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Arnold Klein

There are two scenes in The Way of the World—one at the very end of Act IV and the other very near the beginning of Act V—in which Marwood discovers to Lady Wishfort that Sir Roland is an impostor, and Fainall, that her daughter has had an affair with Mirabell; and these two strokes—“breaking” so close upon each other as to land together, as they were intended by the intriguers to do—threaten to bring about total reversals of fortune for all the principals involved: Mirabell and Millamant, as having already “contracted” in defiance of her uncle’s will and without Lady Wishfort’s consent, will lose the moiety of her fortune, which all of Mirabell’s devices past and present have been devoted to keeping in her possession; Waitwell will go to prison, and Foible become a Bridewell bride; Lady Wishfort and Mrs. Fainall will become dependents on Fainall, instead of him remaining theirs; and once possessed of Millamant’s money, Fainall will repair Marwood’s exhausted finances. Love baffled, newlyweds parted, the rich impoverished, the poor enriched—and all in two conjoined scenes: a veritable coup de theatre!

Except, of course, there are no such scenes in The Way of the World. Those discoveries are indeed made, and those consequences are indeed projected, but the strokes themselves are only reported to have broken—one, by Mincing on her way somewhere else—and not represented in the breaking; indeed, in light of the applause European theater has always bestowed upon such peripiteias, representation of these turning points seems rather to have been deliberately eschewed. And my question is: Why? Why do it that way?

That none of the dire consequences threatened actually materialize is irrelevant to the question: the discoveries could still have been represented; Mirabell’s final conveyance discovery actually is. Why that one and not the other two? Because consequences actually follow from it? But what exactly has changed after Mirabell makes it? Mrs. Fainall has pronounced this day the last of her “living together” with her husband at the beginning of Act V; at the end of Act V, Mirabell says the conveyance may be the means to make the two “live easily together:” practically the same words. Mirabell indeed now has Millamant “and her fortune,” but he already had her (he is “sure of her” already in Act I), and, after all, she has only kept “her fortune” (as it is already called around line forty of Act 1), not lost and regained it—Fainall had remitted his demand for it even before the conveyance is produced. So Mirabell’s discovery brings about a very minimal reversal if any: the contracted remain contracted, the married remain together, and so on. And besides, this denouement, such as it is, occupies the last sixty lines of an act, the previous five hundred of which are absorbed by the projected, but unrealized, consequences of the very two scenes that are not represented. So again: What is going on?

And more: there is a co-ordinate preponderance of report over representation throughout the whole play—though in this respect, the word “play” is beginning to look a little odd. More, and more of consequence, is reported to have occurred before the thing begins than occurs during it. Mirabell’s sham addresses to Lady Wishfort have already been exposed—he has already incurred Marwood’s enmity—already become inured to Millamant’s follies—already been free enough with her privately for her to rebuke him for “persisting” in being so—already had his eye on her money (which Fainall already covets)—already fobbed his ex-mistress Mrs. Fainall off on Fainall—whom she has already come to “despise” (she only hated him before) and already find “too offensive” (as opposed to merely offensive before, I suppose)—while he already hates her and is already deep in his affair with Marwood, which Foible and Mincing have already discovered—Waitwell and Foible have already been suborned…What is represented during the during (so to speak) are the four extortion plots on Lady Wishfort: two by Marwood and Fainall (the improvising of the second, like its execution, is not shown), both of which come to nothing, and two by Mirabell—the Sir Roland one, which likewise comes to nothing, and the conveyance one, whose consequences are, as I said, pretty much zero. So, to the preponderance of report over representation, we can add the preponderance within representation of the wholly null over that which is mostly that; and, of course, there is throughout a good deal of collateral inaction provided by Witwoud, Petulant and Sir Wilfull.


