
for his pains: Spoken by Mr. Betterton.
Damn him the more; have no commisera
tion Of those few fools who with ill stars are For dullness on mature deliberation, curst,
He swears he 'll not resent one hissed-off Sure scribbling fools, called poets, fare the scene, worst:
Nor, like those peevish wits, his play mainFor they ’re a sort of fools which Fortune tain, makes,
Who, to assert their sense, your taste arAnd after she has made 'em fools, for- raign. sakes.
Some plot we think he has, and some new With Nature's oafs 1 't is quite a different thought; case,
Some humor too, no farce; but that's a For Fortune favors all her idiot-race.
fault. In her own nest the cuckoo-eggs 2 we find, Satire, he thinks, you ought not to expect; O'er which she broods to hatch the change- For so reformed a town who dares corling-kind.
rect? No portion for her own she has to spare, To please, this time, has been his sole preSo much she dotes on her adopted care. tence, Poets are bubbles, by the town drawn in, He'll not instruct, lest it should give ofSuffered at first some trilling stakes to fence. win;
Should he by chance a knave or fool expose, But what unequal hazards do they run! That hurts none here, sure here are none of Each time they write they venture all those: they've won:
In short, our play shall (with your leave The squire that's buttered still 3 is sure to show it) to be undone.
Give you one instance of a passive poet, This author heretofore has found your Who to your judgments yields all resignafavor;
tion; But pleads no merit from his past be- So save or damn, after your own discrehavior.
PETULAN. Followers of Mrs. MILLAMANT.
DRAMATIS PERSONÆ FAINALL, in love with MRS. MARWOOD.
MRs.5 MILLAMANT, a fine Lady, Niece to LADY MIRABELL, in love with Mrs. MILLAMANT.
WISHFORT, and loves MIRABELL.
likes MIRABELL. SIR WILFULL WITWOUD, Haif-brother to Wit- MRS. FAINALL, Daughter to LADY WISHFORT, WOUD, and Nephew to LADY WISHFORT. and Wife to FAINALL, formerly Friend to
MIRABELL. WAITWELL, Servant to MIRABELL.
FOIBLE, Woman to LADY WISHFORT. Coachmen, Dancers, Footmen, and Attendants.
MINCING, Woman to MRS. MILLAMANT. LADY WISHFORT, Enemy to MIRABELL, for [BETTY, Waiting-maid at a Chocolate-house.) having falsely pretended love to her.
[PEG, Maid to LADY WISHFORT.]
by Nature in
cuckoos are sup-
flat- 6 Mistress, formerly
used with the
thought nothing was so easy as to know
when a visit began to be troublesome. SCENE 1. A Chocolate-house.
She reddened, and I withdrew, without
expecting her reply. (Mirabell and Fainall, rising from cards, Fain. You were to blame to resent what Betty waiting.)
she spoke only in compliance with her
aunt. Mir. You are a fortunate man, Mr. Fain- Mir. She is more mistress of herself than all!
to be under the necessity of such a resigFain. Have we done?
nation. Mir. What you please: I'll play on to Fain. What! though half her fortune deentertain you.
pends upon her marrying with my lady's Fain. No, I'll give you your revenge an- approbation?
other time, when you are not so indif- Mir. I was then in such a humor, that I ferent; you are thinking of something should have been better pleased if she else now, and play too negligently; the had been less discreet. coldness of a losing gamester lessens the Fain. Now I remember, I wonder not pleasure of the winner. I'd no more they were weary of you; last night was play with a man that slighted his ill one of their cabal? nights; they have fortune than I'd make love to a woman 'em three times a week, and meet by who undervalued the loss of her reputa- turns at one another's apartments, where tion.
they come together like a coroner's inMir. You have a taste extremely delicate, quest, to sit upon the murdered reputaand are for refining on your pleasures.
tions of the week. You and I are exFain. Prithee, why so reserved? Some- cluded; and it was once proposed that thing has put you out of humor.
all the male sex should be excepted; but Mir. Not at all: I happen to be grave to- somebody moved that, to avoid scandal, day, and you are gay; that's all.
there might be one man of the communFain. Confess, Millament and you quar- ity; upon which motion Witwoud and
relled last night after I left you; my Petulant were enrolled members. fair cousin has some humors that would Mir. And who may have been the fountempt the patience of a Stoic. What, dress of this sect? My Lady Wishfort, some coxcomb came in, and was well re- I warrant, who publishes her detestaceived by her, while you were by?
tion of mankind; and full of the vigor Hir. Witwoud and Petulant; and what of fifty-five, declares for a friend and
was worse, her aunt, your wife's mother, ratafia 8; and let posterity shift for itmy evil genius; or to sum up all in her self, she 'll breed no more. own name, my old Lady Wishfort came Fain. The discovery of your sham adin.
dresses to her, to conceal your love to Fain. O, there it is then! She has a last- her niece, has provoked this separation;
ing passion for you, and with reason.- had you dissembled better, things might What, then my wife was there?
have continued in the state of nature. Mir. Yes, and Mrs. Marwood, and three Mir. I did as much as man could, with
or four more, whom I never saw before. any reasonable conscience; I proceeded Seeing me, they all put on their grave to the very last act of flattery with her, faces, whispered one another; then com- and was guilty of a song in her complained aloud of the vapors, and after mendation. Nay, I got a friend to put fell into a profound silence.
her into a lampoon, and compliment her Fain. They had a mind to be rid of you. with the imputation of an affair with a Mir. For which reason I resolved not to young fellow, which I carried so far,
stir. At last the good old lady broke that I told her the malicious town took through her painful taciturnity with an notice that she was grown fat of a sudinvective against long visits. I would den; and when she lay in of a dropsy, not have understood her, but Millamant persuaded her she was reported to be in joining in the argument, I rose, and, labor. The devil's in 't, if old
with a constrained smile, told her I woman is to be flattered further, unless 6 A fit of peevish
small private 8 "A cordial or liqueur flavoured with certain fruits or their clique.
kernels" (Oxf. Dict.); pronounced "rataféa."
a man should endeavor downright per- to Duke's-place; and there they were sonally to debauch her; and that my vir- rivetted in a trice. tue forbade me. But for the discovery Mir. So, so, you are sure they are marof that amour I am indebted to your ried? friend, or your wife's friend, Mrs. Mar- Serv. Married and bedded, sir; I am wit
wood. Fain. What should provoke her to be Mir. Have you the certificate?
your enemy, without she has made you Serv. Here it is, sir. advances which
have slighted ? Mir. Has the tailor brought Waitwell's Women do not easily forgive omissions clothes home, and the new liveries? of that nature.
Serv. Yes, sir. Mir. She was always civil to me till of Mir. That's well. Do you go home again,
late.-I confess I am not one of those d'ye hear, and adjourn the consummacoxcombs who are apt to interpret a tion till farther orders. Bid Waitwell woman's good manners to her prejudice, shake his ears, and Dame Partlet 10 rusand think that she who does not refuse tle up her feathers, and meet me at one
'em everything, can refuse 'em nothing. o'clock by Rosamond's Pond, that I may Fain. You are a gallant man, Mirabell; see her before she returns to her lady;
and though you may have cruelty enough and as you tender your ears be secret. not to satisfy a lady's longing, you have
(Erit Servant.) too much generosity not to be tender of her honor. Yet you speak with an
(Re-enter Fainall and Betty.) indifference which seems to be affected, Fain. Joy of your success, Mirabell; you and confesses you are conscious of a look pleased. negligence.
Mir. Aye; I have been engaged in a matMir. You pursue the argument with a ter of some sort of mirth, which is not
distrust that seems to be unaffected, and yet ripe for discovery. I am glad this confesses you are conscious of a concern is not a cabal night. I wonder, Fainall, for which the lady is more indebted to that you who are married and of conseyou than is your wife.
quence should be discreet, will suffer Fain. Fy, fy, friend! if you grow censor- your wife to be of such a party.
ious I must leave you.-I'll look upon Fain. Faith, I am not jealous. Besides, the gamesters in the next room.
most who are engaged are women and Mir. Who are they! ?
relations; and for the men, they are of a Fain. Petulant
and Witwoud.—(To kind too contemptible to give scandal. Betty.)
Bring me some chocolate. Mir. I of another opinion. The (Exit.)
greater the coxcomb, always the more Mir. Betty, what says your clock?
the scandal: for a woman who is not a Bet. Turned of the last canonical hour, fool can have but one reason for assosir.
ciating with a man who is one. (Erit.)
Fain. Are you jealous as often as you see Mir. How pertinently the jade answers Witwoud entertained by Millamant?
me! Ha! almost one o'clock !-(Look- Mir. Of her understanding I am, if not ing on his watch.)—Oh, y' are come!
of her person.
Fain. You do her wrong; for, to give her (Enter a Servant.)
her due, she has wit.
Mir. She has beauty enough to make any Well, is the grand affair over? You man think so; and complaisance enough have been something tedious.
not to contradict him who shall tell her Serv. Sir, there's such coupling at Pan
cras that they stand behind one another, Fain. For a passionate lover, methinks as 't were in a country dance. Ours you are a man somewhat too discerning was the last couple to lead up; and no in the failings of your mistress. hopes appearing of dispatch, besides the Mir. And for a discerning man, somewhat parson growing hoarse, we were afraid too passionate a lover; for I like her his lungs would have failed before it with all her faults; nay, like her for her came to our turn; so we drove round faults. Her follies are so natural, or 9 The latest hour (formerly noon) at which a marriage might be performed in a parish church. 10 A traditional humorous name for a hen (or woman).