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WILLIAM CONGREVE 1

WILLIAM CONGREVE came of one of the old landowning families described, or, rather catalogued, by Sheridan in the picture scene of The School for Scandal; families which, from generation to generation, produced judges, generals, parliament men and justices of the peace; families in which knighthoods were plentiful, and from which the House of Peers was commonly recruited. Though Staffordshire was the home of his race, he was born at Bardsey, near Leeds, where he was baptized on February tenth, 1669-1670. His father, also named William, was a soldier, and, soon after the poet's birth, was given a command at Youghal in Ireland. In Ireland, therefore, young Congreve was brought up. At the age of eleven or thereabouts he went to Kilkenny School, then the Eton of Ireland, where, for some months, he had Jonathan Swift for a schoolfellow. Probably, however, the friendship of the two men dates from their association at Trinity College, Dublin, whither Congreve

1 An excellent bibliography of the writings of Congreve by J. P. Anderson of the British Museum is attached as an appendix to Mr. Gosse's volume on Congreve in Great Writers. The plays of Congreve were first collected with his other works in Dublin, 1731, 3 vols. Two years later a London edition appeared. The last modern editions are those of Leigh Hunt (with Wycherley, Vanbrugh, and Farquhar), 1840, and of A. C. Ewald in the Mermaid Series, 1887. Mr. Gosse's Life, already mentioned (London, 1888), and the article by Sir Sidney Lee in The Dictionary of National Biography, 1887, vol. XII, are trustworthy biographies,

CONGREVE -!

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proceeded in 1685. Though we do not hear of his attaining any academical distinction, he became a good classical scholar after the seventeenth-century pattern, familiar with Latin literature and not ignorant of Greek. At Trinity College, too, he is said to have made his first essay in authorship, in the form of a novel named Incognita; or, Love and Duty Reconciled, which was not published until 1692. After the Revolution of 1688, both Congreve and Swift came to England, and Congreve seems never to have recrossed the Irish Channel.

He passed two years in the country; for the most part, no doubt, at the family seat of Stratton in Staffordshire. It was during these years, and probably in the summer of 1690, that he wrote The Old Bachelor, “to amuse himself” as he afterwards said, “in a slow recovery from a fit of sickness.” On March seventeenth, 1691, he was entered at the Middle Temple, and began, or ought to have begun, the study of the law; but as we find him in the autumn of 1692 "an accepted poet” and a prominent collaborator in the translation of Juvenal and Persius published under Dryden's editorship, it is doubtful whether he ever seriously intended to adopt the legal profession. There must have been something very ingratiating in his personality, for the country youth was soon an intimate friend of the great John Dryden, and of several other literary leaders, who hailed him, on astonishingly scanty evidence, as the rising hope of English poetry. Revised and polished by Dryden and Southerne, The Old Bachelor was produced at Drury Lane in January, 1693, and was instantly successful. From Betterton downwards, all the first actors and actresses of

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the day were engaged in it; and Anne Bracegirdle, the beautiful, the lovable, the discreet, played Congreve's first heroine, as she was to play all the rest.

The young poet was overwhelmed with eulogies; but it is doubtful whether he was "instantly,” as Macaulay and Thackeray have stated, given a post of profit in the Civil Service. That in the course of his life he held several such posts' is certain; but a couplet of Swift's,

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And crazy Congreve scarce could spare

A shilling to discharge his chair"seems to indicate that for some time, and even after his health had broken down about the end of the century, he was in straitened circumstances. It must be remembered that the dramatist of those days was not paid by royalties constantly rolling in, but by the profits of certain stated performances. The sale of the printed play was often worth at least as much to him as his share of the theatrical receipts. Nevertheless, there is no reason to doubt that Congreve was in the main fortunate in money matters, as in everything else save health. He enjoyed fat offices during the latter part of his life; he was an unmarried man, and his relations with women, so far as they are known, seem to have been characterized by a good deal of worldly prudence. One might almost call them suspiciously inexpensive.

1 Commissioner for licensing Hackney Co hes; Commissioner for Wine Licences; place in the Pipe Office; post in the Custom House; Secretary of Jamaica. (Thackeray's enumeration.)

2 Congreve, however, was in a position to secure exceptional terms, and had at different times an actual share in the management of the theatres in Lincoln's Inn Fields and in the Haymarket. 1 He afterwards suppressed the passages in which his annoyance was most apparent.

The great success of The Old Bachelor spurred Congreve to vigorous effort, and before the year was out (November, 1693) he had placed on the stage a far more elaborate and highly-polished work, The Double-Dealer. Once more the cast was a superb one, Betterton playing Maskwell, Mrs. Barry the volcanic Lady Touchwood, and Mrs. Bracegirdle (by this time the author's intimate friend) the sedate but not unamiable Cynthia. Theatrical success, however, is not always commensurate with effort, and The Double-Dealer was a comparative failure. The reasons for this check we shall have to examine later; in the meantime it is sufficient to record that Congreve published the play with a rather ill-tempered Epistle Dedicatory to Charles Montague,' and that his vanity was soothed by a magnificent copy of verses, signed John Dryden, in which the monarch of contemporary letters generously proclaimed him heir apparent to the throne. Thus heartened, Congreve set about the composition of his third comedy, the famous Love for Love.

While he was writing it, however, the affairs of the Theatre Royal, then the only playhouse in London, fell into sad disorder, which ended in a split between the patentee managers and their leading actors, headed by Betterton. The seceding players obtained a special licence from William III, and constructed a new theatre within the walls of a tennis-court in Lincoln's Inn Fields.

At Easter,

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2 The theatre in Dorset Gardens existed, indeed, but had almost fallen into disuse, except for opera,

1695, the enterprise was inaugurated with the production of Love for Love, which, with Betterton as Valentine, Mrs. Bracegirdle as Angelica, and Doggett as Ben, scored an almost unexampled success, and placed Congreve easily first among the dramatists of the day. Two years elapsed before he followed up this success with another, in a different line of art. The Mourning Bridel is now remembered mainly because Dr. Johnson overpraised a single speech in it; but for more than a hundred years it was one of the most popular of English tragedies.

Mr. Gosse has shown that The Mourning Bride was produced early in 1697. Just a year later (March, 1698) appeared that famous invective, Jeremy Collier's Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage. On the subject of “profaneness” Collier's ecclesiastical prejudices led him to weaken his case by many trivial and ridiculous cavillings; but on the side of immorality he may be said to have understated rather than exaggerated. Into the controversy which ensued Congreve entered late and reluctantly, with a long pamphlet entitled Amendments of Mr. Collier's False and Imperfect Citations. Its tone and temper were unfortunate; but the writers who pronounce it an unmitigated blunder are perhaps judging it by modern canons of taste rather than by those of the seventeenth century.

We shall have to consider later whether the moral atmosphere of Congreve's comedies can be justified, or must be condemned, or (as Lamb would persuade us) ought simply to be ignored. Meanwhile, we may note that Congreve's impenitence under the scourge of Col

1 See also the note on page 368.

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