The Way of the World


While the reversal of fortunes in the banking and financial sectors might seem welcome to many, to others it has perhaps become the ultimate ‘restoration comedy’.

As bankers and financiers continue to reap huge bonuses just months after going cap in hand to the Government following the worst crash in living memory, is life beginning to mimic art?

Certainly, theatre impresarios looking forward to the new Spring season could do worse than turn to the past for inspiration for their forthcoming rosters in the current recovering climate.

Some three hundred years ago the Yorkshireman and master satirist William Congreve wrote the sublime stage comedy The Way of The World, which, along with his other acerbic stage works, poked fun at the vagaries of English society.

Congreve, whose 340th anniversary is being marked currently, was born in Bardsey, West Yorkshire, and is acknowledged as being one of the masters of the observation of the absurd.

A particular butt for his humour was the landed idle rich, those who married for wealth and dowries rather than love, and greedy businessmen.

Writing in the late 1600s, he was quick to pick up on the farce of the situation when a public loyal to two camps – the  extravagant Cavaliers and the Puritanical Govt forces – still vied for ascendancy in the wake of the bitter and costly Civil War.

At the restoration of Charles II, in 1660, the meagre penny pinching ways of the Puritan past gave way to a courtly excess which was mirrored by society and the theatre.

Charles’s new court not only cast aside Puritanism with exuberance, but society itself revelled in a new found wealth brought about by mercantile success and better international trade.

The chocolate house, (the equivalent of the bistro or coffee house) became the locale of the wealthy chattering classes, and ‘gay’ society – in the old fashioned sense of the word, proliferated.

However, after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, at the time of the publishing of The Way of The World, under the more conservative William and Mary, conservatism was back in fashion – and the wealthy and the exuberant became the comic target.

Writing in his dedication to The Way of the World, Congreve surmised that his absurd characatures – farcical business men and the grossly wealthy who achieve their means through unscrupulous, cruel means - could not possibly exist in real life.

“Those Characters which are meant to be ridiculed in most of our Comedies are of fools so gross that in my humble opinion they should rather disturb than divert the well natured and reflecting part of an audience; they are rather objects of charity than contempt and instead of moving our mirth they ought very often to excite our compassion.

“This Reflection moved me to design some characters which should appear ridiculous not so much through a natural folly which is incorrigible and therefore not proper for the Stage as through an affected wit which at the same time that it is affected is also false.

“As there is some difficulty in the formation of a character of this nature,  so there is some hazard which attends the progress of its success upon the stage.. “

His words were perhaps prophetically misguided. In 1720, just 20 years after The Way of the World debuted, although Congreve was gone, the rich of England were plunged into their greatest crisis when the South Sea Bubble plunge took stocks tumbling.  Many of Congreve’s targets of lampoon were ruined while the country faced bankruptcy.

Perhaps in this modern world, the way of the world hasn’t changed.


·         Congreve was educated at Trinity College in Dublin; there he met Jonathan Swift, who would be his friend for the remainder of his life.

·          Upon graduation, he matriculated in the Middle Temple in London to study law, but felt himself pulled toward literature, drama, and the fashionable life. Artistically, he became a disciple of John Dryden.

·         In 1720, in return for a loan of £7 million to finance the war against France, the House of Lords passed the South Sea Bill, which allowed the South Sea Company a monopoly in trade with South America.

·         The company underwrote the English National Debt, which stood at £30 million, on a promise of 5% interest from the Government.

·         The stocks crashed and people all over the country lost all of their money. There were 462 members of the House of Commons and 112 Peers in the South Sea Company who were involved in the crash.