Introduction - V
It is not difficult to understand how it was that Dryden thought The Old Bachelor the best first play he had seen, and the town applauded to the echo. But it is a little hard to understand why later critics, with the three other comedies before them, have not more expressly marked the difference between the first and those. There is no new tune in The Old Bachelor: it is an old tune more finely played, and for that very reason it met with immediate acceptance. It is not likely that Dryden—a great poet and a great and generous critic, it may be, but an old man—would have bestowed such unhesitating approval on a play which ignored the conventions in which he had lived. As it was, he saw those conventions reverently followed, yet served by a master wit. The fact that Congreve allowed Dryden and others to ‘polish’ his play, by giving it an air of the stage and the town which it lacked, need not of course spoil it for us. The stamp of Congreve is clearly marked on the dialogue, though not on every page. You may see its essentials in two passages taken absolutely at random. ‘Come, come,’ says Bellmour in the very first scene, ‘leave business to idlers and wisdom to fools; they have need of ’em: wit be my faculty and pleasure my occupation, and let Father Time shake his glass.’ Or Fondlewife soliloquises: ‘Tell me, Isaac, why art thee jealous? Why art thee distrustful of the wife of thy bosom? Because she is young and vigorous, and I am old and impotent. Then why didst thee marry, Isaac? Because she was beautiful and tempting, and because I was obstinate and doating. . . .’ In the one passage is the gay and skilfully light paradox, in the other the clean, rhythmical, and balanced, yet dramatic and appropriate English that are elements of Congreve’s style. It is in the conventions of its characterisation that The Old Bachelor belongs, not to true Congrevean comedy but, to that of the models from which he was to break away. The characterisation of The Way of the World is light and true, that of The Old Bachelor is heavy and yet vague. Vainlove indeed, the ‘mumper in love,’ who ‘lies canting at the gate,’ is individual and Congrevean. But Heartwell, the blustering fool, Bellmour, the impersonal rake, Wittol and Bluffe, the farcical sticks, Fondlewife, the immemorial city husband, and the troop of undistinguished women—what can be said of them but that they are glaring stage properties, speaking better English than the comic stage had before attracted? Germs, possibly, of better things to come, that is all, so far as characterisation goes. The Fondlewife episode, in particular, which doubtless was mightily popular—what is there more in it than the mutton fisted wit and brutality of Wyeherley, with some of Congreve’s English? Such scenes as these, it may be hazarded, so contemptible in the light of Congreve’s better work, are ineffective now because they fall between two stools: between the comedy (or tragedy) of a crude physical fact, naked and impossible, as in Rochester, and the comedy (or tragedy) of delicately-phrased intrigue. The latter was yet to come when this play was produced, and meantime such episodes went very well, and their popularity is intelligible. For the rest The Old Bachelor, though to us in these days its plot appear a somewhat uninspiring piece of fairyland, was a good acting play, fitted with great skill to its actual players. The part of Fondlewife, created by Dogget, was on a revival played (to his own immense satisfaction) by Colley Cibber. In Araminta Mrs. Bracegirdle began (in a faint outline as it were) the series of lively, sympathetic, intelligent heroines which Congreve wrote for her. Lord Falkland’s Prologue is as funny as it is indecently suggestive, which is saying a great deal. The one actually spoken gave an opportunity of the merriest archness to Mrs. Bracegirdle, and was calculated to put the audience in the best of good humours.
The faults of The Double-Dealer are obvious on a first reading, and were very justly condemned on a first acting. The intrigue is wearisome: its involutions are ineffectively puzzling. Maskwell’s villainy and Mellefont’s folly are both unconvincing. The tragedy of Lady Touchwood, less tragic than that of Lady Wishfort in The Way of the World, is more obviously than that out of the picture. The play is, in fact, not pure comedy of manners: it is that plus tragedy, an element less offensive than the sentimentality which spoils The School for Scandal, but yet a notable fault. For while you can resolve the tragedy of Lady Wishfort into wicked and very grim comedy, you can do nothing with the tragedy of Lady Touchwood but try to ignore it. In his epistle dedicatory to Charles Montague, Congreve admits that his play has faults, but does not take in hand those adduced above, with the exception of the objections to Maskwell and Mellefont. ‘They have mistaken cunning in one character for folly in another’: an ineffectual answer, because the extremity of cunning is equally destructive of dramatic balance. He defends his use of soliloquy very warmly: of which it may be said that, so long as his rule—that no character may overhear the soliloquiser—is observed, it is a tolerable convention, but a confession of weakness in construction. He declares he ‘would rather disoblige all the critics in the world than one of the fair sex,’ and, having made his bow, he turns upon the ladies and rends them. An author campaigning against his critics is always a pleasant spectacle, but Congreve’s defence of The Double-Dealer is rather amusing than convincing.
