The Way of the World
Methuen Drama New Mermaids
While the current situation is, to say the least, far from ideal, our enforced absence from theatres does leave more free time to explore other media.
While almost all plays have been written to be performed and enjoyed on the stage, many of the best demonstrate the efforts of writers to use language meticulously. This means that readers of the text can often discover much that may pass by in a flash on stage, covered by some interesting stage business, intrusive or bad acting or perhaps even a little daydreaming. The great stylists often fall into this category, everyone from William Shakespeare to Oscar Wilde or Noël Coward.
William Congreve is also a perfect example, as David Roberts who provides the new introduction to this classic Restoration comedy amply demonstrates. Helpfully, he identifies Congreve’s main sources and inspirations, especially the Roman playwright Terence and, from his own era, John Dryden.
Anyone with an interest in the play, or a need to study it for academic purposes, will find both enjoyment and information in equal measure, learning a great deal about the play and also its context. However, for most, the real pleasure will come in reading a work that brilliantly stands up to the test of time even three centuries after it first saw the light of day.
Congreve has many strengths. His characterisation is generally spot-on, even when inventing people who are highly stylised. At the same time, the writer has the ability to point up the foibles of a society which, at least amongst its wealthier echelons, was built upon artifice but also wit. In particular, love and marriage seem barely to overlap, the former an enjoyable pastime, while matrimony is portrayed as an activity pursued either for financial gain or status.
The humour rarely lets up, even as the central figures, Mirabell and Millament, run rings around their fellows, at times with a degree of cruelty. It is also fun to be reminded that there is no fool greater than a vain old fool, as proven by Lady Wishfort and Sir Wilfull Witwoud. Even the names such as Petulant, Foible and Waitwell speak volumes.
Pleasingly, the malicious tend to get their comeuppance in this genre, while even the servants more than hold their own.
In addition to a cracking morality tale plot, the pleasures of reading this text lie in an opportunity to relish verbal dexterity that would not have been out of place in the works of Wilde.
The availability of this new publication in electronic format also offers fresh advantages, since rather than flicking backwards and forwards to find footnotes, thereby losing much of the rhythm, it is possible to click on most of those tricky phrases that are unintelligible to modern ears and find an explanation flashing up instantly.
While pages on paper or a screen can never replace experiencing the likes the best cast in living memory, which included Dame Maggie Smith, Michael Jayston and Joan Plowright relishing the language on stage, this volume provides its own pleasures.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher