The Way of the World by William Congreve
Directed by Michael Kahn
Shakespeare Theatre Company
Lansburgh Theatre 450 7th St. NW
A review by Grace Cavalieri
In “The Way of the World” everything is coming up green. The first thing you see is a pristine set, a house on stage, a minimal house, circa late 1600’s, not quite a real house, more like we would see in picture books. And the trees also are cardboard cutouts of reality. So the game is on: Things are not quite real but maybe better. And then the actors come with costumes, all in shades of green, every fabric, every shoe, every nuance of green. Cream and green, now we have the stage for a spectacle. And we are not disappointed.
“The Way of the World” is one of the best remaining Restoration dramas, and William Congreve never wrote another. It was inspired as vengeance against the clergyman, Jeremy Collier who attacked Congreve by writing, A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage. But Collier did not find the sharp dialogue and brilliant satire of London lessened by his narrow view; instead Congreve wrote like a house on fire, just for spite, and dressed immorality and profanity into a decorum that would last for centuries.
The plot is typical of all Restoration contrivances -- someone wants to marry for someone else’s fortune but is having a affair with someone else’s wife or “Intended,” so there is deception and subterfuge upon subterfuge , layering a nice net of emotions and actions. Behavior, and response to behavior, is highly exaggerated because that’s the way the language is. And this play is mostly complicated by the fact that everyone is someone’s mistress or adulterer, daughter, nephew, cousin or lover, and mostly all at the same time. But that doesn’t matter. You get it all unraveled with hilarity. And in the meantime you can languish in language – metaphor galore, simile, rhymed couplets, and the unerring success of falsity disguised as wit.
Words are weapons. ”Now I’ll be melancholy. Now I’ll be sad,” says she, as the actor succumbs to her own language. A turn of a mood is made with a turn of a phrase, emphasizing the superciliousness of the society that Congreve taunted. Laughter turns to anger to sadness, all expressed within the same minute by almost anyone who needs to manipulate the other. Women pledge to hate men, and men suffer the deceits and follies of the women they pursue. “I’ll endure you” says our heroine, as her marriage agreement. Ruining reputations is the main pastime for these characters who never worked a day of their lives, and “to set upon the reputations of the weak” is gamesmanship. Passion is jealousy and nothing more, so within that artifice, whoever outwits the other wins the moment. It is a wonderful production and lots of fun. Character motivation is nowhere to be found; it is in the line only, not in the feeling, and for people who love language, that is just fine. “The Way of the World” runs through November 15. For information, call 202-547-1122
Grace Cavalieri is a playwright and a poet. She produces and hosts "The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress" for public radio.