Introduction - IV
Passing from necessarily vague and not obviously pertinent remarks to criticism, which may fairly be less diffident, we leave Congreve’s life and come to his work, to his ‘tawdry playhouse taper,’ as Thackeray called it. It is only after the man has appeared that we recognise that he came at the hour; but the nature of the hour is in this case not difficult to be discerned. The habit of playgoing was well-established; the turmoil of the Revolution was over; De Jure was at a comfortable distance, and De Facto’s wife was a patroness of the arts. But playgoers had but to be shown something better than that they had, to discover that the convention of the Restoration needed new blood. A justification of its choice of material has been attempted: there is no inconsistency in affirming that the tendency to use it with a mere monotony of ribaldry was emphatic. Of this tendency the most notable and useful illustration is Wycherley, because in point of wit and dramatic skill he dwarfed his colleagues. As Mr. Swinburne has said, the art of Congreve is different in kind, not merely in degree, from the cruder and more boisterous product of the ‘brawny’ dramatist. Happily, however, for his success, the difference was not instantly clear. His first play links him with Wycherley, not with that rare and faint embryo of the later Congreve, George Etherege. ‘You was always a gentleman, Mr. George,’ as the valet says in Beau Austin. Happily for his popularity Congreve first followed the more popular man. It is not, indeed, until he wrote his last play that he was a whole Etherege idealised, albeit a greater than Etherege in the meantime. The peculiar effect which Etherege achieved in Sir Fopling Flutter—at whom and with whom you laugh at once—was not sublimated (the fineness left, the faintness become firmness) until Congreve created Witwoud, the inimitable, in The Way of the World.
At the very first Congreve had good fortune in his players. It was a brave time for them. True, their salaries were not wonderfully large. Colley Cibber complains of the days before the revolt in 1694: ‘at what unequal salaries the hired actors were held by the absolute authority of their frugal masters, the patentees.’ But the example was not faded of those gay days when they were the pets of the most artistic court that England has known: when great ladies carried Kynaston in his woman’s dress to Hyde Park after the play, and the King was the most persistent and the most interested playgoer in his realm. They were not thus petted for irrelevant reasons—for their respectability, their piety, or their domestic virtues; and their recognition as artists by an artistic society did not spoil their art. When Congreve started on his course of play-writing, Queen Mary kept up, in a measure, the amiable custom of her uncle. He was very fortunate in his casts. There was Betterton, first of all, the versatile, the restrained, and, witness everybody, the incomparable. There was Underhill, ‘a correct and natural comedian’—one must quote Cibber pretty often in this connexion—not well suited, one must suppose, to play Setter to Betterton’s Heartwell in The Old Bachelor, but by reason of his admirable assumption of stupidity to make an excellent Sir Sampson in Love for Love. There were Powel, Williams, Verbruggen, Bowen, and Dogget (Fondlewife in the first play: afterwards Ben Legend, a part which made his fame and turned his head)—all notable comedians. Kynaston, graceful in old age as he had been beautiful in youth, was not in The Old Bachelor, but created Lord Touchwood in The Double-Dealer. Mountfort had been murdered by my Lord Mohun, and Leigh had followed him to the grave, but their names lived in their wives. Mrs. Mountfort ‘was mistress of more variety of humour than I ever knew in any one woman actress . . . nothing, though ever so barren, if within the bounds of nature, could be flat in her hands.’ Indeed ‘she was so fond of humour, in what low part soever to be found, that she would make no scruple of defacing her fair form to come heartily into it’—assuredly a rare actress! About Mrs. Leigh Cibber is less enthusiastic, but grants her ‘a good deal of humour’: her old women were famous. Mrs. Barry was a stately, dignified actress, best, no doubt, in tragedy. Lastly, there was Mrs. Bracegirdle, the innocent publica cura, whom authors courted through their plays, and who had all the men in the house for longing lovers. Who shall say how far ‘her youth and lively aspect’ influenced the criticisms that have come down to us? She played Millamant to Congreve’s satisfaction.