BORN: 1670, Yorkshire, England
DIED: 1729, London, England
GENRE: Drama, fiction
Incognita; or, Love and Duty Reconcil’d (1692)
The Old Batchelour (1693)
Love for Love (1695)
The Mourning Bride (1697)
The Way of the World (1700)
Examining the social conventions of love and marriage with wit and subtlety, William Congreve is hailed as the master of Restoration comedy. His brilliant depictions of human behavior are concentrated in the skillful banter of characters in such plays as Love for Love, The Mourning Bride and The Way of the World. Still performed today, Congreve’s dramas have come to represent the standard against which all other comedies of the period are measured.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Beginning Rich in Opportunities Congreve was born into an old family of wealth in Bardsey, West Yorkshire, England. After his father received a lieutenant’s commission, the family moved to Ireland, where Congreve was educated, along with friend and future satirist Jonathan Swift, at Kilkenny School and Trinity College, Dublin, his curriculum focusing on theology as well as Greek and Latin classics. Congreve often visited Dublin theaters and was exposed to the most celebrated dramas of the time, including Ben Jonson’s Volpone and Thomas Durfey’s The Boarding House, before these kinds of performances were banned during the reign of James II. A reader of dramatic theory, Congreve was most likely more familiar with the theater than most young men of his era by the time he moved to London around 1689.
The English Restoration and the Golden Age of Satire Congreve was born at a time when England had only recently recovered from a violent civil war, during which the ruling English monarchy was removed from power. In its place, a commonwealth led by Puritan military commander Oliver Cromwell was created. Under Cromwell’s strict rule, theaters throughout England were closed down due to their alleged debasement of moral values. When the monarchy was finally restored to power in 1660 under the rule of Charles II—hence the term ‘‘Restoration’’—theaters were once again opened, and the exuberant feelings of the day made their way into the comedies that became popular during that time. Accordingly, the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century are often referred to as The Golden Age of Satire.
London Drama In 1691 Congreve entered the Middle Temple, London, to study law; however, the literary community in London proved to be more appealing to him. With the novel Incognita; or, Love and Duty Reconcil’d, he established himself as a gifted writer of pointed, intelligent wit and soon became John Dryden’s friend, legal adviser, and literary prote'ge'. While his legal expertise enabled him to negotiate agreements between Dryden and his publisher, Congreve’s educational background helped him make a number of important contributions as a translator to Dryden’s editions of classical authors. In addition to Congreve’s gift for translation, Dryden recognized the younger writer’s ear for the nuances of his own language and predicted that Congreve would be a great literary success.
Congreve’s first real success came in 1693 with the drama The Old Batchelour. Like most of the plays produced during this period, The Old Batchelour was written with specific actors in mind. Most biographers believe that Congreve created the role of Araminta, the virtuous and witty inge'nue, for actress Anne Bracegirdle, the object of his lifelong—and unrequited—affection.
Attempt at Tragedy Despite glowing endorsements from such notable writers as Dryden and Swift, 1693’s The Double-Dealer was met with much less enthusiasm than its predecessor. However, the overwhelming success of Congreve’s next drama, Love for Love, revived his popularity and earned him a full share in a new acting company under William III’s protection. Traveling with dramatist Thomas Southerne the next year, Congreve visited Ireland, where he received a master of arts degree from Trinity College and was briefly reunited with his parents. The author of several successful tragedies, Southerne may have encouraged Congreve to try his hand at what most critics of the time considered a higher dramatic form. Ignoring jeers from friends and fellow writers who were certain his attempt would fail, Congreve wrote The Mourning Bride (1697), a tragedy that received praise for both its morality and literary merit.
Public Feud. Having received, for the most part, accolades for his work, Congreve was unprepared for clergyman Jeremy Collier’s attack in A Short View of the Immortality and Profaneness of the English Stage (1698). Collier condemned Congreve’s work as shamelessly immoral, prompting Congreve to refute those claims in Amendments to Mr. Collier’s False and Imperfect Citations (1698), which asserts that all well-crafted art is innately moral. While Congreve’s rebuttal was witty and cogent, his emotionally charged approach against Collier’s self-righteousness and social standing provoked further arguments. Tired of these exchanges, Congreve concentrated on writing his last comedy, The Way of the World, a drama that enjoyed moderate success.
