Who was William Congreve?

The life and works of Congreve
William Congreve, the great Restoration dramatist, was born in 1670 at Bardsey near Leeds. He belonged to an ancient family and his father was the commandant of a garrison near Cork in Ireland. The signal services rendered by Congreve’s father won for him high recognition in the court circles and made the way of young Congreve smooth and easy.

The early years of William Congreve were spent in Ireland where he was sent to school at Kilkenny and later on to the Trinity College, Dublin. He worked hard at Dublin and acquired considerable learning in classics. He became particularly proficient in Greek and Latin.

At the age of twenty, Congreve fell in love with Miss Beatrice Nelson, daughter of an engraver and architect. They first met at London theatre. The causal and accidental meeting ripened into passionate love, and finally love blazed up in a storm-like romance. Beatrice’s uncle stood in the way of her marriage with Congreve and the two lovers were sorely disappointed. Congreve and his beloved Beatrice decided to put an end to their disappointed love by taking poison. In a fit of desperation Congreve swallowed poison. Beatrice did not subject herself to any poisoning effect. Fortunately, for the readers of Congreve the poison could not have much effect on the young man and in a couple of days he regained his health. His great desire to marry Beatrice was not fulfilled. Beatrice married Horace Well. Congreve attended their wedding at Cathedral and partook in their wedding dinner.

Congreve’s first literary work was a novel Incognita or Love And Duty Reconciled. It was published in 1692 at the age of 21. The main aim in writing this novel was to imitate dramatic writing in the “design, contexture and result of the plot.” It has been described as a fine comedy of errors. It is a novel with amusing comedy in which description and dialogue alternate. Disguises, masks, mistaken identity, false names, all are there, true to type. Though the work is a prose romance, yet it has the virtues of a nice drama. It was reprinted in 1922 but has failed to enthuse the readers of the twentieth century.

Congreve’s next adventure was the production of an anthology of verses. Five of Congreve’s exercises in verse appeared in an anthology called miscellany of Original Poems. The most successful of the pieces is certainly the half-cynical song—the Decay, the following lines from which are very popular:

“Say not Olinda, I despise
The faded glories of your face
The languished vigour of your eyes
And that once only loved embrace,
In vain, in vain, my constant heart,
On aged wings, attempts to meet
With wonted speed those flames you dart,
In faints and flutters of your feet”.

The Anthology of Verses did not bring him any name as a poet. Some of the poems were vigorously criticized and sometimes even condemned as bitterly distasteful. But one thing is to be admired: Congreve, through these verses successfully attempted to turn sophistication and cynicism into beautiful English works. Congreve was known now in polite circles as a man of letter. He established association with Dryden, the great poet and dramatist of the age. Literary association with great men of letters induced Congreve to try his hand at drama, the popular craze of the time and at the age of twenty-three he produced his first comedy, The Old Bachelor. It was staged for the first time in 1692 and was loudly acclaimed as a great success. Dryden declared that he had never seen such a fine play. There was a chorus of applause and one of the critics wrote about the beauty of the play in following words:

“Each line of yours, like polished steel so hard;
In beauty safe, it wants no other guard.”

The play has interesting situations and interesting character. In fact, all the characters here are fops, dandies, girls and women of society. The Old Bachelor was an immediate success because it is a perfect and finished work of comic art and is rich in all that a comic genius is expected to have. Congreve’s wit, humour and command of dialogue are well represented in this play. The dialogue in this comedy is extremely delightful from the beginning to the end. The purely aesthetic pleasure we derive from this comedy, is unique. Once, Oscar Wilde, in his times, approached Congreve in the brilliance of the dialogues.

The success which Congreve achieved in The Old Bachelor was nicely used by him in the next play The Double Dealer. This play could not be as successful as The Old Bachelor. It was received coldly at first and the few remarks that Dryden made to the play in his letter to Walsh indicate how it was popularly received. “Congreve’s Double Dealer is censured by the greater part of the town and is defended only by the best critics, who you know, are commonly the fewest.” The reason why the Double Dealer could not win the same applause as The Old Bachelor is that whereas the public expected Congreve to give mirth and humour, pure delight and sparkling dialogues, Congreve in the Double Dealer produced a father somber tragic-comedy, rich in double-dealing rather than in pure comedy. The audience went home disappointed and confused, and the failure of the comedy damped the spirit of Congreve a little.

