Introduction - VI
Congreve’s choice of material has been defended at an early stage of these remarks. There is the further and more interesting question of his point of view, his attitude towards it. Mr. Henley speaks of his ‘deliberate and unmitigable baseness of morality.’ Differing with deference, I think it may be shown that his attitude is a pose merely, and an artistic and quite innocent pose. It is the amusing pose of the boyish cynic turned into an artistic convention. The lines:
‘He alone won’t betray in whom none will confide,
And the nymph may be chaste that has never been tried:’
which conclude the characteristic song in the third act of Love for Love, are typical of his attitude. Does anybody suppose that an intelligent man of the world meant that sentiment in all seriousness?
‘Nothing’s new besides our faces,
Every woman is the same’—
those lines (in his first play), which seemed so shocking to Thackeray, what more do they express than the green cynicism of youth? When Mr. Leslie Stephen speaks of his ‘gush of cynical sentiment,’ he speaks unsympathetically, but the phrase, to be an enemy’s, is just. It is cynical sentiment, and the hostility comes from taking it seriously. I think it the most artistic attitude for a writer of gay, satiric comedies, and that its very excess should prevent its being taken for more than a convention. We are not called upon to see satiric comedies all day long, and the question, everlastingly asked by implication of every work of art—‘Would you like to live with it?’—is here, as in most other cases, irrelevant. One is reminded that there is more in life than intrigues and cynical comments on them. And one is inclined to put the questions in answer: ‘Does a man who really feels the sorrowful things of life, its futile endeavours and piteous separations, find relief in seeing his emotions mimicked on the stage in a ‘wholesome’ play of sentiment with a happy ending? Is he not rather comforted by the distractions of cheerful frivolity, of conventional denial of his pains?’ The demand is as inartistic and irrelevant as the criticism which suggested it, but it returns a sufficient reply. It does not touch the ‘catharsis’ of tragedy, which is another matter. For the rest, Congreve’s attitude, cynicism apart, is an attitude of irony and superiority over common emotions, the attitude, artificial and inoffensive, of the society he depicts in his greatest play. He enjoys the humours of his puppets, he is never angry with them. It is the attitude of an artist in expounding human nature, of an expert in observation of life: an attitude attainable but by very few, and disliked as a rule by the rest, who want to clap or to hiss—who can laugh but who cannot smile.