Summary and Analysis
In this dedication, as in most others of the period, we may ignore the rather fulsome praise of the man to whom it was addressed; that praise is a convention of the time. Some of the comments made in the letter, however, are of interest. Congreve was obviously chagrined at the play's lukewarm reception and attributed it to the coarse taste of the audience. The playgoers were accustomed to plays where "the characters meant to be ridiculed" were "fools so gross" that "instead of moving our mirth, they ought very often to excite our compassion." Congreve's description of his own purpose when creating comic characters is revealing: "to design some characters which should appear ridiculous, not so much through a natural folly . . . as through an affected wit . . . which . . . is also false." This statement has often been considered the basic definition of characterization in the "Comedy of Manners," a genre where "affectation" is the great fault. Unfortunately, Congreve continues, many people could not distinguish between "a Witwoud and a Truewit."
Not all of the comic characters in The Way of the World are "affectations," for Congreve included some that were created as "humours." He is here making the point that he is avoiding the extremes of farce, what we might call slapstick, in this comedy.