Critical Essays Notes on Performance of The Way of the World


Although The Way of the World was not at first successful, it gained in reputation over the years. It is a great comedy, marred by structural difficulties; it becomes the business of the director and actors somehow to overcome these flaws and help the audience to follow the play and appreciate its elements of greatness.

In this section, we shall suggest some ways that direction or acting may make the play clearer and more meaningful. This section will not be a complete line by line guide to the acting and direction, but some scenes, some characters, and some devices will be discussed. Throughout, the approach will always be to preserve the dramatist's intent and spirit even if sometimes that means departing from his precise practice.


One device would be of some assistance to the characters: Lady Wishfort's house should be full of mirrors — wall mirrors, dressing table mirrors, easel mirrors, and hand mirrors. For Lady Wishfort, they are indispensable; for others, useful. Witwoud is overwigged and thinks himself very handsome; Millamant is not without vanity; Sir Rowland would love himself in his borrowed finery; and perhaps Sir Wilfull might with advantage look at himself while in his cups.


The characters are discussed in other sections, but there are some hints to the acting of the parts that might be worth considering. Mirabell and Millamant are the "young lovers," indispensable ingredient of any comedy. On first reading, the lines of their two important scenes together do not convey the idea that they are lovers; they are fencing in Act II and seem to be approaching marriage in far too businesslike a way in Act IV. Nevertheless, in Act II, the actress must make clear that Millamant does love Mirabell and will have him no matter how much she may tease him; in the proviso scene, the clue is: "Well, if Mirabell should not make a good husband, I am a lost thing, for I find I love him violently." From its beginning, the scene moves toward that line: It must be acted so that the speech is the logical and fitting climax.

Yet, they must not be shown as naïve young lovers; they are wise in the ways of their generation. Mirabell is no awkward, bumbling juvenile; Millamant is an ingénue with an important difference: She has wit and considerable wisdom. Daintily feminine and tigerishly female, her claws must show in scenes with the fops and with other women. She is not the sweet helpless creature of circumstance. She has carefully selected her mate, and in the world in which she moves, who is to say that she has not selected the best?

In different ways, Fainall and the fops must be contrasted with Mirabell. Fainall is the machinating villain, but Mirabell is himself a highly competent schemer. In the end, Mirabell is successful. Fainall, therefore, must be more villainous, Mirabell more assured and urbane, the Restoration ideal. In the fifth act, there is real danger that Fainall may play Mirabell off the stage. This is to be avoided, for the balance of the play, already somewhat precarious, can be destroyed.

Young Witwoud and Petulant form a team. Young Witwoud is an unsuccessful caricature of Mirabell, a man who never quite comes off. His bow is not entirely successful; his peruke is somewhat exaggerated, the ribbons on his shoes a little too large. In clothes, manner, and wit, he wishes to be what Mirabell so effortlessly is.

Waitwell is also a variation of Mirabell. Whatever he knows of the art of the gentleman is learned from Mirabell. He is a caricature of the gentleman, with the servant showing through the masquerade. He may engage in obvious imitations of Mirabell's mannerisms.

There is a danger in making Sir Wilfull Witwoud too much the country bumpkin. He is awkward with Millamant; he does drink too much after dinner. But his essential basic good sense must show — for that alone makes his cooperation with Mirabell and Millamant in the last act plausible.

Mrs. Marwood must be contrasted with Millamant in manner and costume. She is the more worldly, more dangerous, but in verbal encounter with Millamant, she comes off second best.

Lady Wishfort is, of course, the prize acting part. The danger lies in treating her as a completely burlesque character. Despite all her faults, she still arouses some sympathy. In the fifth act, she is the pathetic old woman betrayed by child, ward, friends, and servants, all of whom she trusted.

Act-by-Act Comments

The biggest problems, however, for the director and actors of The Way of the World are still concerned with the lines and plot of the play. The play should be read a number of times until the links between the parts are clearly apparent. The lines must be understood — if the actors have difficulty determining the meaning of some lines, they must establish a meaning — for it is disastrous to mouth the words, hoping something will emerge. If the actors have established a meaning, they can work with it and establish an interpretation.

