The Way of the World as Restoration Comedy
As a historical period, the Restoration was a time when England was a well-established colonial power around the world. It was a time of materialism and commerce, with people emphasising money, pleasure, and sex. Money was used to judge love and marriage. The defining characteristics of the era were artificiality and immorality. People were more concerned with relaxation and pleasure, and serious matters were less important to them. There existed a wealthy class with leisure throughout the Restoration period. The main focus of the population was the pursuit of sexual pleasure and money. Marriage was not merely an institution for procreation or for sustaining social stability. It was regarded as a mercenary endeavour.
The following are the main themes that comprised the multifaceted “Restoration Comedy.” There was an English social comedy tradition that addressed the love game with lightness, humour, and some ribaldry. Beaumont and Fletcher, among others, are linked with such plays. The plays satirised social characteristics such as fops, pedants, and vain women. Simultaneously, the English comic tradition had a separate comedy of character types, Ben Jonson’s comedy of “humours,” which stressed how people’s characteristics were strongly bent in one direction. Jonson’s plays were also profoundly satiric, focusing on the crimes of avarice, lechery, and hypocrisy above all. There was a strong French influence, which resulted in plotting, characterization, and performance that was elegant. The French concern on precision was undoubtedly a welcome antidote to many Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists’ careless attitude toward structure. However, one feature of French comedy, plot unity, was never adopted; English comedies had plots and subplots, as well as an overabundance of action. The patronage of the court was the third most important effect on humour. What happened in the play had to be thought of as a private joke, understood only by those “in the know.”
Congreve’s The Way of the World, by emphasising these points, exposes the issues of money, love, sex, marriage, and, in general, the behaviour of the people of the day in prose. It is largely recognised as one of the best Restoration comedies and is still played on occasion. However, many audience members saw the play as perpetuating the immorality of prior decades, and it was not well received at first. Rakes, fops, gallants, and wits are the main characters in a language that appears bright but lacks philosophical, emotional, or psychological depth. As a result, the piece is a standard restoration comedy of manners. The mode used is satirical and sardonic, which corresponds to the social reality of the time.
Sexual innuendos and obscene jokes are used by characters in The Way of the World. This play’s main elements are wit and humour. The characters symbolise several parts of the time’s society, particularly the nobility. None of the characters in the play can be considered ‘good,’ and as a result, it is difficult to choose a hero or heroine, or even anyone deserving of sympathy or affiliation. The plot revolves around the two lovers Mirabell and Millamant. Mirabell must obtain the blessing of Millamant’s aunt, Lady Wishfort, before they may marry and receive Millamant’s full dowry. Lady Wishfort, on the other hand, is a bitter woman who despises Mirabell and wants her own nephew, Sir Wilfull, to marry Millamant. Meanwhile, Lady Wishfort, a widow, wishes to remarry and has set her sights on Mirabell’s wealthy uncle, Sir Rowland. At one point in the play known as the “proviso scene,” Mirabell and Millamant, who are both strong-willed, discuss in length the conditions under which they would accept each other in marriage, demonstrating the depth of their feelings for each other. A scenario in which Millamant presents her demands for a pre-nuptial agreement with Mirabell reflects women’s subjection to their husbands under both law and custom at the time, as well as an attempt to ameliorate the position of wife. Mirabell finally proposes to Millamant, who accepts with Mrs. Fainall’s encouragement (nearly consent, given Millamant’s knowledge of their previous relationships). Mirabell departs as Lady Wishfort comes, announcing her desire for Millamant to marry her nephew, Sir Wilfull Witwoud, who has just arrived from the countryside. Lady Wishfort later receives a letter informing her of the Sir Rowland scheme. Sir Rowland accepts the letter and accuses Mirabell of attempting to ruin their wedding. Lady Wishfort consents to Sir Rowland bringing a marriage contract that night. Another person,
Mrs. Marwood, a friend of Fainall’s wife, is having an affair with Fainall. Mrs. Fainall, Lady Wishfort’s daughter, had an affair with Mirabell and continues to be his friend. Meanwhile, Waitwell, Mirabell’s servant, is married to Foible, Lady Wishfort’s servant. Waitwell poses as Sir Rowland and, at Mirabell’s request, attempts to dupe Lady Wishfort into a sham engagement.
