The World of The Way of the World
When King Charles II entered London to reclaim the throne of England on his 30th birthday in 1660, the city was reawakening. The Puritan revolutionaries who deposed and executed Charles’ father a decade before had also sharply restricted English cultural life, shutting the theatres and restricting plays of all kinds. So by the time of Charles’ return, known as the Restoration, companies were already springing up to present theatrical entertainment to a city long starved for it.
Charles made the new theatres his personal cause. Having spent his 14-year exile in the lavish courts of Europe, including that of his cousin Louis XIV in France, Charles pushed to bring cutting-edge European theatre techniques to English stages. Managers built theatres to accommodate elaborate scenery, and playwrights began to follow the lead of the Frenchman Molière by satirizing contemporary society. Perhaps most importantly, Charles proclaimed that “whereas women’s parts in plays have hitherto been acted by men in the habits of women, we do permit and give leave for the time to come that all women’s parts be acted by women.”
These innovations fed an audience eager to see the latest fashions and scandals on stage. A notorious womanizer, Charles encouraged the frank discussion of sex and love in these new Restoration comedies. The plays thrived on romantic intrigue, telling stories of adulterous wives, plotting servants and young lovers. With descriptive names like Courtall and Lovewell, the characters embodied familiar types: the rake, a dashing and unscrupulous seducer; or the fop, a ridiculous and fashion-crazed wastrel.
But the party could not last forever. Political and social upheaval during the 1670s and 1680s filtered down to the theatre. The witty and amoral plays of Charles’ reign gave way to more serious ones under his successors. And in the 1690s, clergymen launched vicious attacks on the theatre, calling it “lewd and dissolute.” Forty years after the excitement and freedom of bringing back the theatre, its future direction seemed uncertain.
So as a new century began, English theatre looked to reinvent itself again. The young playwright William Congreve, whose hit comedies made him popular with audiences and infamous with the moralizers, led the way with his ground-breaking 1700 play The Way of the World. Using the familiar materials of Restoration comedy, he instead created complicated and human characters that transcended stereotype. Mirabell, a recovering rake, must set right his past affairs and betrayals before he can marry the woman of his dreams. Anthony Witwoud, a hapless fop, puts on airs to hide his embarrassment at his unfashionable family origins. And Millamant, the surprisingly strong belle, knows her power over men and fights to retain it. Congreve’s characters, more so than any on the English stage before, lived in the real world.