WILLIAM CONGREVE'S
THE WAY OF THE WORLD

Monday, June 27, 7:30 pm

Lucille Lortel Theatre

121 Christopher Street

 

Directed by Jesse Berger

Featuring Jacob Dresch, Francesca Faridany, Alison Fraser, Ryan Garbayo, Adam Green, Christopher Innvar, Amelia Pedlow, Robert Petkoff, Liv Rooth, Jeanine Serralles, Dina Thomas, CJ Wilson, Nathan Winkelstein and more

Do money and marriage mix? The pinnacle of riotous Restoration Comedies, Congreve’s play is an unexpectedly moving tale of the trials and tribulations of true love and true riches.

 

Mirabell and Millamant are in love, but in order for them to marry (and more importantly receive Millamant's full dowry), they need the blessing of Millamant's bitter aunt, Lady Wishfort. Unfortunately, Lady Wishfort has other plans for them. Meanwhile, Fainall, is having a secret affair with his wife's best friend, who in turn once had an affair with Mirabell. And that doesn't even describe what the servants are up to! The wonderful ways of the world - greed, duplicity and lechery - are all on delicious display in this timeless comedy.

 

The OBIE Award-Winning Revelation Readings series provides a unique opportunity to hear rarely-produced classic plays performed by many of the finest actors in New York.

 

 

ABOUT THE PLAYWRIGHT

 

William Congreve (1670 – 1729), the son of an English army officer stationed in Ireland, was educated at Kilkenny School along with his schoolmate Jonathan Swift, and at Trinity College, Dublin. His first play, The Old Bachelor (1693), was produced with Dryden’s support and was widely acclaimed. It was followed by three other comedies: The Double Dealer, Love for Love (heard at Red Bull in 2010), and his masterpiece, The Way of the World (1700). Following its lukewarm reception and wearied by his ongoing battle with the Reverend Jeremy Collier, whose Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage (1698) attacked him personally, Congreve retired from the stage at the age of thirty. He spent the rest of his life in the company of Swift, Steele, and Pope, who dedicated his translation of The Iliad to him. He died in a carriage accident on a journey to Bath.

 

ABOUT THE PLAY

 

“A woman dictates before marriage in order that she may have an appetite for submission afterwards.” – George Eliot, Middlemarch, 1872

 

On his return to the throne in 1660, Charles II brought back from France two radical developments for the English theater: French neoclassicism and female performers on the stage. Audience tastes were changing; during the Restoration, Jonson and Beaumont and Fletcher were the favorite revivals; Shakespeare’s “fancy” was less popular because Restoration drama is extremely realistic - it’s a mirror image of society. Shakespeare was too fanciful, too unreal.

 

The prime example of this new realism, the introduction of the female performer, changed the very essence of spectatorship. The popularity of breeches roles in Restoration theater sprang from a very different impulse from that of the earlier all-male performance tradition. Now the interest was in seeing the actual legs of real women on stage, along with the many opportunities for revealing the disheveled décolletage of female performers during scenes of quite explicit sexual pursuit. The female body became an object of intense interest in its own right, both onstage and off, and created a new climate of celebrity for female performers, whose abilities as actresses often took second place to their status as cultural curiosities.

 

Representing both the pinnacle and the conclusion of Restoration drama, The Way of the World epitomizes the psychology of manner - the way people behave (hence the title.) Motive is assumed to be the same for all: to get sex, to get money, and to remain young. Later on, motives become a bit more subtle: sex becomes marriage, though marriage seen only in economic terms; women are discussed in terms of their fortune. Marriage vows mean nothing: sex/marriage becomes a game of wit and imagination that both can play. The wit resides in the very action of the play itself -- each strategic plan registers a difference between what the characters really want and the rhetoric surrounding the way the action is committed. This focus on manner creates a theatricalized language of morality and underlies the game structure of Restoration comedy.

 

In the first scene, the essential plot action is buried beneath an elaborate game in which Mirabell schemes to acquire Millamant’s fortune. His manner is defined by a diffidence that masks a deep concern with personal liberty: to fall in love is to lose power over the love object. Millamant wants the same freedom of manner and independence – hence the battle of wits. Love must remain unexpressed because the investment of the self would be a betrayal of the Restoration code of diffidence. To preserve the private self from the prison of definition entails absolute freedom of choice - liberty is the key commitment. The famous contract scene in Act IV is the exquisite expression of this commitment, as Millamant is determined to safeguard her independence even as she must “by degrees dwindle into a Wife.” She refuses to seal the contract with a kiss because that would reduce her to a cliché. It’s a profoundly serious point: neither one wants to give up the total commitment to the integrity of the self - this is the essence of the Restoration personality.

 

In the end, a Puritan reaction sets in against Restoration “immorality;” court culture becomes more bourgeois, resulting in the sentimental comedy of the 18th century. We won’t see a revival of laughing comedy until Goldsmith and Sheridan in the 1770s, and perhaps only one time since, with Oscar Wilde: the true person is the one inside, who poses and postures for the outside world.

 

Kathleen Dimmick

Bennington College

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