WILLIAM CONGREVE, English dramatist, the greatest English master of pure comedy, was born at Bardsey near Leeds, where he was baptized on the 10th of February 1670, although the inscription on his monument gives his date of birth as 1672. He was the son of William Congreve, a soldier who was soon after his son's birth placed in command of the garrison at Youghal. To Ireland, therefore, is due the credit of his education — as a schoolboy at Kilkenny, as an undergraduate at Dublin, where he was a contemporary and friend of Swift. From college he came to London, and was entered as a student of law at the Middle Temple. The first-fruits of his studies appeared under the boyish pseudonym of "Cleophil," in the form of a novel whose existence is now remembered only through the unabashed avowal of so austere a moralist as Dr Johnson, that he "would rather praise it than read it."
In 1693 Congreve's real career began, and early enough by the latest computation, with the brilliant appearance and instant success of his first comedy, The Old Bachelor, under the generous auspices of Dryden, then as ever a living and immortal witness to the falsehood of the vulgar charge which taxes the greater among poets with jealousy or envy, the natural badge and brand of the smallest that would claim a place among their kind. The discrowned laureate had never, he said, seen such a first play; and indeed the graceless grace of the dialogue was as yet only to be matched by the last and best work of Etherege, standing as till then it had done alone among the barefaced brutalities of Wycherley and Shadwell. The types of Congreve's first work were the common conventional properties of stage tradition; but the fine and clear-cut style in which these types were reproduced was his own. The gift of one place and the reversion of another were the solid fruits of his splendid success.
Next year a better play from the same hand met with worse fortune on the stage, and with yet higher honour from the first living poet of his nation. The noble verses, as faultless in the expression as reckless in the extravagance of their applause, prefixed by Dryden to The Double Dealer, must naturally have supported the younger poet, if indeed such support can have been required, against the momentary annoyance of assailants whose passing clamour left uninjured and secure the fame of his second comedy; for the following year witnessed the crowning triumph of his art and life, in the appearance of Love for Love (1695). Two years later his ambition rather than his genius adventured on the foreign ground of tragedy, and The Mourning Bride (1697) began such a long career of good fortune as in earlier or later times would have been closed against a far better work.
Next year he attempted, without his usual success, a reply to the attack of Jeremy Collier, the nonjuror, "on the immorality and profaneness of the English stage" — an attack for once not discreditable to the assailant, whose honesty and courage were evident enough to approve him incapable alike of the ignominious precaution which might have suppressed his own name, and of the dastardly mendacity which would have stolen the mask of a stranger's. Against this merit must be set the mistake of confounding in one indiscriminate indictment the levities of a writer like Congreve with the brutalities of a writer like Wycherley — an error which ever since has more or less perverted the judgment of succeeding critics. The general case of comedy was then, however, as untenable by the argument as indefensible by the sarcasm of its most brilliant and comparatively blameless champion. Art itself, more than anything else, had been outraged and degraded by the recent school of the Restoration; and the comic work of Congreve, though different rather in kind than in degree from the bestial and blatant licence of his immediate precursors, was inevitably for a time involved in the sentence passed upon the comic work of men in all ways alike his inferiors. The true and triumphant answer to all possible attacks of honest men or liars, brave men or cowards, was then as ever to be given by the production of work unarraignable alike by fair means or foul, by frank impeachment or furtive imputation.
In 1700 Congreve thus replied to Collier with The Way of the World — the unequalled and unapproached masterpiece of English comedy, which may fairly claim a place beside or but just beneath the mightiest work of Molière. On the stage which had recently acclaimed with uncritical applause the author's more questionable appearance in the field of tragedy, this final and flawless evidence of his incomparable powers met with a rejection then and ever since inexplicable on any ground of conjecture. During the twenty-eight years which remained to him, Congreve produced little beyond a volume of fugitive verses, published ten years after the miscarriage of his masterpiece. His even course of good fortune under Whig and Tory governments alike was counterweighed by the physical infirmities of gout and failing sight. He died, January 19, 1729, in consequence of an injury received on a journey to Bath by the upsetting of his carriage; was buried in Westminster Abbey, after lying in state in the Jerusalem Chamber; and bequeathed the bulk of his fortune to the chief friend of his last years, Henrietta, duchess of Marlborough, daughter of the great duke, rather than to his family, which, according to Johnson, was then in difficulties, or to Mrs Bracegirdle, the actress, with whom he had lived longer on intimate terms than with any other mistress or friend, but who inherited by his will only £200. The one memorable incident of his later life was the visit of Voltaire, whom he astonished and repelled by his rejection of proffered praise and the expression of his wish to be considered merely as any other gentleman of no literary fame. The great master of well-nigh every province in the empire of letters, except the only one in which his host reigned supreme, replied that in that sad case Congreve would not have received his visit.
The fame of the greatest English comic dramatist is founded wholly or mainly on but three of his five plays. His first comedy was little more than a brilliant study after such models as were eclipsed by this earliest effort of their imitator; and tragedy under his hands appears rouged and wrinkled, in the patches and powder of Lady Wishfort. But his three great comedies are more than enough to sustain a reputation as durable as our language. Were it not for these we should have no samples to show of comedy in its purest and highest form. Ben Jonson, who alone attempted to introduce it by way of reform among the mixed work of a time when comedy and tragedy were as inextricably blended on the stage as in actual life, failed to give the requisite ease and the indispensable grace of comic life and movement to the action and passion of his elaborate and magnificent work. Of Congreve's immediate predecessors, whose aim had been to raise on French foundations a new English fabric of simple and unmixed comedy, Wycherley was of too base metal and Etherege was of metal too light to be weighed against him; and besides theirs no other or finer coin was current than the crude British ore of Shadwell's brutal and burly talent. Borrowing a metaphor from Landor, we may say that a limb of Molière would have sufficed to make a Congreve, a limb of Congreve would have sufficed to make a Sheridan. The broad and robust humour of Vanbrugh's admirable comedies gives him a place on the master's right hand; on the left stands Farquhar, whose bright light genius is to Congreve's as female is to male, or "as moonlight unto sunlight." No English writer, on the whole, has so nearly touched the skirts of Molière; but his splendid intelligence is wanting in the deepest and subtlest quality which has won for Molière from the greatest poet of his country and our age the tribute of exact and final definition conveyed in that perfect phrase which salutes at once and denotes him — "ce moqueur pensif comme un apotre." Only perhaps in a single part has Congreve half consciously touched a note of almost tragic depth and suggestion; there is something wellnigh akin to the grotesque and piteous figure of Arnolphe himself in the unvenerable old age of Lady Wishfort, set off and relieved as it is, with grace and art worthy of the supreme French master, against the only figure on any stage which need not shun comparison even with that of Celimene.
Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th Ed., Vol. VI.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1910. 939.
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