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Introductory Outline to Congreve's The Way of the World

Outline

Action centers around determining which of three characters will control Millamant’s inheritance: Lady Wishfort, Mr. Fainall, or Mr. Mirabell. Millamant’s fortune stands as a metaphor for concrete social power in the play.

Act I. Setting in a chocolate house. Congreve uses this public space to distinguish good-natured, civilized male response to social experience from various negative, selfish, or limited responses:

    1. Mirabell distinguished from Fainall in terms of moral qualities
    2. The "wits" (Mirabell and Fainall) distinguished from the false wits (Witwoud and Petulant)

Act II. Setting in St. James Park. The dancelike pairings of characters as various couples are formed on the stage help to distinguish positive human relations from a series of negative or limited ones. Congreve’s focus in this act is on the games people play as they manipulate the distances between them.

    1. Sorry manipulation of female "friendship" by Mrs. Fainall and Mrs. Marwood
    2. Hellish intimacy of an affair gone sour between Mrs. Marwood and Mr. Fainall
    3. Civilized friendship between two former lovers, Mrs. Fainall and Mirabell
    4. The vital, witty couple, Mirabell and Millamant, in the company of others.

Act III. Setting in Lady Wishfort’s house. Antagonisms of various sorts are close to the surface in all interactions. A number of people plot and counterplot to get various kinds of power over others. The villains, Marwood and Mr. Fainall, are especially active and successful in gathering information.

    1. Lady Wishfort preparing for Sir Rowland, spatting with servants, being controlled by Foible and Marwood
    2. Millamant and Marwood as openly antagonistic
    3. Witwoud (the artificial fool) trading insults with Sir Wilfull (the natural fool)
    4. Marwood and Mr. Fainall bitterly planning to ruin all

Act IV. Festive act of proposals and drunkenness.

    1. Lady Wishfort prepares for Sir Rowland with theatrical performances and stagings
    2. Millamant prepares for Mirabell with poetry; proviso (marriage contract) scene
    3. Drunks on the stage preparing to propose and travel
    4. Sir Rowland finally appears

Act V. Moves from festivity to law, dramatizing the difficult transmission of power from Lady Wishfort and Mr. Fainall to Mirabell – note the number of legal documents and legal threats.

According to Norman Holland:

The discrepancy between the family structure and the emotional structure plays into the Restoration convention about intrigue: a discrepancy between appearances (the overt family relations) and "nature" (the hidden emotional facts) gives power to the man who knows the discrepancy. At the beginning of the play, Mirabell is trying to set up such a situation. He has married his servant Waitwell to Lady Wishfort’s maid Foible and plans to have Waitwell disguise himself as a nobleman, court, and marry Lady Wishfort. Then Mirabell plans to reveal the disguise, show Lady Wishfort that she has married a servant, and offer to release her if she will let him marry Millamant cum estate. Unfortunately, Mrs. Marwood (who for at least two reasons wants to spike Mirabell’s courtship of Millamant) discovers the plan and tells Lady Wishfort. Mrs. Marwood also tells Fainall of his wife’s former affair with Mirabell; he threatens to publish it to the world unless Lady Wishfort signs over to him not only his wife’s but also Millmant’s estate and even the reversion after her life of Lady Wishfort’s own estate. Mrs. Fainall then ineffectually reveals that she knows Mrs. Marwood is having an affair with her husband. Finally, however, Mirabell wins the contest by knowing the ultimate discrepancy between appearance and nature. He produces a deed by Mrs. Fainall conveying all her estate to him as her trustee; she made it when she was a widow (and could execute a valid conveyance of her property), and it therefore predates any deed Fainall could now obtain. These various deeds at the end of the play combine and fuse the two kinds of reality, dynastic and emotional, from which the play is built.

[Holland, Norman. The First Modern Comedies. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1959.]

"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding