The Way of the World: Act One
Plot Summary With Analysis
Summary – Prologue and Act One
The play begins with the Prologue, and this is addressed directly to the audience. The narrator says how Fortune ‘favours all her Idiot-Race’ and ‘in her own nest the Cuckow-eggs we find’, ‘o’er which she broods to hatch the changeling-kind’.
Poets are described as ‘bubbles’ and are drawn in by the town. They are also said to run ‘unequal Hazards’ because ‘each time they write, they venture all they’ve won’. The narrator asks for ‘no Merit from his past Behaviour’. If the scenes to come are ‘naught’, ‘ne’er spare him for his Pains’. He says this play gives you ‘one Instant of a Passive Poet’.
Act One is set in a chocolate house. The stage directions explain that Mirabell and Fainall rise from playing cards and Betty is ‘waiting’ on them. Mirabell has lost at cards but tells Fainall he will carry on to entertain him. Fainall says ‘no’ and will give him his revenge another time.
Mirabell says he is grave today and Fainall tells him to confess that he and Millamant quarrelled last night after he left them. He continues and says his cousin ‘has some Humours, that would tempt the patience of a Stoick’ and also asks if some ‘Coxcomb’ came in and was well received by her.
Mirabell says that Witwoud and Petulant and her aunt (who is Fainall’s wife’s mother) came in. Fainall’s wife was also there and Mrs Marwood and three or four others who he has never seen before. They ‘all put on their grave Faces’ on seeing him and whispered to each other. They then complained of ‘the Vapours’ and fell silent.
Fainall points out that they wanted to be rid of him, and Mirabell says that is why he resolved not to move. The ‘good old Lady’ broke her silence by complaining of his long visits and Millamant joined in the argument. He says he withdrew at last and Fainall says he is ‘to blame to resent’ her being compliant with her aunt as half her fortune depends on her marrying ‘with my Lady’s Approbation’.
He remembers that last night was one of their ‘Cabal’ nights, which they have three times a week and says it is no wonder they were ‘weary’ of Mirabell. They meet at one another’s ‘Apartments’, ‘where they come together like the Coroner’s Inquest to sit upon the murder’d Reputations of the Week’. To avoid scandal they have two men there, Witwoud and Petulant.
Lady Wishfort, the aunt of Millamant, is regarded as the founder (of these meetings) and Fainall points out that Mirabell’s sham addresses to her, to hide his love for her niece, ‘has provok’d this Separation’ and he should have ‘dissembl’d’ better. Mirabell tells him he did as much as any man could and ‘proceeded to the very last Act of Flattery with her’ and also told her there were rumours that she was ‘reported to be in Labour’, although she is too old.
The two men talk further together and Fainall says he must leave him if he is growing censorious and says he is going to look in on the ‘gamesters’ (Petulant and Witwoud) in the next room.
He leaves and a servant enters. He tells Mirabell how ‘they’ are married and has the certificate. Mirabell says he will meet him at one o’clock and asks him to be ‘secret’.
The servant exits and Fainall returns. He says he (Mirabell) looks pleased and Mirabell says he is engaged in a matter of ‘Mirth’. He admits he is jealous of Millamant when she is entertained by Witwoud and also says that in revenge for her insolence he once listed her faults and remembered them by rote, but he came to remember them without being displeased. Fainall says he should marry her and has experience in this (in being married).
A messenger enters and says he has a message for Witwoud from his brother, Sir Wilfull. He is directed into the next room and Fainall and Mirabell talk about how Wilfull is Witwoud’s half-brother by ‘a former wife’ ‘who was sister’ to Fainall’s wife’s mother. Fainall explains that Wilfull has come to town to prepare for travel abroad. He also says he is ‘an odd mixture of Bashfulness and Obstinacy’, but when he is drunk he is ‘as loving as the Monster in the Tempest’. Mirabell describes Wilfull as ‘a Fool with a good Memory’.
Witwoud enters and calls Wilfull a ‘Fool’ and agrees that he is his half-brother and Mirabell says it is possible he is ‘but half a Fool’. They ask him about Petulant and Witwoud says he is counting the money he has won off him. Fainall and Mirabell encourage him to insult Petulant, but he is reluctant to do so. He finally admits that Petulant lies and ‘that is a Fault’.
A coachman enters and says three gentlewomen are outside in a coach and they want to speak to Petulant. The coachman also says the women want two dishes of chocolate and a glass of cinnamon water. Witwoud says these will be for ‘two fasting Strumpets and a Bawd troubl’d with Wind’. He goes on to explain that Petulant has these women call on him and has sometimes slipped out of a chocolate house, gone home, disguised himself and returned and called for himself. When he does not find himself, he sometimes leaves a letter.
Petulant comes in the room and says he will not go out to the women: ‘Let ‘em snivel and cry their Hearts out.’ Fainall says he is very cruel. Betty enters and tells Petulant that the women have left. Fainall sees the situation is ‘dissembl’d’ and he has done this so he can brag to Millamant that he has ‘abandon’d the whole Sex for her Sake’.
Petulant hints he (Mirabell) may have a rival in his uncle, and if his uncle should marry and have a child he would be disinherited. He tells them he knows this much from last night and cannot say if this uncle has seen Millamant or not.
This act ends with Mirabell and Fainall saying they are going on the Mall and Petulant talks of how he makes women blush, and takes this as either ‘a sign of guilt’ or ‘ill breeding’.
Analysis – Prologue and Act One
The dialogue between Fainall and Mirabell are of central concern here as they reveal some of the machinations Mirabell has undertaken to be closer to his beloved, Millamant. He has been, as Fainall explains, flattering and flirting with Millamant’s aunt to hide his love for Millamant and this lying (dissembling) has been found out and he is now held in contempt. It is also suggested that he has planned a new ‘Mirth’, which involves his servant, and this hint is a foreshadowing of future events.