A couple suggestions before you read this one: First, either brush up on your seventeenth-century
English or keep a big dictionary within reach. Second, read it while you are good and alert. Warning: this is NOT a sleepytime book. It requires attention
because of the archaic language. Even wide awake, many lines will require re-reading to grasp their full value, and even then, research and additional
reading would be helpful. This is important, because here is a really funny play and you don't want to miss out on the flippancy, satire, insults, and bits
of bawdiness. But once you are into the flow, "getting it" becomes much easier. It is well worth the effort to read!
And so on to the plot. . .eh. . .plotting is more like it. These people are all so selfish and greedy, lying, cheating, adulterous, immoral, conniving—not nice people. Having said that, though, in spite of it all, you probably will end up hoping it all works out for Mrs. Millimant and Mr. Mirabell. They, at least, do seem to be in love.
And the names! Ooh, that's a challenge in itself. Along with the two just mentioned are Mr. and Mrs. Fainall, and Mrs. Marwood. (Mr. Fainall loves her, but she loves Mirabell.) Mr. Mirabell and Mrs.Millimant want to marry, but her aunt, who controls the money forbids it. Her aunt is Lady Wishfort, who is also Mrs. Fainall's mother, and the only reason Mr. Fainall married her was for her money.
With me so far? Probably not. There's more.
We have Witwoud and Petulant who get involved in the plot. Wilfull Witwoud is half-brother to Witwoud, and Lady Wishfort's nephew. She wants Millimant to marry him. He's a bit of a bumpkin, and truthfully, he'd rather travel than marry.
Now, Waitwell, Mirabell's servant, agrees to marry Foible, Mrs. Wishfort's woman, so that he can pose as Mirabell's uncle, Sir Rowland, who pretends to woo Mrs. Wishfort, in an effort to get her to release Mrs. Millimant's money so she can marry Mirabell, but Mrs. Marwood rats on them.
OK, so you're definitely lost at this point, but I can assure you, it gets hilarious. And the more you read, the more the names and relationships sort themselves out, kind of, but you still aren't totally sure who to trust because they are all such scoundrels.
That is the basic story line, but to give you an idea of the humor, here are a few choice excerpts. In an effort to understand the language, I found myself translating it into modern English as I read, and that helped, but after a while it wasn't necessary, because so many of the phrases and slang were used over and over.
In this scene with Mirabell, Millimant, and Witwoud, Mirabell claims that a lover gives a woman her beauty, because his praises are reflected in her face:
"The ugly and the old, whom the looking-glass mortifies, yet after commendation can be flattered by it, and discover beauties in it; for that reflects our praises rather than your face."
Millimant replies that this is just men's vanity, and that they are not responsible for women's beauty any more than an echo is responsible for her wit. To which Mirabell replies:
"To your lover you owe the pleasure of hearing yourselves praised; and to an echo the pleasure of hearing yourselves talk."
Egad! Cheap shot
Witwoud then adds:
"But I know a lady that loves talking so incessantly, she won't give an echo fair play; she has that everlasting rotation of tongue, that an echo must wait till she dies, before it can catch her last words"
As Foible prepares the aging Lady Wishfort for Sir Rowland, whom she thinks wants to marry her, Foible puts on her makeup:
"I warrant you madam, a little art once made your picture like you; and now a little of the same art must make you like your picture."
And after she is prepared, Lady Wishfort has trouble deciding how she will be seated when he arrives:
"I won't lie neither, but loll and lean upon one elbow: with one foot a little dangling off, jogging in a thoughtful way—yes—and then as soon as he appears, start, aye, start and be surprised, and rise to meet him in a pretty disorder—yes—oh nothing is more alluring than a levee from a couch, in some confusion: it shows the foot to advantage, and furnishes with blushes, and recomposing airs beyond comparison."
Perhaps one of the wittiest scenes is between Mirabell and Millimant, when they are certain they will be married. They each declare a sort of prenuptial agreement, beginning with her when she says she won't be called names, like wife, spouse, dear, love, sweetheart, "and the rest of that nauseous cant." She also demands privacy in letters and to receive friends; to choose conversation as she pleases, and not be forced to converse with his friends that are fools; to choose when to dine, or to dine alone, and that he must knock before he enters her room. "These articles subscribed, if I continue to endure you a little longer, I may by degrees dwindle into a wife."
Of course, he has some of his own:
"To which end, together with all the vizards of the day, I prohibit all masks for the night, made of oiled-skins, and I know not what—hogs' bones, hares' galls, pig-water, and the marrow of roasted cat."
And concerning "breeding," he says:
"I denounce against all strait lacing, squeezing for a shape, till you mould my boy's head like a sugar-loaf, and instead of a man-child, make me father to a crooked billet."
I couldn't finish this book without doing some online research for images of live performances in period costumes. I found several from the Chichester Festival in England from April, 2012, It starred Penelope Keith (now "Dame" as of 2013) as Lady Wishfort. That had to be hysterical. Here she is on the main stage, (leaning on her elbow with the dangling foot, no doubt) then with Jeremy Swift as Sir Wilfull Witwoud. Next is Clair Price and Jo Stone-Fewings as Mrs. Millimant and Mirabell, and again Keith, with Robin Pearce as Waitwell. Wish I could'a been there. . .
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