It needed no defence; for with all its faults, such as they are, upon it, there are in it scenes and characters which only Congreve could have made. Brisk is a worthy forerunner of Witwoud, Sir Paul Plyant a delicious old credulous fool; while the tyrannical and vain Lady Plyant is so drawn that you almost love her. But the triumph is Lady Froth, ‘a great coquet, pretender to poetry, wit, and learning,’ and one would almost as lief have seen Mrs. Mountfort in the part as the Bracegirdle’s Millamant. Her serious folly and foolish wisdom, her poem and malice and compliments and babbling vivacity—set off, it is fair to remember, by a pretty face—are atonement for a dozen Maskwells. She is a female Witwoud, her author’s first success in a sort of character he draws to perfection. The scene between Mellefont and Lady Plyant, where she insists on believing that the gallant, under cover of a marriage with her stepdaughter, purposes to lead her astray, and where she goes through a delightful farce of answering her scruples before the bewildered man—the scene that for some far-fetched reason led Macaulay’s mind to the incest in the Oedipus Rex—is perhaps the best comedy of situation in the piece. But the scene of defamation between the Froths and Brisk is notable as (with the Cabal idea in The Way of the World) the inspiration of the Scandal Scenes in Sheridan’s play. When we remember that less than two years were gone since the production of The Old Bachelor, the improvement in Congreve is remarkable. Almost his only concession to the groundlings is the star-gazing episode of Lady Froth and Brisk: a mistake, because it spoils her inconsequent folly, but a small matter. In his second play Congreve was himself, the wittiest and most polished writer of comedy in English. In the face of this fact ‘the public’ conducted itself characteristically: it more or less damned The Double-Dealer until the queen approved, when it applauded lustily. That occasion gave Colley Cibber his first chance as Kynaston’s substitute in Lord Touchwood. When one remembers Dryden’s long, struggling, cudgelling and cudgelled life, it is impossible to read without emotion his tribute to a very young and successful author in the verses prefixed to this play:
Firm Doric pillars found your solid base:
The fair Corinthian crowns the higher space;
Thus all below is strength, and all above is grace.
. . . . .
We cannot envy you, because we love.
. . . . .
Time, place, and action may with pains be wrought,
But Genius must be born, and never can be taught.
This is your portion, this your native store;
Heav’n, that but once was prodigal before.
To Shakespeare gave as much; she could not give him more.
The tribute is indubitably sincere; in point of Congreve’s wit and diction it is as indubitably true.
Love for Love was the most popular of Congreve’s comedies: it held the stage so long that Hazlitt could say, ‘it still acts and is still acted well.’ Being wise after the event, one may give some obvious reasons. It is more human than any other of his plays, and at the same time more farcical. By ‘more human’ it is not meant that the characters are truer to life than those in The Way of the World, but that they are truer to average life, and therefore more easily recognisable by the average spectator. Tattle, for instance, is so gross a fool, that any fool in the pit could see his folly; Witwoud might deceive all but the elect. No familiarity—direct or indirect—with a particular mode of life and speech is necessary to the appreciation of Love for Love. Sir Sampson Legend is your unmistakable heavy father, cross-grained and bullying. Valentine is no ironical, fine gentleman like Mirabell, but a young rake from Cambridge, all debts and high spirits. Scandal is a plain railer at things, especially women; Ben Legend a sea-dog who cannot speak without a nautical metaphor; Jeremy an idealised comic servant; and Foresight grotesque farce. Angelica is a shrewd but hearty ‘English girl,’ and Miss Prue a veritable country Miss; while Mrs. Frail and Mrs. Foresight are broadly skittish matrons. There is nothing in the play to strain the attention or to puzzle the intellect, and it is full of laughter: no wonder it was a success. It is, intellectually, on an altogether different plane from The Way of the World, on a slightly lower one than The Double-Dealer. But in its own way it is irresistibly funny, and by reason of its diction it is never for a moment other than distinguished.
I imagine the bodkin scene will always take the palm in it for mere mirth. Delightful sisters!
I suppose you would not go alone to the World’s End?
The World’s End! What, do you mean to banter me?
Poor innocent! You don’t know that there’s a place called the World’s End?
I’ll swear you can keep your countenance purely; you’d make an admirable player. . . . But look you here, now—where did you lose this gold bodkin?—Oh, sister, sister!
Nay, ’tis yours; look at it.
Well, if you go to that, where did you find this bodkin? Oh, sister, sister!—sister every way.
