Writer/director Theresa Rebeck has tackled everything from movies to novels, and now brings her cunning adaptation of William Congreve’s The Way of the World to Folger Theatre as part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival. Find out what drew one of Newsweek’s 150 Fearless Women in the World to this Restoration classic.
First and foremost, The Way of the World is a funny play. Originally written in 1700, Congreve’s comedy satirizes the elite’s idle lifestyle and cynical approach to love, marriage, and sex. When I thought about adapting it for a contemporary audience, I was immediately hooked by the impulsive spirit and joyful abandon in the plot. Congreve’s critique of the hyper-wealthy and his premise that love and sex can be commodified is something I saw reflected in our popular culture. There was so much backbiting in the original script that when I first started working on this adaptation it almost seemed too mean for a modern audience. However, our world changed with the 2016 election. Mean became commonplace, even fashionable. A play from over 300 years ago suddenly felt powerfully of this moment.
Through the relationship of our young lovers, Mae and Henry, the play asks whether love is possible in a world that has so utterly ridiculed affection. Heiress to a huge fortune, Mae is searching for meaning but she is compromised by her place in the world. Henry is at first attracted to Mae’s money but then he finds himself actually falling for her—and no one’s more surprised than he is. In such a jaded world as ours, is it possible for true love to exist? That universal question leads to unlimited comic scenarios.
Performing in the shadow of the US Capitol has heightened the play’s immediacy for me. When the Waitress talks about working six jobs just to make ends meet, I can’t help but think of all the people I know in similar situations. The lavish lifestyle of the 1% is a foreign world to most of us. The wealth gap in America is becoming so wide that we are losing sight of how to relate to each other in meaningful ways. We have replaced sincere human connection with the cattiness of social media and reality TV. Through satirizing the idle rich, The Way of the World explores the nastiness and shallowness permeating modern society.
The Restoration ushered in a new era of women on stage, so it seems fitting to bring this play to DC during the Women’s Voices Theater Festival. This version of The Way of the World is powerfully different from Congreve’s, not only because it’s adapted to a modern audience but also because as a female writer, my adaptation carries an inherent female perspective that empowers Congreve’s Lady Wishfort (our Rene) and endows our heiress (Mae) with a more complex spiritual life. It is a story that simultaneously embraces the Folger’s impeccable classic credentials and also belongs in the contemporary female context. I hope you enjoy the show and this talented cast as much as I have.
Learn more at Theresa Rebeck’s Stage Director Talk on January 11 and then see Folger Theatre’s The Way of the World on stage now until February 11. For tickets and more information, visit us online or call the Folger Box Office at 202.544.7077.