Love for Love
In the next play, Love for Love, Congreve completely cast away the shadow of tragedy which had hung over the previous play and came out as a pure comedian. This play is a pure comedy and its performance once again placed Congreve on a very high level among the comedy writers of the age. Thomas Davis said about this play in 1781 that, “by consent of all critics Love for Love is of the best in our language. Love for Love is the masterpiece of Congreve, the brilliant pure comedy of manners in the English language. Its plot is less confusing and its character less improbable than those of Double Dealer where intrigues become intriguing for the audience.

The theme of Love for Love is a triumph of real and sincere love on the part of two young people belonging to the upper classes. Love represented in this play is above considerations of money or sex, Here is love for love and not for money or any political reason. This play upholds the romantic view of love and is kept above the sordidness of political motives or sexual gratification.

The comedy is enlivened by its witty dialogue and its humorous character. The principal characters are finely drawn and the sense of pure comedy and fun make it lively and interesting. Dryden says about this play of Congreve, “Nothing very originally or very profound, that is true enough, but it is the stuff out of which Congreve delicately weaves the magic web of comedy and bewitches his readers and holds them in thrall.”

The Mourning Bride
In 1707 Congreve produced the tragedy of The Mourning Bride. The play ran for thirteen nights. The plot of this play is cunningly contrived. “Manuel, King of Granada, has taken prisoner Zara, a queen, and Osmyn, who is really one Alphonso in disguise, to whom Manuel’s daughter, Almeria, is secretly married. The king pursues Zara with his attentions. Zara, while loving Osmyn, true to his marriage vows nevertheless pretends to requite Zara’s love; and Almeria, knowing the real identity of Osmyn, still hides the truth from her father. This delicate balance cannot be preserved for any considerable length of time and Manuel soon discovers Zara’s secret. He hides himself in her chamber, assuming the disguise of Osmyn; unfortunately for him, he is really mistaken for Osmyn and murdered by the latter’s enemy. Zara too repeats the mistake and poisons herself. Almeria is now about to save her life and claim her love and her father’s throne.” In spite of its happy ending the play is a somber comedy. Crane Taylor is right when she says, “modern criticism would agree that The Mourning Bride was the best tragedy of its age, the age from Otway to Rowe to Addison.”

The way of the world
The last comedy of Congreve with a separate introduction given in this book is undoubtedly the finest work of Congreve. It at once placed him at the helm of the comic dramatists of the age and won for him a lasting place among the comedy writers of the age.

The Way of the World is a witty comedy scintillating with sparking dialogues and witty sayings. Its plot is a little complicated and confused, but the intricacy of the plot is not felt in the presence of the brilliant dialogue in the play.

The Way of the World is at once the triumph and failure of Congreve’s comedies. It is a triumph because it is a classic of English and European comedy, and its popularity has not declined in spite of bitter criticism from hostile critics. It won the approbation of the select few as a perfect piece of comic art, but the comedy could not attract much attention during the Restoration period. It was not well received by the public and the embittered the enthusiasm of the audience when they witnessed amorous intrigues presented with the same flair as in other comedies of the age.

“The Way of the World represents the finest flower of Restoration comedy, blooming a generation and more after the society which first bred it had passed away or at least radically changed. If we look at the play more closely we see something very different from either the hedonist case of Etherege or the brutal wit of heroine, perfectly aware of each other’s faults and willing to keep up the usual social games in order to save themselves from the embarrassment of confrontation with each other’s naked emotions revealed in their mutual conversation—something of the complexity and sadness of all human relationship.

Congreve lived for twenty eight years after the production of The Way of the World. In the later years of his life he lost his eyesight. He passed his days in misery and suffering. He died on 19th January 1729 at the age of fifty-six.

He was buried in the Westminster Abbey. Thus went to eternal rest the greatest comedy writer of the Restoration age, a man of worth and virtue, “whose candour and wit found him love and esteem of the present age, and whose writings will be the admiration of the future.”

Written by Lucas Beaumont

Generalist. Wikipedia contributor. Elementary school teacher from Saskatchewan, Canada.

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