The Double-Dealer "No Mask Like Open Truth To Cover Lies"

William Congreve

"No Mask Like Open Truth To Cover Lies"

Context: Greatest of the comedy writers following the Restoration of the English throne to Charles II in 1660 was William Congreve, son of an army officer. He was brought up in Ireland where his father was a garrison commander, but came to London following the Revolution of 1688 and tried to study law. However, by 1692 he had gained a reputation as a poet and wit. He became a friend of John Dryden (1631–1700), whose plays entertained the "Merry Monarch," Charles. Now to entertain the gay courtiers of William and Mary, Congreve wrote a comedy, The Old Bachelor (1693). For it, Jonson, Marston, and Brome are his forerunners, and he shows that Restoration drama had its seeds in the Elizabethan theater. It concerns a bachelor misogynist, Heartwell, and stupid Sir Joseph Wittol. Full of intrigues, it amused London audiences. The Double Dealer performed the following year was far less successful, though dedicated to Charles Montague, and launched with a poem of admiration by Dryden, who claimed that Congreve surpassed all preceding wits. It also had a command performance in January, 1694, before Queen Mary, that established Colley Cibber as an actor. However, its sinister, tragic tone, and its attack on real life made it different from the theater to which audiences were accustomed. Its plot, characters, witty dialogue make it one of the best comedies of the period. From it comes the much-quoted line about flattery: "She lays it on with a trowel." In the Dedicatory Epistle, Congreve declares: "It is the business of a comic poet to paint the vices and follies of Human-kind." Restoration dramatists were realistic enough, however, to personify the characteristics held up to ridicule and instill into them the men and women who walked London's streets in the time of William and Mary. They were then given names suggestive of their personalities. So Lady Froth is a coquette and Lady Plyant encourages lovers. The plot concerns the struggle of Mellefont to win Cynthia (played by the famous actress, Mrs. Bracegirdle), despite the jealousy of wicked Lady Touchwood and the Iago-like villain Maskwell (played by Thomas Betterton). He wants Cynthia for himself, so he plays on the desires of the other characters: Lady Touchwood wants an affair with Mellefont; Careless, his friend, craves Lady Plyant; Lord Plyant wants an heir. Complications reach their height in the final act when they all come together, masked. To keep Mellefont from guessing his purposes, Maskwell decides to follow the precept laid down by Spain's Golden Age dramatist, Lope de Vega (1562–1635) and "deceive with the truth," sure that it will not be believed.

MASKWELL [alone]
This is prosp'rous indeed–Why let him find me out a Villain, settled in Possession of a fair Estate, and all Fruition of my Love, I'll bear the Railings of a losing Gamester–But shou'd he find me out before! . . . I must deceive Mellefont once more, and get my Lord to consent to my private Management. He comes opportunely–Now will I, in my old way, discover the whole and real truth of the Matter to him, that he may not suspect one Word on't.
No Mask like open Truth to cover Lies,
As to go Naked is the best Disguise.