But of course those preponderances, however quantifiably determinable they actually are, only seem unaccountable, and perhaps even perverse, on certain assumptions as to what plays, their plots, their personnel and the conventions governing them must normally be, and what sorts of moral, psychological, and literary- and social-historical interests are relevant to their apprehension and furnish answers to questions regarding them. Drop those assumptions and presumptions, and what appear to be departures may emerge as solutions, and deficiencies—such as audiences have always found in this “company killer” of a masterpiece—may, when referred to a more appropriate standard than theirs, be seen as triumphs, or even miracles. So perhaps we can begin trying to account for the relegation of consequential doings in The Way of the World by asking what positive interest could reach representation by those means and by those means only. But to determine their end, we have first to look at them for what those means actually effect. What of action comes into prominence when the interval chosen for representation is the very one in which action itself is reduced to a minimum?

Only the actors; or—since “actors” is obviously the wrong word in this case—“inactors” is more like it—and since Witwoud’s word, “players,” presumes we know already how this most singular of plays regards itself—let me say:

Only the personnel, in the relations to each other in which they begin standing and remain standing throughout.

Now, in The Way of the World those relations form a repeated pattern: all but two of the male, and all but two of the female, personnel start out standing, and remain, each at the apex of a triangular relationship with two personnel of the opposite sex. So Mirabell stands to his beloved Millamant and his ex-lover, Mrs. Fainall; Fainall, to his hated wife, Mrs. Fainall, and his beloved mistress, Marwood; Mrs. Fainall to Mirabell and Fainall; Marwood to Mirabell, who rejected, and Fainall, who accepted her advances; Lady Wishfort to her former sham suitor, Mirabell, and her present one, Sir Roland; even Waitwell (to his real wife, Foible, and his sham future wife, Lady Wishfort) and Foible (to Waitwell and “sweet winning” Mirabell) participate in this, what we might call, given its amorous constituents, “iteration of nuptials” pattern, although not all the relationships are literally, or even remotely or possibly, connubial, and one is plain sham. I relegate the personnel who do not to a footnote (see below).1

I have saved Millamant’s participation for separate consideration because it raises a further question. She is indeed the apex of a triangle having her suitors Mirabell and Petulant as its correspondents (Witwoud pshaws the suggestion that he is courting her); but Petulant is, what with his sultana queens and so forth, an impossible suitor for Millamant’s love—he boorishly proclaims that he is leaving her company to “go to bed to his maid” (who, by the way—since he doesn’t actually leave—is brought in for no other reason than to form, with Millamant, the third side of his own triangle)—and the question is, why is he in that position at all? And the answer is given by his very unsuitability as a suitor: to complete the triangle, period; and by so doing, assimilate Mirabell and Millamant to the total pattern of triangular relations, from which, without him, they would stand apart, in something like the hero-and-heroine roles some critics slot them into, and all audiences are frustrated to find they don’t comfortably fit.

But, in virtue of his position as a suitor to Millamant, Petulant functions as a “rival” to Mirabell (and serious enough of one for Mirabell to threaten to cut his throat), and completes the triangle in that way, too: for in every one of the triangles, the two men and two women who form its third side are “competitors” or “correspondents,” “enemies” or “friends,” who “hate” or “love” each other, are “pleased” with the other’s “pain” or pained by it, or pained with the other’s “pleasure” or pleased by it, according to their relation to the female or male at its apex; and the pattern is exhaustive enough—and, with the range of affective possibilities reduced to binary opposites, replete enough—to ensure that any one who is an enemy in one relation is a friend in another, and hates and loves accordingly. Affections, then, are represented as a function of position—how, or whether, they produced those positions is relegated to report, that is, scenically speaking, to oblivion—and as those positions do not change, neither do they: at most they become more what they already were, as when Fainall resolves to hate the wife he already hates “yet more,” and Millamant “finds” she “violently” loves the man she already loves violently.

