The curtain rises as Mirabell is defeated by Fainall in a desultory card game at the chocolate-house. The conversation reveals that Mirabell is in love with Millamant but is intensely disliked by Millamant's guardian. Lady Wishfort's dislike seems to have some justification: Mirabell at one time pretended to court her in order to conceal his love for her niece. She is fifty-five years old, and her vanity was offended when she discovered that Mirabell did not love her.
When Fainall leaves for a moment, a servant enters and informs Mirabell that his valet married that day. Mirabell is pleased because his marriage is a necessary prelude to some secret scheme — which is not revealed. Witwoud and Petulant then enter, and we gain the additional information that Witwoud's elder brother is coming to town to court Millamant. Witwoud and Petulant are also both courting Millamant but only because she is the currently reigning belle. There is further talk of an uncle of Mirabell's who is coming to court Lady Wishfort. The men leave for a walk in the park.
The summary of this act points up one of the difficulties in the structure of the play. The first act does not seem to move forward. It contains only partial exposition so that the reader has trouble following the play. The relations between Mirabell and Fainall are not made clear. It would be the actors' task to suggest the strain between them. The skilled and, we might say, suspicious reader may glean as much from the lines.
Fainall distrusts Mirabell, with good cause. He suspects the nature of the friendship between Mirabell and his wife before their marriage. He also suspects that his mistress, Mrs. Marwood, loves Mirabell. Mirabell is aware of Fainall's suspicions and, of course, suspects that Mrs. Marwood is Fainall's mistress. When Mirabell says that "for the discovery of this amour, I am indebted to your friend, or your wife's friend, Mrs. Marwood," the actor will put the emphasis on "or your wife's friend" so as to suggest that the innocent comment is barbed. Fainall pointedly replies, "What should provoke her to be your enemy unless she has made you advances which you have slighted? Women do not easily forgive omissions of that nature." The actor must read the lines properly on the stage, and so must the reader.
Other lines also demand careful reading. The talk about Lady Wishfort is not merely casual: She is very important in the subsequent action. The comments about Millamant's character are highly significant. Despite Mirabell's wit and irony, we must realize his sincerity. The speech beginning "I like her with all her faults" is a highly ironic yet thoroughly convincing admission of love. The rather mysterious concern with Waitwell's marriage seems strange until later developments.
Witwoud and Petulant are a pair of the fops and false wits that abounded in Restoration London, or at least in Restoration drama. They have no part in the action of The Way of the World; at most, they serve to suggest Millamant's train of suitors. Congreve's deftness of line is such that, over the years, critics have complained about the brilliance of some of Witwoud's speeches — for instance, "a letter as heavy as a panegyric in a funeral sermon" is not a bad line. But we can see that Witwoud lacks the style and the dignity that is so marked in Mirabell, the ideal Restoration gentleman, and he is so self-satisfied that he is unable to distinguish between legitimate raillery and the personal insults directed at him by both Mirabell and Fainall. As Mirabell ironically states: "He has indeed one good quality — he is not exceptious; . . . he will construe an affront into a jest, and call downright rudeness and ill language satire and fire."
Petulant is a clearer case. He comes closer to the kinds of characters one observes in Jonson. The foppishness of both characters can be reinforced by the arts of the costumers and the actor.