Mirabell is obviously a wit and a master manipulator. He has a really funny use of language. His discourse is wonderful on the surface due to his creative use of language, but it lacks psychological depth beneath the surface. He pretends to adore Lady Wishfort in order to get closer to Millament. His gaze is fixed on her money. A desire for money gain drives love and marriage. Finally, the play’s villain is determined to seize Lady Wishfort’s money. He marries Mrs. Fainal not out of genuine affection for her, but as a mercenary venture. Millament is an example of a Restoration Coquette, and Mirabell is an example of a beau. Petualant and Witwood are archetypal Restoration flops. They are more preoccupied with their appearance and clothing than with everything else. The love expressed in the play is more concerned with monetary gain than with the love of the companion.
Congreve epitomises the period’s mentality at its best. The rakehell was no longer a hero; Mirabell is a rakehell descendant, but he exhibits urbanity, grace, and decorum when compared to earlier specimens. Congreve’s love passages can be exquisite and dignified; he treats love objectively, which is distinct from the concept of lechery. His comedies are preoccupied, as have comedies throughout history, with love and money, which is frequently complicated by parental opposition. His approach, on the other hand, is balanced: Love without money would be a problem, but money without love, the cynic’s desire, is not. Similarly, Congreve despises the romantic belief that love will result in persons becoming buried in one other; he maintains that lovers retain their individuality. Love is not a metaphysical, emotional, or sacrilegious experience. However, in this context, it is more than just carnal or a thinly disguised lust; it contains trust, dignity, and mutual respect.
The use of humour is an outstanding feature of Restoration Comedy. The characters employ words in a deft and devious manner. The term repartee refers to fast responses, but the term report refers to a sharp reply in speech. In the late seventeenth century, wit was a keen weapon to be employed for the enjoyment of those who were intellectual enough to follow the exchange. Mirabell’s wit shines through as he comments on early eighteenth-century marriage to Mrs. Fainal. “You should have just enough disgust for your husband to make you relish your lover,” he advises. The play’s whole plot focuses around the themes of infidelity, marriage, and fortune chasing. As the tale progresses, the characters reveal themselves via their actions and aspirations. Because of how they act, laughter is unavoidable. Congreve is satirising the actions of the individuals in the English society at the time through this. It is your standard Restoration Comedy of Manners.
Because the age group was incapable of understanding the intensity of tragic emotions, funny and lighthearted dramatic material performed considerably better with them. The shallowness and vulgarity of the era are effectively revealed. To reflect the period of trade and money, the play is written in prose. Money’s language is numbers and words, not poetry. The drama does not finish happily for everyone, but Mirabell and Millamant have the upper hand and are looking forward to marriage. Finally, all of the deception is exposed, the proper lovers are reunited, and the issues are resolved. The play transcends its age and becomes a timeless comedy as it meticulously examines the relationships between the sexes and the hurdles that a sophisticated society throws between them. It is a representative drama of the era because it embodies the major aspects of the Restoration Comedy of Manners. It is a fantastic comedy of manners. By holding up to scorn the flaws and follies of the times, it demonstrates methods to social transformation, which is essentially what a comedy achieves.
Although the comedy appears to have a joyful ending, The Way of the World includes a number of loose ends that add to the confusion.
It is difficult to see how Mrs. Fainall’s future may be addressed successfully. It is not obvious if Fainall has been fully duped. He may still demand Lady Wishfort’s riches or embarrass her daughter. Mirabell’s assertion that “his circumstances are such, he [Fainall] must of force comply” is insufficient. Some motivational issues in the play are unclear: why did not Mirabell marry Mrs. Fainall when she was a widow? Is Mirabell’s affair with Mrs. Fainall coming to an end? Why should she assist Mirabell in his courtship of Millamant? Has he maybe persuaded Mrs. Fainall that he is marrying Millamant for financial gain? There are no definitive answers to these questions. They appear to be loose ends that the playwright never bothered to connect.