Broad, popular comedy, it is admirable; but it is not especially Congrevean. Tattle’s love-lesson to Miss Prue and his boasting of his duchesses are in the same broad vein. Valentine’s mad scene is more remarkable, in that Congreve gives rein to his fancy, and that his diction is at its very best. ‘Hark’ee, I have a secret to tell you. Endymion and the Moon shall meet us upon Mount Latmos, and will be married in the dead of night. But say not a word. Hymen shall put his torch into a dark lanthorn, that it may be secret, and Juno shall give her peacock poppy-water, that he may fold his ogling tail, and Argus’s hundred eyes be shut, ha? Nobody shall know, but Jeremy.’
TATTLE. Do you know me, Valentine?
VALENTINE. You? Who are you? No, I hope not.
TATTLE. I am Jack Tattle, your friend.
VALENTINE. My friend, what to do? I am no married man, and thou canst not lie with my wife. I am very poor, and thou canst not borrow money of me. Then, what employment have I for a friend?
ANGELICA. Do you know me, Valentine?
VALENTINE. Oh, very well.
ANGELICA. Who am I?
VALENTINE. You’re a woman, one to whom Heaven gave beauty when it grafted roses on a briar. You are the reflection of Heaven in a pond, and he that leaps at you is sunk. You are all white, a sheet of lovely, spotless paper, when you first are born; but you are to be scrawled and blotted by every goose’s quill. I know you; for I loved a woman, and loved her so long, that I found out a strange thing: I found out what a woman was good for.
Imagine Betterton, the greatest actor of his time, delivering that last speech, with its incomparable rhythm! I like to think that he gave the spectators an idea that Valentine’s self-sacrifice for Angelica was nothing but a bold device, a calculated effect; otherwise the sacrifice is an excrescence in this comedy, which, popular and broad though it be, is cynical in Congreve’s manner throughout. One is consoled, however, by the pleasant fate of the ingenious Mr. Tattle and the intriguing Mrs. Frail, who are left tied for life against their will. The trick, by the way, of a tricked marriage is constant in Congreve, and reveals his poverty of construction. He can devise you comic situations unflaggingly, but when he approaches the end of a play his deus ex machinâ is invariably this flattest and most battered old deity in fairyland.
The dedication to Lord Dorset contains nothing of interest beyond the confession that the play is too long, and the information that part of it was omitted in the playing. A line in the prologue, ‘We grieve One falling Adam and one tempted Eve,’ is explained by Colley Cibber to refer to Mrs. Mountford, who, having cast her lot with Betterton and migrated to Lincoln’s Inn Fields, threw up her part on a question of cash, and to Williams, an actor who ‘loved his bottle better than his business,’ who deserted at the same time. It serves to show the interest the town took in the players, that the fact was referred to on the stage. The lady’s part was taken by Mrs. Ayliff; Mrs. Leigh played the nurse—a very poor part after Lady Plyant; Dogget’s success as Ben Legend has been noted. Mrs. Bracegirdle’s Angelica was doubtless ravishing: a ‘virtuous young woman,’ as our ancestors phrased it, but quite relieved from insipidity.
It would need a greater presumption than the writer is gifted withal to add his contribution to the praises critics have lavished on The Way of the World. It is better to quote Mr. Swinburne. ‘In 1700 Congreve replied to Collier with the crowning work of his genius—the unequalled and unapproached masterpiece of English comedy. The one play in our language which may fairly claim a place beside, or but just beneath, the mightiest work of Molière, is The Way of the World.’ But he continues: ‘On the stage, which had recently acclaimed with uncritical applause the author’s more questionable appearance in the field of tragedy,’—The Mourning Bride,—‘this final and flawless evidence of his incomparable powers met with a rejection then and ever since inexplicable on any ground of conjecture.’ There the critics are not unanimous. Mr. Gosse, for instance, has his explanation: that the spectators must have fidgeted, and wished ‘that the actors and actresses would be doing something.’ Very like, indeed: the spectators, then as now, would no doubt have preferred ‘knock-about farce.’ But, I venture to think, the explanation is not complete. The construction of the play is weak, certainly, but the actors and actresses do a great deal after all. For that matter, audiences will stand scenes of still wit—but they like to comprehend it; and the characters in The Way of the World, or most of them, represent a society whose attitude and speech are entirely ironical and paradoxical, a society of necessity but a small fraction of any community. Some sort of study or some special experience is necessary to the enjoyment of such a set. It is not the case of a few witticisms and paradoxes firing off at intervals, like crackers, from the mouths of one or two actors with whom the audience is taught to laugh as a matter of course: the vein is unbroken. Now, literalness and common sense are the qualities of the average uninstructed spectator, and The Way of the World was high over the heads of its audience.
