- Learning “to Speak the English Language”: The Way of the World on the Twentieth-Century American Stage
Opening in a small Greenwich Village playhouse in 1924, The Way of the World created a considerable stir among New York theatregoers. The play was a novelty to many, “so old,” one reviewer said, “that it is new.” 1 The play, however, seemed fresh and unusual not simply because of its age but because it had not been seen and heard for a long time. Considered too bawdy for public performances, most Restoration comedies had been banished from theatres in Great Britain and the United States for several generations. The necessary prelude to their twentieth-century return to the stage—and to the attention that return generated—was literary. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, men of letters such as Algernon Charles Swinburne and Edmund Gosse rehabilitated the comedies’ reputations, convincing their readers that the plays were not tasteless, obscene works but brilliant and witty classics.
Restoration comedy seemed as new to theatre workers in the 1920s as to their audiences, for the plays had no performance tradition. An authentic or “authorized” performance style for classic plays is, of course, unattainable, but there were no vital conventions on which theatre groups could draw. 2 How, then, were the plays to be [End Page 301] performed? This essay charts the answers provided to this question in the United States throughout the twentieth century. Although that performance history can not be isolated from twentieth-century British revivals of Restoration comedies, I have chosen to foreground the American productions because their history is generally unknown. Reviewers of the American revivals still all too frequently invoke only British productions. Indeed, they do not always seem aware, when reviewing a particular comedy, that it was revived in the United States earlier in the century. 3 But my aim is to do more than just fill in a gap. We can not adequately understand and assess the ways that Restoration comedies are currently being performed in the U.S. unless we historicize the production and reception of these plays.
I focus on the theatrical career of one play in order to make manifest long-term trends impossible to see in an essay surveying productions of several different plays. I have chosen William Congreve’s The Way of the World because of its prestige and prominence on twentieth-century British and American stages. Often said to be not just the greatest comedy of its period but the greatest English language comedy, it was the Restoration play first offered in modern, commercial revivals in both London and New York. And it has been performed steadily over the course of the century, travelling the route taken by many other classic plays in the U.S.—from little theatres and semi-private theatrical clubs to off and off-off-Broadway and resident theatres after World War II, with an occasional British import offered on Broadway or in one of the larger resident venues. The Way of the World is regarded by many critics as the quintessence of Restoration comedy. 4 Moreover, when staged, it concentrates the problems as well as the virtues of Restoration comedy. Its plot may be even more maze-like, its pyrotechnic wit somewhat more dense and topical, but these features in most Restoration comedies have challenged twentieth-century directors and theatre companies and have influenced the way Congreve’s play and the other comedies of its period have been performed. It is not, to be sure, the quintessence of bawdiness. The Way of the World comes late—1700—in the corpus of Restoration comedies, and it is less ribald than many of its predecessors written during the reign of Charles II. 5 But for most twentieth-century American theatre workers and theatregoers the reputed naughtiness of Restoration comedies has been more salient than the degree of ribaldry within any one of them. 6 [End Page 302]
The revival history exemplified by The Way of the World has at its center a single performance style. When Restoration comedies came back to American theatres in the 1920s, a period style that had recently been devised for...