The Way of the World as Comedy of Manners

The names “Restoration Comedy” or “Comedy of Manners” allude to a form of comedy drama that evolved in England after the Restoration of Monarchy in 1660. It is a form of humour that focuses on “manners” or codes of conduct that society imposes on individuals, as the label suggests. In these plays, comic moments are achieved by presenting characters who do not follow proper manners.

William Congreve’s play The Way of the World is regarded as one of the finest examples of Restoration Comedy. Congreve wrote it at a period when a segment of society was rejecting this sort of theatre. This negative attitude stemmed from the portrayal of vulgarity and immorality in these plays. After Jeremy Collier penned a harsh critique of these plays titled “Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage” in 1698, the middle class began to dislike them. As a result, when Congreve composed this play, he had to make a concerted effort to win over the audience. As a result, this piece differed from the normal Restoration comedies.

The comedy of manners was notorious for depicting adultery and debauchery. The key characters in the majority of these plays were shown to be carefree and immoral. In the drama The Provoked Wife, for example, the virtuous Lady Brute is shown to become an infidel, while her husband Sir John Brute is shown to be an alcoholic and abusive individual. Congreve attempted to convey a more serious play by contrasting his primary characters, Mirabell and Millamant, with others such as Sir John or Lady Brute. Many of the Restoration comedies included sequences with a lot of vulgarity. For example, the infamous Act IV Scene iii of The Country Wife depicted Lady Fidget’s obscene seduction by Horner. Congreve avoided such sequences in favour of the excellent Proviso Scene in Act IV, which depicted the two key characters having a crucial dialogue about keeping their individualities after their marriage. Congreve preserved the use of bright wits and cerebral humour from prior examples of Comedy of Manners. Almost all of his characters speak in a sparklingly humorous style that entertains even modern readers. In short, the play appears to be a polished version of Comedy of Manners, with the unpleasant portions eliminated or toned down in order to win over the play’s critics.

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