To come to details. The tragedy of Lady Wishfort has often been remarked—the veritable tragedy of a lovesick old woman. All the grotesque touches, her credulity, her vanity, her admirable dialect (‘as I’m a person!’), but serve to make the tragedy the more pitiable. Either, therefore, our appreciation of satiric comedy is defective, or Congreve made a mistake. To regard this poor old soul as mere comedy is to attain to an almost satanic height of contempt: the comedy is more than grim, it is savagely cruel. To be pitiless, on the other hand, is a satirist’s virtue. On the whole, we may reasonably say that the tragedy is not too keen in itself, but that it is too obviously indicated. Witwoud is surely a great character? The stage is alive with mirth when he is on it. His entrance in the very first part of the play is delightful. ‘Afford me your compassion, my dears; pity me, Fainall; Mirabell, pity me. . . . Fainall, how does your lady? Gad, I say anything in the world to get this fellow out of my head. I beg pardon that I should ask a man of pleasure, and the town, a question at once so foreign and domestic. But I talk like an old maid at a marriage, I don’t know what I say.’ But one might quote for ever. Witwoud, almost as much as Millamant herself, is an eternal type. His little exclamations, his assurance of sympathy, his terror of the commonplace—surely one knows them well? His tolerance of any impertinence, lest he should be thought to have misunderstood a jest, is a great distinction. But Congreve’s gibe in the dedication at the critics, who failed ‘to distinguish betwixt the character of a Witwoud and a Truewit,’ is hardly fair: as Dryden said of Etherege’s Sir Fopling, he is ‘a fool so nicely writ, The ladies might mistake him for a wit.’ Then, Millamant is the ultimate expression of those who, having all the material goods which nature and civilisation can give, live on paradoxes and artifices. Her insolence is the inoffensive insolence only possible to the well-bred. ‘O ay, letters,—I had letters,—I am persecuted with letters,—I hate letters,—nobody knows how to write letters; and yet one has ’em, one does not know why,—they serve one to pin up one’s hair.’ ‘Beauty the lover’s gift!—Lord, what is a lover, that it can give? Why one makes lovers as fast as one pleases, and they live as long as one pleases, and they die as soon as one pleases; and then if one pleases one makes more.’
In parts of its characterisation The Way of the World is extremely bold in observation, extremely careless of literary types and traditions. Mrs. Fainall, a woman who is the friend, and assists in the intrigues, of a man who has ceased to be her lover, is most unconventionally human. Of all the inimitable scenes, that in which Millamant and Mirabell make their conditions of marriage is perhaps the most unquestionable triumph. ‘Let us never visit together, nor go to a play together, but let us be very strange and well-bred’—there is its keynote. The dialogue is as sure and perfect in diction, in balance of phrases, and in musical effectiveness as can be conceived, and for all its care is absolutely free in its gaiety. It is the ultimate expression of the joys of the artificial. As for the prologue, it is an invitation to the dullards to damn the play, and is anything but serenely confident. The dedication, to ‘Ralph, Earl of Mountague,’ has an interesting fact: it tells us that the comedy was written immediately after staying with him, ‘in your retirement last summer from the town,’ and pays a tribute to the influence of the society the dramatist met there. ‘Vous y voyez partout,’ said Voltaire of Congreve, ‘le langage des honnêtes gens avec des actions de fripon; ce qui prouve qu’il connaissait bien son monde, et qu’il vivait dans ce qu’on appelle la bonne compagnie.’
The want of dramatic skill which has been alleged against Congreve is simply a question of construction—of the construction of his plays as a whole. His plots hang fire, are difficult to follow, and are not worth remembering. But many things besides go to the making of good plays, and few playwrights have had all the theatrical virtues. Do we not pardon a lack of incident in a novel of character? In this connexion it is worth while to contrast Congreve with Sheridan, who in the matter of construction was a far abler craftsman. But is there not in the elder poet enough to turn the scale, even the theatrical scale, ten times over? Compare the petty indignation, with which the dramatist of The School for Scandal deals with his scandalmongers, and the amused indifference of Congreve towards the cabalists in The Way of the World. Or take any hero of Congreve’s and contrast him with that glorification of vulgar lavishness and canting generosity, that very barmaid’s hero, Charles Surface. It is all very well to say that Joseph is the real hero; but Sheridan made it natural for the stupid sentimentality of later days to make him the villain, and Congreve would have made it impossible. Of wit (of course) there is more in a scene of Congreve than in a play of Sheridan. Moreover, faulty in construction as his main plots are, in detail his construction is often admirable: as in play of character upon character, in countless opportunities for delightful archness and cruelty in the women, for the display of every comic emotion in the men. He lived in the playhouse, and his characters, true to life though they be, have about them as it were an ideal essence of the boards. With Hazlitt, ‘I would rather have seen Mrs. Abington’s Millamant than any Rosalind that ever appeared on the stage.’ A lover and a constant frequenter of the theatre—albeit the plays he sees bore him to death—cannot, in reading Congreve, choose but see the glances and hear the intonations of imaginary players.