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MonkeyNotes-The Way of the World by William Congreve
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The Way of the World (1700) is Congreveís best experimental
comedy even though he employs a typical plot formula for a
Restoration comedy of manners. The world of the play reflects
Congreveís own society and revolves around a witty young man
winning a lady and her fortune after overcoming the obstacles
posed by antagonistic parents and other suitors. Both Mirabell
and Millamant wish to marry each other and still enjoy the six
thousand pounds inheritance that she will receive if she marries
the suitor chosen by her aunt. The plot is complicated by the
ways of the world. Mirabell has offended Lady Wishfort and is
opposed by Fainall and his mistress, Mrs. Marwood. Fainall is a
fortune hunter who has set his eyes on Millamantís money and
hopes to have the money pass to Mrs. Fainall so that he can
reach it. Both Fainall and Mrs. Marwood undertake a couple of
their own schemes to acquire this money. Mirabell and Mrs.
Fainall also devise plots of their own to achieve their objective.
Finally, Mirabell wins Millamant, and the complex action
reaches its resolution.

The theater was revived after the restoration of Charles II to the
English throne in 1660. The King and his courtiers, who had
returned after their exile in France, brought with them French
manners and promoted indulgence in frivolous pleasures,
causing a collapse of the Puritanical moral code that had existed
in England. The sexually permissive court of Charles II set the
temper for Restoration literature in general, and theater in
particular. The court wits were dramatists themselves and
mirrored the polite society in their plays. Dryden aptly
described this period as "a very Merry, Dancing, Drinking, /
Laughing, Quaffing, and Unthinking Time" (The Secular
Masque, Dryden, 1700).

After theaters were reopened in 1660, a new kind of comedy,
the comedy of manners, immediately came into being for the
aristocratic class of society and flourished until 1700. The focus
of these comic plays was on manners rather than on morals.
Since women were allowed on stage for the first time to play the
female parts, there was much preoccupation in the plays with
the theme of sexual relationships. A few dramatists examined
the sexual theme in great detail, earning the wrath of Puritan
groups. Jeremy Collier attacked the loose morals depicted in the
theater in his pamphlet, A Short View of the Immorality and
Profaneness of the English Stage (1698). The pamphlet
generated much controversy about the morality of the
Restoration comedies, which seemed to take an unrestrained
delight in mocking religion and morality. Collierís fault lies in
his holding the dramatists responsible for the views of their
characters and failing to make allowances for satiric realism in
the plays. Ironically, the plays condemned by Collier are the
best reflection of true Restoration society.

By contrast, the tragic dramatists of the Restoration, such as
John Dryden, were far removed from reality. They presented a
fictitious ideal of heroism, which appealed to an entirely
unheroic age. Although the tragic plays enjoyed widespread
popularity during the Restoration, they are almost forgotten
now. It is in the comedies that one finds, if not the faithful
mirror of the age, at least a reflection of the intrigues and
frivolous conversation that formed the reality of the Restoration
aristocratic society.

In 1665, following the death of Charles II, James II ascended
the throne. After only three years, James II was defeated by
William of Orange and his Queen Mary in the Glorious
Revolution of 1688. A period of relative calm and stability
began in England. 1688 was also the year of Congreveís arrival
in England. Although Congreve is described as a Restoration
dramatist, in reality he invented a new kind of comedy. Unlike
his predecessors, who merely depicted the age as they saw it,
Congreve employed satirical realism, subverting the Themes and
conventions of the Restoration comedy of manners. Congreve,
therefore, becomes a link to the playwrights of the eighteenth
century, such as Goldsmith and Sheridan.

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MonkeyNotes-The Way of the World by William Congreve

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