That position delegates psychology (so to call it) is why, despite their names, “types” is a bad word for these beings; Marwood, for example, would mar only with respect to her position as Mirabell’s rejected mistress and Fainall’s current one, and Fainall feigns all only because he is in competition with Mirabell for Millamant’s money and Marwood’s love. That it delegates interests, too, is why “characters” fits them just as badly. Some commentators, indeed, on the assumption that the way of that world must have some significance for the way of this one, and lacking the sophistication to put the question of that significance backwards, as Lamb does, differentiate and grade the personnel on a moral scale, but that is something the personnel themselves never do, nor does the work as a whole: pleasure and pain are the only values available to them, and the one means to or away from those—dissembling—is one they all commonly adopt and expect others to adopt; the only differences among them are comparative—some are “better” or “worse” at devising deceptions and at seeing through them than others, or “more” or “less” easily deceived: Fainall’s resentment upon learning of Mirabell’s and Mrs. Fainall’s exploitation of his insolvency is directed not at them but at himself for having been “out-matrimonied.” But even in these relative terms, the differences are minimized—I would say, kept to the minimum required to identify each of the personnel as separate elements of the overall pattern, and no more; for if there is a scale, its “Antipodes” are “similitudes” (and not for nothing is this, with its syntactic correlate, parallelism, the main trope in this work—certainly the historical (pseudo-) explanation that “finding unexpected likenesses” was at that time considered “the highest form of wit” explains nothing about its specific ubiquity here). Mirabell, for example—the darling of the moralizers—could “steal” (Fainall’s very appropriate word) his marriage to Millamant at any time—be “riveted in a trice,” as the servant is there to remind us that Waitwell and Foible were that very morning, and that couples at Pancras are thronging to be every day—but that would cost him half (not all) of Millamant’s fortune (the loss of which moiety she never mentions as an obstacle to their marriage, by the way), an interest that parallels Fainall’s “making lawful prize of a rich widow’s wealth” by marrying Mrs. Fainall. Again, Mirabell and Lady Wishfort, his apparent antipode and easy dupe, are analogized by being given a common concern for Mrs. Fainall’s reputation, which “the good old lady” is willing to sacrifice her wealth and independence to preserve, and which Mirabell has already (so far) successfully preserved by condemning her—his used-up and possibly pregnant mistress—to a miserable marriage; and it is a measure of the difference between their world and ours that this expedient—and hypocrisy: he is represented in the proviso scene as being plenty concerned about his yet-to-be-conceived “boy” with Millamant—of his redounds to his credit, while the resourceless Lady Wishfort is universally treated as a patsy.

But be that as it may, and pace Mirabell fanboys (who seem to picture him as a sort of Cary Grant to Millamant’s Irene Dunne), what scalar differentials there are, are kept too minimal to be, or to become, vectors provocative of action, or— to put it another way—are the maximum consistent with a static pattern. This is a distinctive and—in the sense of “contrary”—a perverse determination of comic form, at least as the work itself, with its many references to the comedies it chooses for its tradition, understands it; for, while pattern itself is normal enough in comedy to lend some (faint) plausibility to the notion that the form as we have it descends from seasonal rituals, such as the contest of summer and winter (winter loses), change of some sort is almost always involved; something is represented as happening between the initial and terminal configurations that reconfigures them such that they differ; and ditto their personnel. Certainly this was a usual expectation of comedies at the time. To take two plays (and plays they veritably are, and on this basis) roughly contemporaneous with ours: in The Country Wife, nature moves men to women and women to men, and the personnel are differentiated into the “sensible” who “help” it to do so, and the “foolish” (and foolish they veritably are, and on this basis) who try to “hinder” it, and the representation concerns itself with the steps by which the fools bring themselves to assist the couplings they fatuously believed impossible or shrewdly sought to prevent—to witness them, even, as in the astonishing China scene and the—there is no word for it—the I-can’t-believe-Wycherley-is-getting-away-with-this chaplain scene. In The Relapse, “all the works of nature move” from Constancy to Variety and back, and the town plot (and plot it veritably is, and on this basis) represents one circuit of this motion, differentiating the personnel according to the direction in which they move: the constant husband Loveless “runs after something for variety’s sake” (he literally enters Berinthia’s bedroom “running”), while the constant gallant Worthy “turns” to “purity” (for now, as he knows well enough to say); Berinthia is “carried” (literally, by Loveless) from “the speculative part of unlawful love” to the “practic,” and Amanda diversifies her constancy to the practic part of “lawful love” by speculating a bit about adultery.