Literary Output Hindered by Illness. Afflicted with gout and advancing blindness early in the eighteenth century, Congreve composed a libretto, or the text for an opera—in this case, The Judgment of Paris. It was well-received despite opera’s unpopularity during that time. He joined with dramatist John Vanbrugh to establish a new theater, the Haymarket, a project financed by members of the Kit-Kat Club, a literary-political society that included members of Whig nobility and renowned authors Joseph Addison and Richard Steele. Although the Haymarket soon closed, Congreve’s association with influential members of the Kit-Kat Club gained him two government posts and a lifelong appointment as secretary of Jamaica, both positions of financial security. By 1706, however, bad health limited Congreve’s literary output. Living a quiet life in London entertaining family and friends but publishing little, Congreve died in 1729 after a carriage accident.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Congreve's famous contemporaries include:
William Wycherly (1641-1715): Wycherly wrote plays of sharp social criticism, particularly of marriage and sexual morality.
George Frideric Handel (1685-1759): Famous for his operas and oratorios, this German-born composer lived in England most of his adult life.
Joseph Addison (1672-1719): Writer of the opera libretto Rosamond, Addison also founded the Spectator with Richard Steele in 1711 with the intent of presenting morally instructive stories of gallantry, foreign and domestic news, and poetry with satirical undertones.
Jonathan Swift (1667-1745): After writing several poems, Swift turned to prose satire directed against philosophers, intellectuals, politicians, and aristocrats, culminating in his most famous work, Gulliver's Travels.
Joseph I (1678-1711): Son of Leopold I, Joseph I served as king of Hungary (1687), King of the Romans (1690), and Holy Roman Emperor (1705-1711).
Alexander Pope (1688-1744): Pope was well-known for his satirical poetry and his mastery of the heroic couplet, notably in The Rape of the Lock.
Works in Literary Context
Inspired as a writer by such extraordinary thinkers as Plato, Aesop, Miguel de Cervantes, and William Shakespeare, Congreve’s career as an author of Restoration comedy was influenced by the satirical plays of Francis Beaumont, John Fletcher, and Ben Jonson. In addition, the French playwright Moliere provided Restoration dramatists a model for comic relief through dialogue, along with ideas for many themes and plots. Perhaps what had the most impact on Congreve’s writing life was Restoration society itself—that rigid, artificial, refined world of eighteenth- century England. For the most part, Congreve’s work was well-received by his contemporaries, the condemnation from Jeremy Collier’s notwithstanding.
Comedy of Manners. A comedy of manners is a witty form of dramatic comedy that satirizes the manners and pretentiousness of society. In calling attention to ridiculous schemes and frivolous conversation, this literary form attacks the superficiality and materialism by which people judge others. By presenting the question of whether characters meet certain social standards—standards that are often morally inconsequential—the comedy of manners reveals the conflict between self-interested motives and refined behaviors. Aware of the shallowness of decorum, the protagonist manipulates situations to his own advantage. Because aristocratic audiences were not interested in didactic lessons being aimed directly at them, the purpose of the comedy of manners was to entertain.
As do most all comedy of manners dramas, The Way of the World consists of comic material revolving around intimate relationships and farcical situations. For instance, marriage occurs for the sake of convenience, characters brazenly carry on affairs, jealousy is commonplace, gallantry is feigned, and women are falsely demure. In this play, Congreve’s message is clear: The way of the world may be humorous, but it is not kind. Like all romantic comedies, The Way of the World has a happy ending; however, the avenue to a joyful resolution is one of cruelty, degradation, and treachery.
Congreve’s mastery of Restoration comedy influenced his contemporary playwrights and made a significant impact on the genre. In addition, Congreve’s words resonated with audience members such that several phrases from Congreve’s play The Mourning Bride (1697) have made their way into common parlance including ‘‘music has charms to soothe a savage breast’’ and ‘‘heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, nor hell a fury like a woman scorned.’’ Congreve’s influence continues to be felt today and his plays are still performed.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Congreve is renowned for his skill in producing witty and intricate conversations between characters. In fact, so essential is brilliant dialogue in his work that Congreve thought of a scene as a unit of dialogue affected by the arrival or departure of a character. Other works recognized for clever dialogue include:
Amphitryo (186 BCE), a play by Plautus. The comedies of the Roman playwright are characterized by bright, amusing dialogue and humorous, boisterous incidents.
A Fine and Private Place (1960), fantasy fiction by Peter S. Beagle. Retelling fables in contemporary settings, Beagle is known for his clever dialogue and sophisticated character development.
