Importance of Proviso scene in The Way of the World by Congreve

The ‘Proviso scene’ between Mirabell and Millamant had been universally praised. It provides good comic entertainment and at the same time has serious overtones. The ‘proviso scene’ defines and lays down the conditions for the two people in love to lead a harmonious and happy life devoid of the mutual bickering and charges slamming upon each other which incidentally plague most marriages in today’s world. The introduction of the proviso scene in the play owes its allegiance to the commonality of such scenes in most restoration comedies. From a dramatic point of view, the proviso scene marks the culmination of the point of view, the love between Mirabell and Millamant come to ahead.

Millamant would not like to be addressed by such names as a wife, spouse, my dear, my joy, my jewel, my love, my sweetheart, etc. She regards them as vulgar modes oi addresses. She would not like to go to Hyde Park with Mirabell on the first Sunday to attract the attention of people and become the subject of their whispers, as the newly wedded couples are never seen together after that. She would also not like to pay social visits to his company or go to the theatre. She would like to maintain distance with him at least in public. The other conditions are that she would like to be free to pay visits to whomsoever she likes and receive visits from whomsoever she pleases, similarly, write and receive letters, have the freedom to wear clothes that please her, and talk on the subjects which agree with her taste. Taking dinner at a time and place of her choice is her prerogative, the privacy of her closet is not to be violated and Mirabell is not to be permitted without permission at the tea table.

In the words of a critic, “her whimsical wit is a shield she holds up against the world. In addition to her judgment and sense, Millamant has a real capacity for deep feeling, and her love for Mirabell is all the more impressive because she has such a mastery over it. That Millamant is genuinely in love, and not a coquette, is made clear when just after the bargaining scene, she confesses to her friend: “Well if Mirabell should not make a good husband, I am a lost thing-for I find I love him violently.”

The Way of the World deals with the fear of disillusionment in marriage very competently. Such fears have been expressed in other plays as well especially of Shakespeare for example in As You Like lt when Rosalind tells Orlando that ‘men are April when they woo, December when they wed.’ But Millamant in this play is more serious. As the play reflects the counterplays and the moves, the examples of Mrs. Fainall and Mrs. Marwood will not be looked forward to by anyone who is planning to tie the knot. It is because of Millamant’s fear of disillusionment in a marriage that she does not want him to use the endearing adjectives to her after their marriage and would like him to behave in public as if they were not married at all to save herself the embarrassment later on if it occurred. Millamant’s quotations also deal with the disadvantages of fulfillment and fruition.

There never yet was born a maid
Nor shall, but to be cursed-

This is a line from one of Suckling’s poems that not only talks about the inconstancy of women but also implies the promiscuity of men.

The demands of Millamant though stated in a witty and entertaining manner have serious overtones. The basis of an ideal marriage is to give space to the two partners. Where one begins to encroach upon others’ territory too much or weigh heavily upon the other, the relationship begins to crack up. Marriage is supplementing and complementing each other’s lite; to enrich the other and not drag them poles apart to the point of no meeting. Millamant speaks, quite rightly so for the personal liberty and insist on having it. She wants non-interference in her day-to-day life from her husband. She says that if Mirabell abides by these conditions she may ‘by degrees dwindle into a wife.’ A strong votary of personal liberty, she agrees that a woman has to lose a substantial part of it in matrimony. This is universally true as well.

Now comes Mirabell’s chance of laying down the conditions. He is a settled manner satirizes the follies, affectations, and vanity of women. This incidentally has universal application.

Mirabell wouldn’t like Millamant to keep any confidante with whom she should share her secrets. She wouldn’t go to the theatre masked. So long Mirabell likes her face she would not like to give it a new look by the use of cosmetics. She would not use any kind of masks during the day or night and when she becomes pregnant she would not wear tight-fitting clothes to give a good impression of her figure thus stifling the child in the womb. She will also be prevented from the use of all foreign drinks.

Mirabell ridicules female sex of his time for its frivolousness and other such activities viz the use of cosmetics, the wearing of tight dresses that would squeeze the body of a pregnant woman, talking maliciously about absent friends and relatives like Lady Wishfort and company did during Cabal nights, rising late in the morning and still keeping the desire to remain in bed till late. Millamant’s desire to be courted and wooed even after marriage displays her vanity and her desire to remain an object of admiration and worship always.

The Proviso scene also strikes a serious note. The lovers have to sacrifice a part of their ego. Marriage is the second name of adjustment and giving. If the partners are looking for domestic harmony and progress then one should never be suspicious of another partner. Trust is the touchstone of domestic harmony. Millamant is perhaps aware of the conflicts in marriage and the need to maintain her personality to be able to love wholeheartedly. The proviso scene is recorded as Congreve’s contribution to the philosophy of love. Husband and wife must give each other the liberty and not interfere too much in each other’s activities; respect each other’s privacy too to avoid possible disillusionment. Distance makes the heart go fonder. Once Millamant is convinced of Mirabell’s love, she throws away her defenses and comes out as a genuine lover.

The prose of the scene has a poetic luminosity. The speeches are all perfectly in character, rich in detail, and continuously witty. The lovers show grace both in their evasiveness and in their surrender to each other.

Also read: Concept of Mimesis by Aristotle