Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
William Congreve (1670–1729)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
CONGREVE was the most brilliant of all the English dramatists of the later Stuart period. Born at Bardsley, near Leeds, in 1670, he passed his childhood and youth in Ireland, and was sent to the University of Dublin, where he was highly educated; and on finishing his classical studies he went to London to study law and was entered at the Middle Temple. He had two ambitions, not altogether reconcilable—to shine in literature and to shine in society. His good birth, polished manners, and witty conversation procured him entrance to the best company; but the desire for literary renown had the mastery at the start. His first work was ‘Incognita,’ a novel of no particular value, published under the name of “Cleophil.” In 1693 he wrote ‘The Old Bachelor,’ a comedy; it was brought out with a phenomenal cast. Under the supervision of Dryden, who generously admired the author, it achieved triumph; and Montagu, then Lord of the Treasury, gave him a desirable place (commissioner for licensing hackney-coaches) and the reversion of another. The plot is not interesting, but the play is celebrated for its witty and eloquent dialogue, which even Sheridan did not surpass; it has a lightness which nothing that preceded it had equaled. The characters are not very original, yet it has variety and diverting action.  1
  Returning now to his rival ambition, that of achieving social success, Congreve pretended that he had merely “scribbled a few scenes for his own amusement,” and had yielded unwillingly to his friends’ desire to try his fortune on the stage. But in 1694 he brought out his second play, ‘The Double Dealer.’ It was not a favorite, though in it all the powers which made a success of ‘The Old Bachelor’ were present, mellowed and improved by time. The dialogue is light and natural; but the grim and offensive characters of Maskwell and Lady Touchwood disgusted even an audience of the seventeenth century. Dryden, however, wrote a most ingenious piece of commendatory verse for the play; gradually the public came to his way of thinking; and when, the next year, ‘Love for Love’ appeared, it was said that “scarcely any comedy within the memory of the oldest man had been equally successful.” This play was the triumph of his art; and it won Congreve a share in the theatre in which it was played,—the new theatre which Betterton and others had opened near Lincoln’s Inn. Jeremy, the gentleman’s gentleman, is delightfully witty,—he has “the seeds of rhetoric and logic in his head,”—and Valentine’s mock madness is amusing; but as Sir Sampson remarks of him, “Body o’ me, he talks sensibly in his madness! has he no intervals?” Jeremy replies, “Very short, sir.”  2
  In about two years Congreve produced ‘The Mourning Bride,’ a tragedy which was over-lauded, but stands high among the dramas of the century. It ranks with Otway’s ‘Venice Preserved’ and ‘The Fair Penitent.’ A noble passage describing the temple, in Act ii., Scene 3, was extolled by Johnson. The play was successful, and is more celebrated than some far better plays. But Congreve was unequal to a really great flight of passion; tragedy was out of his range; though he was now hailed, at the age of twenty-seven, as the first tragic as well as the first comic dramatist of his time.  3
  Now, however, a reformer arose who was destined to make his mark on the English drama. The depravation of the national taste which had made the success of Congreve, Wycherley, Farquhar, and others, was the result of a reaction against the Puritan strictness under the Commonwealth. Profligacy was the badge of a Cavalier, and Congreve’s heroes exactly reproduced the superficial fine gentleman of a time when to be a man of good breeding it was necessary to make love to one’s neighbor’s wife, even without preference or passion. In the plays of this period nearly all the husbands are prim, precise, and uncomfortable, while the lovers are without exception delightful fellows. The Puritan writers regarded an affair of gallantry as a criminal offense; the poet of this period made it an elegant distinction.  4
  Jeremy Collier came to change all this. He was a clergyman and a high-churchman, fanatical in the cause of decency. In 1698 he published his ‘Short View of the Profaneness and Immorality of the English Stage,’ and threw the whole literary world into convulsions. He attacked Congreve, among others, somewhat injudiciously, not only for his sins against decency but for some unreal transgressions; and he had at his command all the weapons of ridicule and indignation. The country sided with the eloquent preacher, but waited for some champion—Dryden presumably—to pick up the gauntlet. Dryden however declined, acknowledging later that Collier was in the right. Congreve stepped in “where angels feared to tread,” and succeeded in putting himself entirely in the wrong. His reply was dull, and he was unwise enough to show anger. Collier’s cause remained in the ascendant, and with the younger race of poets who now came forward a reform began.  5
  In 1700 Congreve wrote one more play, ‘The Way of the World,’ the most brilliant and thoughtful of his works. Lady Wishfort’s character is perhaps too repulsive for comedy, though the reader, carried on by the ease and wit of the dialogue, will accept her. Mirabell’s brilliant chase and winning of Millamant; the diverting character of Witwould, an incarnation of feeble repartee; and the love scene in Act v., Scene 5, in which both lady and gentleman are anxious and willing to be free and tolerant, are original and amusing studies. But whether it was the influence of his defeat by Collier or not, this play, the best comedy written after the civil war, failed on the stage.  6
  Congreve produced nothing more of consequence, though he lived for twenty-eight years in the most brilliant society that London afforded; he suffered from gout and from failing eyesight, and by way of consolation contracted a curious friendship with the Duchess of Marlborough, widow of the great Marlborough, with whom he passed a part of every day. In the summer of 1728 he met with an accident while driving, and died from the effects of it in January, 1729. The Duchess buried him with pomp; he lay in state in the Jerusalem Chamber, and was interred in Westminster Abbey.  7
  Congreve was held in the highest esteem by his fellow writers, and Pope dedicated to him his translation of the Iliad. Yet he would not hear his literary works praised, and always declared that they were trifles. When Voltaire during his visit to England desired to see him, Congreve asked that he would “consider him merely as a gentleman.” “If you were merely a gentleman,” said Voltaire, “I should not care to see you.”  8
  Congreve was not a great poet, but he had more wit than any English writer of the last two centuries except Sheridan; he had at the same time great skill in character-drawing and in constructing plots. The profligacy of his plays was the natural consequence of a period of Puritanical austerity. While not free from the blame of intentional indecency, he at least lacks the brutality and coarseness of Wycherley, Vanbrugh, and Farquhar.  9

Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2015 · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors · World Lit.