The Way of the World is a play written by the English playwright William Congreve. It premiered in early March 1700 in the theatre in Lincoln's Inn Fields in London. It is widely regarded as one of the best Restoration comedies and is still occasionally performed.
The play is centred on the two lovers Mirabell and Millamant (originally played by John Verbruggen and Anne Bracegirdle). In order for them to marry and receive Millamant's full dowry, Mirabell must receive the blessing of Millamant's aunt, Lady Wishfort. Unfortunately, Lady Wishfort is a very bitter lady who despises Mirabell and wants her own nephew, Sir Wilfull, to wed Millamant.
Another character, Fainall, is having a secret affair with Mrs. Marwood, a friend of Mrs. Fainall's, who in turn once had an affair with Mirabell. In the meantime, Mirabell's servant is married to Foible, Lady Wishfort's servant. Waitwell pretends to be Sir Rowland and, on Mirabell's command, tries to trick Lady Wishfort into a false engagement.
Act 1 is set in a chocolate house where Mirabell and Fainall have just finished playing cards. A footman comes and tells Mirabell that Waitwell (Mirabell's male servant) and Foible (Lady Wishfort's female servant) were married that morning. Mirabell tells Fainall about his love of Millamant and is encouraged to marry her. Witwoud and Petulant appear and Mirabell is informed that should Lady Wishfort marry, he will lose £6000 of Millamant's inheritance. He will only get this money if he can get Lady Wishfort's consent to his and Millamant's marriage.
Act 2 is set in St. James' Park. Mrs. Fainall and Mrs. Marwood are discussing their hatred of men. Fainall appears and accuses Mrs. Marwood (with whom he is having an affair) of loving Mirabell (which she does). Meanwhile, Mrs. Fainall (Mirabell's former lover) tells Mirabell that she hates her husband, and they begin to plot to deceive Lady Wishfort into giving her consent to the marriage. Millamant appears in the park and, angry about the previous night (when Mirabell was confronted by Lady Wishfort), she tells Mirabell of her displeasure in his plan, which she only has a vague idea about. After she leaves, the newly wed servants appear and Mirabell reminds them of their roles in the plan.
Acts 3, 4 and 5 are all set in the home of Lady Wishfort. We are introduced to Lady Wishfort who is encouraged by Foible to marry the supposed Sir Rowland - Mirabell's supposed uncle - so that Mirabell will lose his inheritance. Sir Rowland is, however, Waitwell in disguise, and the plan is to entangle Lady Wishfort in a marriage which cannot go ahead, because it would be bigamy, not to mention a social disgrace (Waitwell is only a serving man, Lady Wishfort an aristocrat). Mirabell will offer to help her out of the embarrassing situation if she consents to his marriage. Later, Mrs. Fainall discusses this plan with Foible, but this is overheard by Mrs. Marwood. She later tells the plan to Fainall, who decides that he will take his wife's money and go away with Mrs. Marwood.
Mirabell and Millamant, equally strong-willed, discuss in detail the conditions under which they would accept each other in marriage (otherwise known as the "proviso scene"), showing the depth of their feeling for each other. Mirabell finally proposes to Millamant and, with Mrs. Fainall's encouragement (almost consent, as Millamant knows of their previous relations), Millamant accepts. Mirabell leaves as Lady Wishfort arrives, and she lets it be known that she wants Millamant to marry her nephew, Sir Wilfull Witwoud, who has just arrived from the countryside. Lady Wishfort later gets a letter telling her about the Sir Rowland plot.
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