Rameu's Nephew and First Satire (1761), satire by Denis Diderot. Through a fictional meeting between two friends in Paris, Diderot exposes the corruption of society during the French Enlightenment with brilliant and witty dialogue.
Works in Critical Context
From the time of Jeremy Collier’s attack to the twentieth century, Congreve’s critical reception has been influenced by moral perception. Despite his controversial ideas of sexual morality, as well as his shortcomings as a playwright, Congreve has maintained a reputation of being the master of the English comedy of manners. Although some critics judge Congreve’s work to be impenetrable and his dialogue nothing more than babble, others, including Bonamy Dobree, disagree. Dobree states, ‘‘If you cannot translate the idiom of a past time—the idiom of behavior as well as of language—into that of your own, it may seem dull; if you can do so it appears highly relevant. Trivial? Only if you cannot see through the universality that underlies every phase of the social mask.’’ Recent academic criticism transcends the brilliant dramatic language in favor of deconstructing the distinctive manner by which Congreve transforms the material of his plays into a body of coherent actions.
The Way of the World. Despite its lukewarm reception by his contemporaries, The Way of the World has long been considered Congreve’s masterpiece. It deviates not only from comedies of the period but also from comedic drama in general, giving some critics reason to deem the play’s intricate plots and counterplots difficult to follow. Scholar Edmund Gosse emphasizes the fact that the plot is one of inaction, remarking that the audience ‘‘wishes that the actors and actresses would be doing something. In no play of Congreve’s is the... human interest in movement and surprise so utterly neglected.’’ Every revival of The Way of the World is met by theater reviewers who declare its plot incomprehensible, but they also praise the subtlety and sophistication of its dialogue. Even Gosse concedes, ‘‘The Way of the World is the best- written, the most dazzling, the most intellectually accomplished of all English comedies, perhaps of all the comedies of the world.’’
The Way of the World depends on the conventional devices of misunderstanding and deception to impart Congreve’s cynical view of love, relationships, and the institution of marriage, common themes in Restoration comedy. Still, the drama embraces the ideas of human principles and real love. Like the earlier Love for Love, The Way of the World demonstrates, according to Dobree, “Congreve’s insistence that the precious thing in life— affection in human relations—must be preserved at all costs.’’ As a comedy of manners, The Way of the World has the purpose of exposing social behaviors—passion and foolishness—during Congreve’s time to public scrutiny and laughter. Because of its success in doing so, The Way of the World is regarded as the classic example of the comedy of manners.
Responses to Literature
1. Though he fathered a daughter, Congreve never married. Assess Congreve’s portrayal of the external influences that jeopardize love or marriage. Do you feel that Congreve was fundamentally opposed to marriage? Support your answer with evidence from at least one of his dramas.
2. Evaluate the complex plot of The Way of the World. Based on what you discover, write a summary of events that occurred before the beginning of the play. Would it have been helpful for Congreve to show these events in the play as well? Why do you think he chose not to?
3. Research the political upheaval in England from the civil war in the 1640s that led to the downfall of the English monarchy and to the ‘‘restoration’’ of Charles II in 1660. In what ways did political change help shape Restoration drama? How did political events contribute to the popular appeal of the comedy of manners?
4. In The Way of the World, Congreve gives his characters unusual names based on actual words. Some examples include Foible, Wilful, and even Mirabell, which is derived from the Latin word mirabilis. Make a list of all the unusual character names you can find, offer a definition for each, and state why you think Congreve used the name for that particular character.
5. How close to reality do you believe the society in The Way of the World is in reference to Congreve’s time? Does his presentation conform to English society during the Restoration?
Avery, E. L. Congreve’s Plays on the Eighteenth-Century Stage. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1951.
Gosse, Edmund. Seventeenth Century Studies (Collected Essays of Edmund Gosse, Volume 1). New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1914.
Dobree, Bonamy. Comedies by William Congreve. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1929.
Hodges, John C. William Congreve the Man. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1941.
Holland, Norman. The First Modern Comedies. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1959.
Holland, Peter. The Ornament of Action. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979.
Lynch, Kathleen. A Congreve Gallery. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1951.
Novak, Maximillian. William Congreve. New York: Twayne, 1971.
Van Voris, W. H. The Cultivated Stance. Dublin: Dolmen, 1965.
Williams, Aubrey L. An Approach to Congreve. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1974.