It's the Way of the World

We had a splendid afternoon at the Sheffield Crucible yesterday watching Congreve's The Way of the World. Written, and staged first in 1700, it's a wonderful example of a late Restoration comedy. Congreve's ‘‘comedy of manners’’ takes the fashionable or conventional social behavior of the time as the principle subject of satire.

The Crucible's production would have delighted Congreve and his fellow playwrights, I'm sure. Costumes were superbly extravagant and there were many references, in the scenery and costumes, to current day extravagances and the similarities between Restoration England and the current day. The scenes set in a fashionable designer store with trinkets, shoes and accessories scattered around were so reminiscent of up market fashion houses today and the vacuous nature of shopping and fashion - wonderful.

The actors had so much energy and the musical interludes were fabulous - I loved the opening scene which was intriguing and only made sense at the beginning of Act 4. The production gave me a whole new insight into the world of Restoration drama. I just want to see more!

Social pretenses and plot complications abound in The Way of the World. Women are compelled to act coyly and to dissemble in courtship; couples deceive one another in marriage; friends are double-dealing, and conquests have more to do with dowries than with love. Women go to great lengths to retain their youth - no Botox in 1700 - and men seek fortunes rather than love. Conflicts that arise between and among characters are prompted by affected and artificial social mores, especially with respect to relationships between the sexes. The world of Congreve is a topsy turvy world where we all lose sight of what matters and is important and focus rather on the shallow and unimportant.

After so many years of Cromwell and the Roundheads I think we can all forgive the exravagances of the Restoration although by the time The Way of the World was written we can start to predict the beginning of the long 18th century and a literary world more interested in satire and the classical world than clothes and the machinations of love and scoundrels.