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BRIAN CORMAN The Way of the World and Morally Serious Comedy In distinguishing the form of Tom lanes from the form of other comedies, R.S. Crane makes the following observations: It is against this background of the potentially serious - more than ever prominent in the London scenes - that the story of Tom's repeated indiscretions is made to unfold, with the result that, though the pleasure remains consistently comic, its quality is never quite that of the merely amiable comedy, based likewise upon the blunders of sympathetic protagonists, of such works as She Stoops to Conquer or The Rivals. We are not disposed to feel, when we are done laughing at Tom, that all is right with the world or that we can count on Fortune always intervening, in the same gratifying way, on behalf of the good. .. . -.Ve do not actively fear for or pity either [Tom or Sophia], and our indignation at the actions of their enemies - even the actions of Blifil - never develops into a sustained punitive response. 1 In these passages Crane has isolated a particular kind of comedy, which Sheldon Sacks calls 'morally serious' comedy' It differs from amiable comedy in that it takes place in a world in which good does not everywhere win out over evil, from punitive comedy in that the evil in it does not dominate the action, and from sentimental comedy in that it eschews special pleading to the emotions and last-minute conversions. Instead, the creation of 'real' characters (characters who behave credibly and conSistently) existing in a 'real' world (which necessarily is not the best of possible worlds) and the subordination of both to a comic plot result in a work 'of great moral seriousness which fully maximize[sl the aesthetic effects possible to comedy.'3 When successful, a comedy of this sort is a 'moral comedy' which avoids the kind of melodrama that Northrop Frye describes as 'comedy without humor ... which achieves its happy ending with a self-righteous tone." Nearly fifty years before Fielding, Congreve wrote a morally serious comedy. The relationship of The Way of the World to, for example, The Man of Mode or The Country Wife (and I intend them as representatives of Restoration comedy as a whole) is not unlike the relationship Crane posits between Tom lanes and She Stoops to Conquer or The Rivals. For like Sheridan and Goldsmith, Etherege and Wycherley (at least in The Country Wife) wrote comedy essentially amiable, in that its heroes and heroines prosper, while their enemies (usually only token opposition) UTQ, Volume XLIV, Number 3, Spring 1975 200 BRIAN CORMAN are properly punished, and in that moral issues are systematically avoided. Congreve, too, had experimented with amiable (The Old Batchelour) as well as punitive (The Double-Dealer) and sentimental (Love for Love) comedy, but not until The Way of the World did he find a form that transcended their limitations and resuIted in the greatest comedy of the age. Yet in The Way of the World, Congreve did not turn his back on comic tradition. In fact, it is his consistently effective manipulation of the comic conventions of the Restoration which, more than any other single technique , allowed Congreve to achieve the morally serious in comedy. From the moment the curtain reveals the emblematic gaming table,> Congreve begins this manipulation. For despite its extraordinary richness, the primary function of the opening scene is the crucial business of establishing the plot, a plot which, however complex, revolves around a single, simple action - the marriage of Mirabell and MiIlamant. The 233-line opening dialogue between Fainall and Mirabell is the longest dialogue between two characters in Congreve's plays (a hundred lines longer than the proviso scene, for example) and surely one of the longest in all of Restoration comedy. It follows the familiar pattern of showing the male truewits in conversation, the wit of their conversation smoothing over the presentation of obliquely expository material. But it differs from most Restoration comedy in two important respects - the nature of the relationship between Mirabell and Fainall and the presentation of Mirabell's attachment to MiIlamant, which in combination produce the special power of The Way of the...


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