Introduction - VII
When Congreve left the stage, said Dennis the critic, ‘comedy left it with him.’ Vanburgh and Farquhar were left to expound comedy of manners, the one with a vigorous gusto, the other with a romantic gaiety. The peculiar perfume of The Way of the World was given to neither, yet they wrote comedy of manners. But if Congreve left colleagues, he left no sons, and most certainly, one may say, that when those colleagues died, English comedy took to her bed. ‘The Comic Muse, long sick, is now a-dying,’ wrote Garrick in his prologue to She Stoops to Conquer, and she had not to apologise, like Charles the Second, for the unconscionable time she was about it. It is a little crude to attribute her demise to Jeremy Collier and his Short View—a block painted to look like a thunderbolt. It is not a matter of decency, of alteration or improvement in manners. A comedy might be wholly Congrevean without a coarse word from beginning to end. It is a matter of the exclusion (not the stultification), the suspension of moral prepossessions, the absence of sympathetic sentimentalism, the habit of shirking nothing and smiling at all things. These qualities are not characteristic of the average Englishman. Now, satiric comedy did not in its initiation depend upon the average Englishman. It took its cue from the court of Charles the Second, who—with a dash of thoroughly English humour—was more than half-French in temperament, and attracted to himself all that was artistically frivolous in his kingdom. Questions of decency and morality—which after all are not perpetually amusing—apart, the social spirit typified in this exceptional king is one of sceptical humour and ironical smiles: it takes common emotions for granted—is bored by them, in fact—and is a foe to sentimentality and gush and virtuously happy endings. It was the spirit of Charles the Second that inspired English comedy, and inspired it most thoroughly in Congreve but a few years after Charles’s death. Under changed conditions, one is apt to underestimate the influence of the Court upon the Town two hundred years ago. Well, the Georges became our defenders of the faith, and they hated ‘boets and bainters.’ English comedy was thrown back upon the patronage and the inspiration of average England, and up to the time of writing has shown few signs of recovery. Of course, the decay was gradual: you may see it at a most interesting stage in The School for Scandal, a comedy of manners with a strong dash of common sentimentality. It would be just possible, one conceives, to play The School for Scandal as Charles Lamb says he saw it played, with Joseph for a hero, as a comedy of manners: you can just imagine Sir Peter as a sort of Sir Paul Plyant, and as not played to raise a lump in your throat. But Sheridan made it a difficult task. Perhaps you may see the evil influence at its worst in the so-called comedies which were our glory twenty-five years ago: in such a play as Caste, an even river of sloppy sentiment, where the acme of chivalrous delicacy is to refrain from lighting a cigarette in a woman’s presence, where the triumph of humour is for a guardsman to take a kettle off the fire, and where the character of Eccles shows what excellent comedy the author might (alas!) have written.
One is fain to ask if the spirit of Congrevean comedy will ever come back to our stage. An echo of it has been heard in dialogue once or twice in the last few years: not a trace has been seen in action. And yet we permit our dramatists a pretty wide range of subjects. We allow the subjects: it is the Congrevean attitude towards them which we should condemn. But the stage would be all the merrier if we could only understand that that attitude is harmless; that to see the humorous aspect of a thing is not to ignore the pathetic or the sociological; and that we should return all the heartier to our serious and sentimental considerations of the problems of life for allowing them to be laughed at for an evening at a comedy. Meantime we can read the book.
G. S. STREET.