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Plyant of the play. Now Lord Touchwood has a nephew and heir presumptive named Mellefont, who is betrothed to Cynthia Plyant. The "writings” are to be “settled” on the very day on which the action passes, and the marriage is “appointed” for the

morrow.

Mellefont, however, knows that his uncle's wife, Lady Touchwood, will do all she can to prevent his marriage with Cynthia, because she is herself frantically in love with him and fiercely resentful of his rejection of her advances. He has a friend, Jack Maskwell, whom he has introduced into Lord Touchwood's household, it does not appear in what capacity; and this friend he has commissioned to watch Lady Touchwood narrowly, and give him notice if she attempts any move to his disadvantage. But in a scene between Maskwell and Lady Touchwood we very soon learn that she is his (Maskwell's) mistress he has caught her on the rebound from her rejection by Mellefont — and that he is plotting with her to prevent Mellefont's marriage with Cynthia. As yet — that is to say, in Act I -- they have hit on nothing better than to persuade Lady Plyant, Cynthia's foolish and affected stepmother, that Mellefont's addresses to her stepdaughter mask a passion for herself. Lady Touchwood justly observes that this is “a trifling design; for her first conversing with Mellefont will convince her of the contrary”; to which Maskwell replies: "I know it. - I don't depend upon it. — But it will prepare something else; and gain us leisure to lay a stronger plot.”

Here, manifestly, is a grave technical error. The conspirators have only a few hours at their command,

for it is already afternoon, and the signing of the settlement is to take place that evening; yet they waste energy on a plot which they know must fail, in order to "gain leisure" for a stronger contrivance. It is true, no doubt, that the law of economy which prevails in our stricter forms of drama had not the same force in the patchwork plays of that period. Yet it can never have been otherwise than dangerous to demand the attention of an audience for an intrigue confessedly foredoomed to failure, at a time when the whole hopes of the intriguers depended upon prompt and effective action.

The device, however, is temporarily successful, thanks to the voluble vanity of Lady Plyant and the unbounded credulity of Sir Paul. It furnishes a couple of good comedy scenes, the main substance of the second act. Towards the close of the act, Maskwell meets the distracted Mellefont and reassures him (oddly enough !) by the information that he has wormed himself into the confidence of Lady Touchwood by pretending to be her confederate against Mellefont, and even "encouraging" her, for Mellefont's "diversion," in slandering him to Lady Plyant. He tells him, moreover, that to convince Lady Touchwood that he really shares her hatred of Mellefont, he has told her that he (Maskwell) has "been long secretly in love with Cynthia,” and hopes to succeed to her hand and fortune when Mellefont is ruined. All this is supposed in some way to console Mellefont mightily; but Maskwell does not show how Mellefont's cause has been in any practical way advanced by his elaborate duplicity. Then, when Mellefont is gone, he lets us sce, in a soliloquy, that he is really

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in love with Cynthia, and that this is the ultimate motive of his whole policy.

These scenes are injudicious in the extreme. It is their smallest fault, perhaps, that they make Mellefont's credulity seem excessive and contemptible. He has been warned by his true friend, Careless, not to put too much trust in Maskwell; yet it never occurs to him to wonder whether the man who makes such a boast of duping Lady Touchwood (and to such small apparent purpose) may not be duping other people as well. Still more unfortunate, from the technical point of view, is the impossibility of distinguishing truth from falsehood in Maskwell's statements. He ells Mellefont that in order to hoodwink Lady Touchwood he has affected to be in love with Cynthia; whereas the truth is that he loves her without any affectation, and has breathed no word of it to Lady Touchwood.

So stated, the matter seems tolerably simple; but it is only in the light of after events that all this is ascertained. At the point we have reached, the audience

. has no means of knowing what to believe or what to disbelieve, and has merely a sense of being lost in a maze of duplicity. Congreve was partly led astray by the desire to draw an original type of villain whose method should be to deceive people by telling them the truth. The notion was ingenious; but it demanded the inventive craftsmanship of a Scribe to carry it out successfully; and this Congreve was far from possessing. Maskwell says

in Act V: I must deceive Mellefont once more. ... Now will I, in my old way, discover the whole and real truth of the matter to him, that he may not suspect one word on't." See also the motto from Terence on the title-page of $ the play.

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At the beginning of Act III, Lady Touchwood, apparently acting on her own initiative, accuses Mellefont to Lord Touchwood of having persecuted her with his addresses. This is, of course, the master card in her ladyship’s hand, and ought to have been played with all possible care and deliberation; yet an hour or so before, when she and Maskwell adopted a "trifling design” in order to “gain leisure to lay a stronger plot,” this obvious piece of villainy does not seem to have occurred to either of them. No skilful dramatist would have discounted his great effect by thus giving it the air of a fortuitous afterthought. Lord Touchwood believes his wife's story, and determines to disown and disinherit Mellefont; whereupon she, in elation at her success, arranges an amorous rendezvous with Maskwell at eight o'clock in her bedchamber. Mellefont then entering, Maskwell (true to his system) tells him of this arrangement, and suggests that he (Mellefont) should come upon the scene of the assignation and thus ever afterwards have his aunt at his mercy. Mellefont agrees with enthusiasm, and calls down blessings on the head of his friend and "better genius."

Though there are many improbabilities in this combination, it is plausible enough according to the accepted conventions of that day, and it holds out promise of a strong situation. But what does Congreve do? He suffers the interest of the audience to evaporate while he carries forward the two underplots the amours of Careless and Lady Plyant, Brisk and Lady Froth - in a series of scenes which fill forty-two pages of the edition of 1710, and must have taken at least an hour in the acting. Then, towards the close

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of Act IV, the main intrigue is resumed, Mellefont surprises Maskwell and Lady Touchwood together, Maskwell escapes, Lady Touchwood grovels at Mellefont's feet, until Lord Touchwood, brought thither by Maskwell, appears upon the scene, when she turns the tables by accusing Mellefont of an infamous attempt upon her. This is undoubtedly a strong scene of what we should now call emotional drama, and might have made the success of the play had it been followed by a brief and effective last act. Unfortunately the last act merely carried to a pitch of extravagance the imbecile audacity of Maskwell's double-dealing, and proved Congreve incapable of attaining that clearness-in-complexity which is indispensable in a play of intrigue.

At the very beginning of Act V, we find a touch which betrays the weakness of the author's method. Maskwell congratulates Lady Touchwood on her triumph over Mellefont, but says nothing to show that it was he himself, and not chance, that brought Lord Touchwood on the scene. Then in a soliloquy

. he says, “I durst not own my introducing my lord,

for she would have suspected a design which I should have been puzzled to excuse.”

Now it is and must ever remain an enigma what Maskwell here has in mind. There are two or three possible solutions, but none convincing; and none, certainly, that would come home to the instant apprehension of a spectator in the theatre. Even if one could produce an argument to show that the policy of silence was certainly the right one from Ma vell's point of view, or certainly the one which Maskwell would have adopted, the very fact that such an argu

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