Sivut kuvina

lier was evidently unaffected. He was not seeking, by bluster, to dissemble a conviction of sin; for the moral atmosphere of his next and last comedy, The Way of the World, was neither better nor worse than that of its predecessors. In The Old Bachelor and Love for Love there are, indeed, one or two passages of greater verbal grossness than any which we find in The Way of the World, but that is simply attributable to the higher animal spirits of the two plays. In point of verbal decency or indecency The Way of the World is very much on a level with The Double-Dealer, which preceded Collier's attack by more than four years; while in the total absence of any standard of rectitude, or even of merely conventional honour, all four plays are entirely of a piece. There is thus no sign either of repentance or of bravado in the post-Collier comedy. Comedy, for Congreve, meant a picture of society observed from a standpoint of complete moral indifference; and if the public chose to quarrel with that standpoint, why, then they should have no more comedies.

I would not, however, be understood to imply that the scant success of The Way of the World (produced in March, 1700) was due to a moral reaction in the public mind, consequent on Collier's rebuke, or that Congreve ceased to write simply because he realized that the spirit of the age was against him. The effect of Collier's diatribe was not nearly so immediate and startling as it is sometimes represented to have been. It did not prevent the success of Farquhar's Love and a Bottle, produced in December, 1698, while the air was still full of echoes of the pamphlet war; and the immense popularity of Farquhar's The Constant


Couple, produced only three or four months before The Way of the World, proves that the public was in no unreasonably squeamish mood. The Constant Couple, indeed, was still at the height of its success when The Way of the World was produced; and it may perhaps be conjectured that the fashion of the moment

६. set towards Farquhar's lighter, airier humour, in contradistinction to Congreve's more elaborate embroidery of wit.

I believe, however, and shall try to show later, that the cool reception of The Way of the World was probably due in the main to purely technical reasons. Congreve's statement in his Epistle Dedicatory that "but little” of the play “was prepared for that general taste which seems now to be predominant in the palates of our audiences,” might at first sight seem like an allusion to a change of heart begotten by Collier's influence; but the context shows that he has in mind, not a moral reaction, but a preference for what he considers coarse and overcharged character-drawing. As years went on, and the comedies of Steele, with the later works of Farquhar, took possession of the stage, Congreve may very well have felt that the public mind was veering away from that attitude of moral indifference which was to him the great condition-precedent of comedy; and this feeling may have combined with his natural indolence, and his lingering resentment over the reception of The Way of the World, to deter him from again tempting fortune in the theatre. But it would almost certainly be a mistake to attribute the silence of his later years to any one cause, and most of all to see in it a direct result of Collier's onslaught.

Whatever the reason, Congreve's career as a dramatist was now at an end. Except a masque called · The Judgement of Paris, an opera, Semele, and an adaptation of Molière's Monsieur de Pourceaugnac in which he collaborated with Vanbrugh and Walsh, he did nothing more for the stage. Until his death, nearly thirty years later, he lived the life of a well-to-do gentleman 1 of literary tastes and of a sadly impaired constitution. He was a constant martyr to gout in all its insidious forms, including painful and tedious affections of the eyes. Moreover, even before he reached middle age, he had grown very fat; so that the spectacle of his later years has more than a touch of that physical grotesqueness which so often afflicts us in the personal chronicles of the eighteenth century

probably because that age was less careful than our own to dissemble its uglier aspects. His literary reputation remained very high. He was the peer and valued friend of Swift, Addison, Steele, Arbuthnot, Gay and Pope. His cheerful and equable disposition made him acceptable in every society; he was on good terms with both political parties and all literary cliques. To him Pope dedicated his translation of the Iliad, a distinction dukes might have envied; and, as Mr. Gosse happily puts it, “Not Mrs. Blimber merely, but every lover of letters, might wish to have been admitted, behind a curtain, to the dinner of five at Twickenham, on the seventh of July, 1726, when Pope entertained Congreve, Bolingbroke, Gay, and Swift."

1 Mr. Gosse has, very justly in my opinion, attempted to vindicate Congreve against the reproach of vanity or affectation in saying to Voltaire that he was to be regarded “simply as a gentleman who led a life of plainness and simplicity.” He probably meant that his literary achievements, whatever their value, were now things of the distant past, and had ceased, as it were, to be part of his present self.

In the latter years of his life that is to say, when he was well advanced in middle


he became a constant guest in the household of Henrietta, Duchess of Marlborough, the eccentric daughter of the great Duke. To her he left the bulk of his fortune, and to Mrs. Bracegirdle only two hundred pounds -no doubt on the scriptural principle that to her that hath shall be given. His apparent desertion of the actress-friend, to whose beauty and genius he owed so much, has been often and severely commented on; but in such matters it is wise to withhold judgement until we know all the circumstances; whereas here all is empty conjecture. Congreve died on January nineteenth, 1729, and a week later was buried with great pomp in Westminster Abbey. The Duchess of Marlborough erected the monument over his grave, and is said to have kept his memory alive in her household by nursing and tending a figure of wax or ivory made in his image. Serious biographers accept the legend, but it is probably an absurd misunderstanding or misrepresentation of some very trivial fact.

The fate of Congreve's plays in their novelty was, on the face of it, paradoxical, and calculated to beget in him a contempt for the public judgement. He very well knew that The Double-Dealer was a far maturer effort than The Old Bachelor, and that The Way of the World was a much finer piece of work than Love for Love. Yet The Old Bachelor and Love for Love were triumphantly successful, while The Double-Dealer

[ocr errors]

and The Way of the World were comparative failures. Whether he actually formed such a resolve or not, it would certainly not have been surprising if, after the cool acceptance of the play illumined by the exquisite creation of Millamant, he had vowed, as Genest says, “to commit his quiet and his fame no more to the caprices of an audience.”'

Yet, had he been able to look into the matter with dispassionate penetration, he might have found the public judgement not so very capricious after all. Many theories have from time to time been advanced to explain why the curve of success ran so directly counter (it would seem to the curve of merit; but the main and sufficient reason, I think, was a purely technical

For the immediate success of a new play, the one thing absolutely needful is clearness of construction. An audience cannot endure to have its atten- t. tion overtaxed in a futile effort to follow the windings of a labyrinthine intrigue; and that was precisely the task which, in The Double-Dealer, and to a less degree in The Way of the World, Congreve had imposed upon his public. In both cases he rashly essayed to write a "well-made play,” without possessing the rudiments of what was then an undiscovered, or at any rate an unimported, art. Now there is nothing more irritating than a play which sets forth to be wellmade, but is, in fact, helplessly ill-made; so that it need not at all surprise us to find that The DoubleDealer and The Way of the World had to live down the confused and fatiguing impression which they at first produced, whereas the comparatively simple and perspicuous action of The Old Bachelor and Love for Love offered no obstacles to instant appreciation.



« EdellinenJatka »