Thursday, 3 February 2000
William Congreve: The Way of the World (1700)
Review number: 432
Congreve's play has the theme of hypocrisy and deceit in society, as even some of the characters' names indicate (Fainall, for example). Even Mirabell, the hero (his name indicating that he is admirable), uses a deceitful scheme to bring about the happy ending. Only Millamant, the object of his desire, does not pretend to be anything other than what she really is, though her capriciousness towards Mirabell infuriates him.
Millamant is unable to marry who she pleases, since half of her fortune is controlled by her aunt, Lady Wishfort. (Congreve doesn't explain why half her fortune. Perhaps it is to muddle the motives even of Mirabell and Millamant, for the half that would pass to her should provide enough to live on comfortably - why go to so much effort to win the fortune, if love is supposed to be your driving passion?) In order to gain her consent, Mirabell conceives a complicated scheme. His servant, Waitwell is to pretend to be Mirabell's rich uncle, and court Lady Wishfort; when she discovers the truth, she will be forced to allow the marriage, to avoid the shame of public exposure. To make sure of Waitwell's loyalty, Mirabell marries him to Lady Wishfort's maid, so that any marriage between him and Lady Wishfort is invalid.
The plot is clearly related to the commedia plots of Marivaux and Molière, though there are variations. The rascally servant, though still making his sarcastic observation of society, is not just the tool of his master, who has taken on his cunning. The intrigue is not directed at the heroine, but at her aunt. The father figure that is the butt of jokes has gone, but instead we have the other suitors. Congreve has taken the traditional plot structure and developed and twisted it.