In 1660, after a decade of Puritan rule, London suddenly reemerged on the world stage. Charles II returned in triumph to take the throne his father had lost, and to modernize his city. Charles had spent much of his exile in the lavish court of his cousin Louis XIV in France, and he determined to remake London on that model. He brought in the latest European fashion and food, flaunted his many mistresses, and reopened the shuttered theatres with women instead of boys playing the female roles.
But one of Charles’ most significant acts after his restoration to the throne changed the landscape of London entirely. Following the model of Louis’ spectacular parks, Charles imported French experts to remodel St. James’s Park; they cleared tree-lined malls for walking, dug long canals, and built spectacular fountains. Instead of keeping the park for his personal use, Charles opened it to the public.
St. James’s Park quickly became the place in London to see and be seen. Women and men alike—including the king himself—came to its mall to show off the newest fashions. In an era defined by appearance and display, St. James’s Park was the stage on which London’s citizens performed for each other. Beneath the perfectly manicured exterior, however, lay a seamier side. At night, the Park became a haunt for illicit liaisons of all kinds. The poet and nobleman John Wilmot called it “this all-sin-sheltering grove,” and proclaimed that “great ladies, chambermaids, and drudges” all visited the park for the same thing. Women of this time often wore small masks in public, a fashionable trend that reveals much about the hidden heart of Restoration society.
William Congreve set an entire act of his 1700 play The Way of the World in St. James’s Park. As the upper crust of London society stroll the mall, Congreve’s characters steal moments of privacy to discuss their secret infidelities, feuds, and schemes. Casting off the pure silliness of earlier Restoration comedies (including his own), Congreve wrote this play to expose the real way of his world. He saw a society obsessed with “that idol reputation,” valuing surface appearance above true nature. From “the pious friendships of the female sex” to “the empty vows of men,” nothing escaped Congreve’s exposé.
Congreve had written four audience-pleasing plays at a young age, but he wrote The Way of the World with a different purpose: to respond to attacks levied against him and his fellow playwrights. In 1698, the Puritan clergyman Jeremy Collier had published A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage, a blazing criticism of Restoration theatre. Collier saw adultery, lying and swearing celebrated on the stage, and vice of all kinds go unpunished. The goal of the stage ought to be moral “instruction,” he wrote, and the best way to achieve that in comedy was through “the exposing of knavery, and making lewdness ridiculous.”
Surprisingly, Congreve agreed with part of Collier’s criticism. “It is the business of a comic poet to paint the vices and follies of humankind,” he had declared in 1693. But unlike Collier, he fiercely maintained that plays should never moralize or instruct. In The Way of the World, he set out instead to create a clear-eyed portrait of his society. He hated the unrealistic caricatures found in so many other contemporary plays, and so wrote “characters which should appear ridiculous not so much through a natural folly as through an affected wit; a wit which, at the same time that it is affected, is also false.” Their prized verbal wit, he sensed, covered up the truth as thoroughly as did their masks. Congreve wrote the wittiest dialogue of the Restoration, but it hides the most human hearts found in any play of that era.
The Way of the World hit very close to home for fashion-crazed audiences in 1700, and was not a hit in its own day. Frustrated at the criticism, the 29-year-old Congreve never wrote another play. But it has lasted longer than any other Restoration comedy because it is both raucously funny and enduringly true. In his last poem, written thirty years after his masterpiece, Congreve recognized that the concerns of 1700—reputation, fashion, appearance—would never change. When others idealized earlier times, he declared himself:
“Not wondering at the world’s new wicked ways, Compar'd with those of our fore-fathers’ days; For virtue now is neither more or less, And vice is only varied in the dress. Believe it, men have ever been the same, And all the golden age is but a dream.”
Akiva Fox, Literary Associate