Act I

There is almost no action in this act and not even enough exposition to help the audience understand what is occurring; key exposition is withheld to the second act. It becomes the responsibility of the actors, therefore, to create an atmosphere that gives hints to the audience of the strained and twisted relationships that exist between the characters, the causes to be revealed later. Careful reading shows that there are ample opportunities in the lines.

Starting as early as the sixth line of the play, Fainall says, "You are thinking of something else now and play [at cards] too negligently." This appears to be a casual statement, but the logic of the play demands that it be pointed. The audience must be made aware that Mirabell does have something on his mind and that Fainall has a particularly unpleasant kind of sensitivity, a general distrust of others' motives. Mirabell is distracted, and Fainall suspects him.

Let us consider the seemingly innocent passage of arms between Mirabell and Fainall:

Fainall: What, then, my wife was there?

Mirabell: Yes, and Mrs. Marwood.

Fainall's question is not guileless; Mirabell's innocent addition, "and Mrs. Marwood," is actually a parry. Fainall implies Mirabell's interest in Mrs. Fainall. Mirabell gracefully reminds his antagonist that he too strays. Mirabell, with somewhat greater acidity, says later on: "I am indebted to your friend, or your wife's friend, Mrs. Marwood." "Or your wife's friend" might be accompanied by an ironic bow, or be spoken quizzically. In some way, attention should be directed to it. Fainall's response is more of the same verbal war under a smooth surface, but conversation becomes more snappish. The two men have moved some distance toward quarreling — although it would still not be overt — by the time Fainall retreats: "Fie, fie, friend! If you grow censorious I must leave you." It is important that the scene show underlying tensions and move to a point where it is wise for the men to break off the conversation.

Mirabell's speech about Millamant's faults, discussed earlier, is priceless. It is also a key speech for understanding the play. Mirabell must make the audience see here that under his urbanity, under his irony directed against himself, he is very much in love. At the end of it, Fainall's "Marry her, marry her!" is more than just casual cynicism; he talks as a man whose marriage can never be other than unsatisfactory.

Act II

The opening scene between Mrs. Fainall and Mrs. Marwood is further evidence that there is no such thing as mere chat in the play. The scene is a continuation of Act I in that tensions are present, but the audience is still not shown the cause. The women are obviously suspicious of each other; each is probing for the weak spot in the other while trying to reveal as little of herself as possible. It would seem that Mrs. Fainall draws first blood:

Mrs. Fainall: Would thou wert married to Mirabell.

Mrs. Marwood: Would I were!

Mrs. Fainall: You change color.

The duel continues until Mrs. Marwood's speech: "Methinks you look a little pale — and now you flush again." Mrs. Fainall is saved further embarrassment by the entrance of others. It is obvious that the success of this scene depends on how adequately the women play their parts. Each speech is pointed. This kind of dueling continues in the passage between Mrs. Marwood and Mr. Fainall. It must be clear from their speeches that mutual trust is not an ingredient of their love. Millamant's first entrance must be carefully prepared for, for her appearance must create an elaborate tableau. Here the director may let his imagination loose; the more stylized and the more theatrical the scene, the better.


There are ample clues to the acting of the role of Lady Wishfort: the style and rhythms of her speeches, the broken thoughts, and her passions that blow now hot, now cold. The actress must concern herself with developing business that matches the lines and the abrupt changes, for Lady Wishfort lives at the ends of her nerves:

But art thou sure Sir Rowland will not fail to come? Or will he not fail when he does come? Will he be importunate, Foible, and push? For if he should not be importunate, I shall never break decorums. I shall die with confusion if I am forced to advance. Oh, no, I can never advance! I shall swoon if he should expect advances. No, I hope Sir Rowland is better bred than to put a lady to the necessity of breaking her forms. I won't be too coy, neither. I won't give him despair; but a little disdain is not amiss: a little scorn is alluring.