But the one coupling that is represented in The Way of the World, is, by a number of coordinate expedients, miraculously stilled. First of all—obviously—no one carries any ladies off to bed, or rogers them behind closed doors; the parties who negotiate (negotiate!) their agreement in the proviso scene are already agreed—Millamant already knows by their first tete-a-tete of Mirabell’s plot to extort Lady Wishfort’s consent to their marriage, and that it is “like to speed,” but interposes no demurral to stop or slow it, and her first proviso abruptly projects (projects!) the two already in bed. The scene, moreover, as an intimate tete-a-tete, is taken out of the hullaballoo on either side of it, and, further, deliberately correlated to an as-intimate a one between Marwood and Fainall a bit earlier, a parallel that makes it less an episode in a plot than a tableau separated off from one (and ditto for the first parallel duets between these two couples in the park). The provisos themselves do not so much provide for the future as recognize existing states of affairs: about half of them prohibit the parties from doing what they would not do in the first place—“I go to the play in a mask!”—or what they have already been represented as refraining from doing—Mirabell, for example, is so far from being “familiar” with Millamant in public that, after greeting her in the park as “madam,” he abides fifty lines of byplay between her, Mincing and Witwoud, before addressing her (his one remark during is addressed by name—and is so for this reason—to Witwoud), and then, only after she addresses a question to him by name; and the rest license the two to keep doing what they already do, such as getting up when they want and, in her case, spoiling reputations, as she has already been reported to have already been doing on the cabal nights, and receiving letters without his interference, which about half the byplay in the park establishes she is already free to do; which is why letters comes up there in the first place.

What the provisos do provide for—or rather, against—is the threat of change the two acknowledge to be implicit in marriage: the dwindling and enlarging of the lovers into wife and husband. This adult analysis of the institution gives a color to the proposal of some scholars that “the Restoration comedy of manners” (three abstract entities in five words, counting the “the” and the “of,” but who’s counting) addresses (or “explores”) “the problem of marriage” as it then agitated that social class (four more); and some comfort, too, to the moralizers, or some discomfort, rather, since in this case the lesson that that world has for this one runs somewhat counter to the “nauseous [contemporary] cant” of “family,” which, in the interests of equality, superexuberates Moms and Dads irrespective of gender: which I suppose is progress. But of course, both these presumptions learnedly disregard, or eagerly exceed, the concrete specific factors whose coordination constitutes this specific concrete work. For its problem as a whole is not Mirabell’s and Millamant’s, of the threat of change implicit in marriage, but its own, of the threat of motion implicit in comedy—in the tradition of comic form to which the work consciously relates itself, explicitly by allusions to Jonson and Dryden, and obviously by side-glances at Much Ado, among others; and that formal problem is to produce a static pattern in a form traditionally moving, and in a medium doubly successive, as actions and as scenes. And the problem is solved—at the cost of playability, but so what—by the ensemble of expedients we have encountered separately, none of which, no less all of which taken together, are amenable to morality (unless the integrity of works of art is taken to be an ethical issue, which it is, but never taken to be by morality-mongers), or explicable in characterological, literary- or social-historical terms: solved, that is, by vastly favoring report over representation; by devoting the representation itself to null operations, and—as was too obvious to linger over—to the null (and lengthy) disputations and disputes of collateral personnel; by relegating all but one consequential event to the “already,” and by making that event—Lady Wishfort’s consent—a verbal statement, done-and-done in two words thirty lines before the end; by putting the personnel in unchanging positions in exhaustive and replete triangular relationships that themselves don’t change; by reducing affections and volitional interests to two possibilities only, and attaching these to those unchanging positions; by squeezing differentials among the personnel to the minimum by giving them analogous, overlapping, and in most cases identical specific interests; by isolating central scenes in parallel and giving them a tableau-esque, not a progressive, quality and content; by constantly pausing to introduce parallelisms and similitudes, with one of which I will end this recapitulation, and this excursion, as, besides perfectly uniting the triangular and binary patterns of the central and collateral personnel, it as-perfectly indicates the motive for this singular work’s singularly static construction and so answers the question I left hanging some distance back: for where the interest is in repartee and its possibilities, dialogue is a necessity, as are speakers clever enough, and antagonistic enough, to speak it, but action is an embarrassment for it: all that is required of the scenario is that it afford situations for already situated interlocutors to “go together by the ears”—as even the lovers do, in the agreement scene, no less (“I hate your odious provisos!”)—“like a pair of castanets.”