The English Civil Wars cost England eighteen years of theater. Puritan values held that immorality was the story told on every stage and a 1642 act of Parliament made sure no one would be polluted by it. By the time the Stuart monarchy was restored in 1660, English audiences were ripe for theatrical entertainment. They had seen first-hand the absurdity of shifting power, the uncertainty of social contracts, the hypocrisy that passed for justice. Restoration comedy offered up a satirical cure to a society in need of correction; it exposed, with humor, the foulness beneath extended shows of decorum.
William Congreve’s plays are the theatrical greats of the late Restoration. He wrote five in all, four of them comedies. His earliest play The Old Bachelor led Dryden to claim that he “never saw such a first play in his life.” Bachelor ran for an almost unprecedented fourteen days (a palpable hit for that time). The Way of the World was Congreve’s final piece for the theater and is considered “his most sophisticated and complete comedy, a masterpiece.”
Congreve made exceptional use of Restoration stock characters and plot points. His comedies engage elements of scandal, deception, and bawdiness, and assign victory to young lovers. He noted the advantage of real women on stage. Congreve’s women demonstrate an interest in self-sovereignty. Millamant, the charismatic heroine of The Way of the World, insists, “I’ll never marry, unless I am first made sure of my will and pleasure.” Her pleasure materializes in the form of the dashing and rakish-but-penitent Mirabell. But the heart wants what the heart wants. She bids liberty adieu. Congreve’s plays flaunt both male and female desire, and attend particularly to cravings for cash and copulation. It is worth noting that morality is not altogether absent from Congreve’s plays; it is, however, decidedly less attractive than wit. Congreve is a dramatist who makes intelligence sexy.
Theresa Rebeck’s biting and brilliant adaptation drives home how thoroughly Congreve is our contemporary. Her play depicts the scandalous goings-on of the 1%, and gives new meaning to “the comedy of manners.” There is a current of theatricality that is spot-on. The characters’ obsession with dress and accessories suggests that performance trumps real life among the East Hampton elite. Even nature must be enhanced unnaturally to merit a place in the elaborate design.
Attention is paid across the board to objects and to pretty things. There is something unsettling in the way characters fuse emotional and material attractions. We see this in casual bantering between friends: “If it weren’t for that vintage Louis Vuitton bag, I would never even speak to you.” The dysfunction is more striking when the Waitress, nameless and paid to be invisible, is distressed to find that the bulk of lovely objects in rich people’s homes are forgotten, neglected by their owners. “What is the point of having all these things,” she asks, “if you don’t even know you have them?”
It is a resistance to objects as well as to her own objectification that inspires Mae, the play’s virtuous and disturbingly rich heroine, to make a change. Mae is compelling; her goodness is so clear that we are perhaps more delighted by her choices than we are surprised by them. What is unexpected is the propensity for change Mae inspires and ignites. Henry, initially a cad on the trail of Mae’s money, is startled by the depth of his affection for her. He just may be bent on goals beyond a pursuit of property. Others, too, surprise themselves with tiny epiphanies that permit them suddenly to examine their own imperfect behavior.
It’s not clear that any great change will come of it. Still, the desire to do and be better is potentially heroic; it is a marker of the play’s most noble characters. If that’s not the way of the world then it should be.