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the way of the world

31 march 2023

Re-reading the first act of Congreve's Way of the World, I became so hopelessly confused that I was relieved to see editor Eric Rump's characterization of some of the play's exposition as "speech no audience could surely be expected to follow" (23). Everybody in the play "is in some way related to everybody else," and the relationships are as hard to track as if you'd just wandered into some massive real-life wedding party.

For all its unintelligibility (near the end, one character remarks "Egad, I understand nothing of the matter," 407), The Way of the World has held the stage because of some glittering dialogue and some extravagant characters. Especially Lady Wishfort, the tyrannical and stupid matriarch whose inability to act her age occasions some of the play's problems – and also Mirabell and Millamant, the lovers who can't get married till all the impenetrable financial business of the plot has been cleared away.

I saw The Way of the World almost 40 years ago in London, with Joan Plowright as Lady Wishfort and Michael Jayston and Maggie Smith as Mirabell and Millamant. I don't remember the play as hard to follow, but theatrical cuts, and the simple fact of having recognizable actors in the many roles, can make a play easier to watch and hear than it is to read.

On the page or in the theater, though, the center of the play is the celebrated exchange between Mirabell and Millamant in the fourth act. "If I continue to endure you a little longer, I may by degrees dwindle into a wife," Millamant says after citing various conditions under which she'll marry him; and that's Mirabell's cue to list ways in which he "may not be beyond measure enlarged into a husband" (380).

The rest of the play is full of rattling badinage, provided by distinctive characters with names like Petulant, Witwoud, and Mincing. Congreve was only thirty when the play opened, and it would be his last for the non-musical theater – though his libretto for the opera Semele (1705-06) is now on its way to being his most-performed stage piece, in the 1744 setting by Handel.

Congreve, William. The Way of the World. 1700. In The Way of the World and other plays. Edited by Eric S. Rump. London: Penguin, 2006. 315-410.