No two people will handle this speech in the same way, but it is possible to count twelve changes of mood while her reactions veer. Since Lady Wishfort's approach to the male of the species is based on fantasies of herself that bear no resemblance to reality, with each change of mood she sees herself in a new fantasy, and she acts each in turn: coy, simpering, clinging, arrogant, the young miss, the gracious lady, and the grand dame. As she poses, she might use her hand mirror as a prop as a Japanese actress uses a fan. It might be an interesting touch to show her going through the same poses in her scene with Sir Rowland in Act IV.

The scene between Mrs. Marwood and Millamant, like all scenes between women in this play, is a duel. It has an additional importance in supplying motivation for Mrs. Marwood's later behavior. The actress must make sure that this is clear to the audience. Mrs. Marwood overhears a great deal that she could use for purposes of mischief, but she must still be angered to the point where she will choose to use the information. Millamant offends her in a way she can't forgive; Millamant gloats, although charmingly, that Mirabell loves her and not Mrs. Marwood, and she gloats also that Marwood is "within a year or two as young; if you could but stay for me, I should overtake you." The scene moves to the point of Marwood's anger: "Your merry note may be changed sooner than you think." Now she is prepared for any villainy.

The scene between the brothers Witwoud is close to the farcical. It is important to see the basic good sense of Sir Wilfull and the basic shallowness of young Witwoud. No polished Restoration gentleman would ever be so gauche as to admit that he was ashamed of an elder brother. He would carry off the situation with what aplomb he could.

Act IV

This act is thematically unified by an almost exclusive concern with variation on the game of love. In three scenes, a man woos a woman. The differences between these proposals or near-proposals are the important things to develop. Sir Wilfull Witwoud is not a fool, but he is awed by the grace and aloofness of Millamant. The scene between Mirabell and Millamant is the most important single scene in the play. The burlesque love scene between Lady Wishfort and the spurious Sir Rowland is quite a different kind of comedy from the scene between Millamant and Sir Wilfull; both are poseurs, and both are very complacent about their success in their roles.

The proviso scene between Mirabell and Millamant would have to be played so as to convey a sense of their sincerity under the conventional badinage. The passage might begin with a bow on Mirabell's part, courtly beyond the ordinary, and a deep curtsy on Millamant's, held long enough to make clear that important events are to take place. At the same time, the bow and curtsy are openings of a match between duelists. In a society and in a play where people do not manhandle each other, the movements toward and from each other become very important and significant. He might kiss her hand at the end of the scene and take his departure with a repetition of the opening elaborate bow and curtsy. A duel completed, without defeat for either duelist.

Between the proviso scene and the Lady Wishfort-Sir Rowland scene, there is a sort of interlude. All Lady Wishfort's guests come onstage from their session with wine after dinner. This drunken rout, for they are not a dignified group, serves as comic relief after the highly sophisticated wit of the proviso scene. At the same time, the scene constitutes additional commentary on the central subject matter of the act, Restoration love.

Millamant has just completed her part in the proviso scene. At the moment she is a symbol of the ideal of love in the period, unsentimental perhaps, but rational, dignified, and based on mutual esteem. She becomes the beleaguered goddess, buffeted by forces of an unpleasant realism. In a few minutes, Millamant is surrounded by two women, one the loser in the game of love, the other, love's travesty; and three men, one too shallow, one too close to the animal, and the third too much the realist.

At the beginning of the scene, she is alone with Mrs. Fainall, certainly an unsatisfactory support. Since the men, as they enter, are drunk and Lady Wishfort is temperamentally incapable of standing still, they move about her, frenetic, jerky, abrupt, and on the edge of the riotous. They barely avoid physical contact, that is, symbolic attack upon Millamant, who stands alone in the center. Movement about her starts when Petulant answers her question about the cause of the drunken quarrel: "You were the quarrel." Petulant presses his view of love later: "If I shall have my reward [for proclaiming Millamant's beauty], say so; if not, fight for your face the next time yourself." A moment later, he turns contemptuously on young Witwoud and expresses his views of both the cavalier servente and the romantic lover: "Carry your mistress's monkey a spider! Go, flea dogs, and read romances!" The last line of his speech is not addressed to young Witwoud — it would make no sense there. Instead it is spit out at Millamant as he walks past her to his exit: "I'll go to bed to my maid."

