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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VIII. The Age of Dryden.

VI. The Restoration Drama

§ 6. The Way of the World

Three years later, in 1700, Congreve’s masterpiece, The Way of the World, was played at the theatre in Lincoln’s inn fields. That it was a failure on the stage is not remarkable. It was written to please its author’s fastidious taste, not to chime with the humour of the age. It was, in brief, a new invention in English literature. It is deformed neither by realism nor by farce. The comic spirit breathes freely through its ample spaces. “That it succeeded on the stage,” says Congreve, “was almost beyond my expectation.” There is no hint of grossness in the characters. They are not of the common sort, “rather objects of charity than contempt,” which were then popular on the stage. In brief, it was Congreve’s purpose

  • to design some characters, which should appear ridiculous, not so much through a natural folly (which is incorrigible, and therefore not proper to the stage) as through an affected wit, a wit, which at the same time that it is affected is also false.
  • And so, he set upon the boards a set of men and women of quick brains and cynical humours, who talked with the brilliance and rapidity wherewith the finished swordsman fences. They are not at the pains to do much. What Congreve calls the fable is of small account. It is difficult to put faith in the document which unravels the tangle and counteracts the villainy of Fainall. The trick played upon lady Wishfort, that most desperate of all creatures, a lady fighting an unequal battle with time, does no more than interrupt the raillery, which, with a vivid characterisation, is the play’s excuse. The cabal nights, on which they come together, and sit like a coroner’s inquest on the murdered reputations of the week, and of which Sheridan’s imitation fell far below the original, demonstrate at once what manner of men and women are the persons of the drama. Witwoud, indeed, is the very triumph of coxcombry, with Petulant for his engaging foil. He never opens his lips without an epigram, and in his extravagant chatter climbs to the topmost height of folly. “Fainall,” says he, “how’s your lady … I beg pardon that I should ask a man of pleasure and the town, a question at once so foreign and domestic.” And again: “A wit should be no more sincere than a woman constant; one argues a decay of parts, as t’other of beauty.” How light, and cynical, and well-bred it all is, in spite of its purposed affectation! And the other characters, Mrs. Marwood and the Fainalls, though the deeper seriousness of intrigue inspires them, are drawn with a perfect surety of skill and knowledge.

    But Mrs. Millamant and Mirabell overtop them all. The warfare of their wits and hearts is the very essence of the drama. George Meredith has said with justice that the play might be called “The Conquest of a Town Coquette”; and, when the enchanting Millamant and her lover are on the stage, our interest in the others fades to nothingness. By a happy stroke, Millamant does not appear until the second scene of the second act, but Mirabell has discoursed of her qualities, and you are all expectancy. And nobly does the love-sick Mirabell hail her approach. “Here she comes, i’ faith, full sail, with her fan spread and her streamers out, and a shoal of fools for tenders; ha, no, I cry her mercy!” It is impossible to think of anything save the apparition of Dalila, in Samson Agonistes,

  • That so bedeckt, ornate, and gay,
  • Comes this way sailing
  • Like a stately Ship
  • Of Tarsus, bound for th’ Isles
  • Of Javan or Gadier
  • With all her bravery on and tackle trim,
  • Sails fill’d, and streamers waving.
  • And Mrs. Millamant reveals herself at once as a woman of fashion, sated with life. Instantly she strikes the note of nonchalance in her famous comment upon letters. “Nobody knows how to write letters and yet one has ’em, one does not know why. They serve one to pin up one’s hair.” Then, she and Mirabell fall bravely to the encounter. “Nay, ’t is true,” says he, “you are no longer handsome when you ’ve lost your lover; your beauty dies upon the instant; for beauty is the lover’s gift.” “Lord, what is a lover, that it can give,” asks Millamant. “Why, one makes lovers as fast as one pleases, and they live as long as one pleases, and they die as soon as one pleases; and then, if one pleases, one makes more.” Whenever Millamant is upon the stage, Congreve is at his best. The speeches which he puts in her mouth are all delicately turned and finely edged. She is a personage by and of herself. She comes before you visibly and audibly. She is no profile, painted upon paper, and fitted with tags. Her creator has made her in three dimensions; and, as she always differs from those about her, so she is always consistent with herself. Mirabell knows her when he says that “her true vanity is in her power of pleasing.” She is, indeed, a kind of Beatrice, who strives with a willing Benedick. But, though she loves her Mirabell, yet will she not submit. When he, lacking humour as a lover would in the circumstances, complains that “a man may as soon make a friend by his wit, or a fortune by his honesty, as win a woman by plain-dealing and sincerity,” how deftly she turns his gravity aside! “Sententious Mirabell!” And it is to Mrs. Fainall, not to her lover, that at last she acknowledges, “well, if Mirabell should not make a good husband, I am a lost thing—for I find I love him violently.”

    But, before the end, there is many a battle to be fought. In her contest with Mrs. Marwood, the spurned beauty, she hides her passion behind a veil of malicious merriment. “I detest him, hate him, madam,” declares Mrs. Marwood. “O madam, why so do I,” answers the defiant Millamant, “and yet the creature loves me, ha! ha! ha! how can one forbear laughing to think of it.” Nor will she dwindle into marriage without an exaction at every step. She ’ll be solicited to the very last, nay, and afterwards. It is not for her to endure “the saucy looks of an assured man.” And so she makes terms with Mirabell, and he, in turn, offers conditions of matrimony, in a scene which for phrase and diction Congreve himself has never surpassed. Even at the last, she will yield only with an impertinence. “Why does not the man take me? would you have me give myself to you over and over again?” And Mirabell replies, “Ay, and over and over again.” Thus, they share the victory; and, as you lay down the play, in which incense has been offered to the muse of comedy, you feel that The Way of the World, for all its malice, all its irony, all its merriment, is as austere as tragedy, as rarefied as thought itself.