Lady Wishfort and the drunk Sir Wilfull now enter, and the attack on Millamant proceeds. Wine gives the knight courage to make the proposal he was too bashful for earlier. His address shows an attitude more magnanimous than Petulant's, but he is hardly the glowing lover: "But if you would have me marry my cousin, say the word and I'll do't. Wilfull will do't; that's the word." While Millamant stands frozen with distaste at this noble offer, Lady Wish-fort addresses her directly: "My nephew's a little overtaken, cousin, but 'tis with drinking your health." To this Lady Wishfort, with her usual wisdom and taste, adds (for she still hopes for a match here): "O' my word, you are obliged to him." Sir Wilfull then repeats his offer and makes this speech directly to Millamant: "A match or no match, cousin with the hard name...," and now, having looked at her carefully:

Aunt, Wilfull will dot. If she has her maidenhead, let her look to't: if she has not, let her keep her own counsel in the meantime, and cry out at the nine months' end.

This attitude on Sir Wilfull's part even includes a left-handed compliment, but it is not likely that Millamant will thank him for it. At this moment Sir Wilfull, Petulant, and Lady Wishfort are visible insults to everything she stands for as an individual and as symbol of the gracious state that love and marriage can mean. Her exit is almost a flight, conducted with whatever shreds of dignity she can muster: "Your pardon, madam, I can stay no longer

As she leaves, the grouping changes, for there is no longer a focal point of attention. Everyone relaxes: Lady Wishfort is again the garrulous old woman, scolding her drunken nephew; Sir Wilfull is merely the harmless, noisy drunkard.

But the ironic commentary has been made. The proviso scene presented a triumphant reconciliation of love and worldliness; now we have seen the way of the world.

Act V

The danger in the presentation of the fifth act has been mentioned: It is too easy for Fainall to dominate the scene to the point where Mirabell appears the typical juvenile, personally inept but a worthy inheritor of the good will of the gods. Mirabell is not such a juvenile; in this play, our hero is victorious only because he is the superior plotter. He understands even better than Fainall the way of the world. In the encounters between the two men in this act, Mirabell must be the more assured: Fainall must somehow look busy, a little over-anxious.

Lady Wishfort is torn between hurt vanity, love of money, love for her daughter, and considerable disillusionment. Everyone on the stage has betrayed or is betraying her — her daughter, her son-in-law, her best friend Mrs. Marwood, and her maid. She is buffeted from all sides. This should be visually evident as she moves or makes gestures of movement toward one person after another.

Let us look at the act, starting with the entrance together of Lady Wishfort and Mrs. Marwood. There are pathetic and ironic gestures accompanying Lady Wishfort's first sentence: "Oh, my dear friend, how can I enumerate the benefits that I have received from your goodness?" When she proceeds by her own kind of logic to the end of the speech — "Let us leave the world, and retire by ourselves and be shepherdesses" — she is firmly rebuffed: "Let us first despatch the affair in hand, madam." When she next moves toward her daughter in a blend of maternal love and maternal reproach, Mrs. Fainall, pretending injured innocence, replies formally and coldly: "I don't understand your ladyship." When Lady Wishfort thinks she sees a glimmer of hope that the accusations are libelous, Mrs. Marwood attacks in a bombardment of long speeches under which Lady Wishfort cowers. On Fainall's entrance, she begs for some time to consider and meets the same stony response. She is pathetically hopeful when Mirabell tells her he has a solution.

It should be noted that the nature of her lines does not change through all this. She is still vain, self-deluded, and comic. She is distracted by talk of a hypothetical marriage (hers): She still feels and barely covers an undignified emotional excitement when Mirabell appears. But throughout, situation, movement, and gestures give ample opportunity to arouse a mixed response of pity and laughter in the audience.

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