William Congreve Essay - Critical Essays

William Congreve Drama Analysis

William Congreve began writing some thirty years after the Restoration, yet his plays retain many of the concerns of those written in the 1660’s and 1670’s. Foremost among these concerns is what constitutes a gentleman; that is, how one should act in society. The seventeenth century, particularly after 1660, was very interested in this matter; some five hundred conduct books were published during the century, the majority of them after the Restoration.

The response that Congreve gives, which is identical to that of Sir George Etherege, William Wycherley, and other Restoration dramatists, may be summed up in a single word: wit. This wit encompasses far more than mere verbal facility. By the time Sir Richard Blackmore attacked wit as suitable “only to please with Jests at Dinner” (“A Satyr Against Wit,” 1700), the term had lost much of its significance. For Congreve, Dryden’s definition is more relevant than Blackmore’s: “a propriety of thoughts and words”—and, he might have added, of conduct. As Rose Snider wrote in Satire in the Comedies of Congreve, Sheridan, Wilde, and Coward (1937), “Decorum (true wit) might be defined simply as a natural elegance of thought and conduct, based on respect for sound judgment, fidelity to nature, and a due regard for beauty.”

What constitutes propriety and fidelity to nature is subject to varying interpretation. To the nineteenth century, Restoration comedy was at best “the Utopia of gallantry, where pleasure is duty, and the manners perfect freedom” ( Charles Lamb, “On the Artificial Comedy of the Last Century”), at worst the height of immorality. Chastity was not a requirement for the late seventeenth century gentleman, though it was for the lady. Charles de Saint-Denis de Saint-Évremond expressed well the age’s sexual ethics: “As for the Hatred of villainous Actions, it ought to continue so long as the World does, but give leave to Gentlemen of refin’d Palates to call that Pleasure, which gross and ill-bred People call Vice, and don’t place your Virtue in old musty Notions which the primitive Mortals derived from their natural Savageness.”

In keeping with this genial libertinism is a rejection of prudence, financial as well as sexual. Money is not to be saved but spent, and spent on pleasure. Business is rejected as an improper pursuit. In the first scene of The Old Bachelor, Congreve presents in the dialogue between Bellmour and Vainlove a catalog of unworthy occupations for the genteel and indicates that the proper pursuits are witty conversation and love.

To a certain extent, this hedonism was a reaction to the restraints imposed by the Puritan Protectorate. After the Restoration, playwrights, who had lost their occupation under Cromwell, continued to portray the final victory of Cavalier over Roundhead. The Puritan cleric is a standard butt of Restoration satire. So, too, is the “cit,” the merchant—not only because he was likely to be a Dissenter rather than an Anglican but also because mercantile London supported Cromwell while in general the country squires remained loyal to the Crown. Those who suffered the most under the Protectorate, the Court party, took their revenge in their plays when they returned to power.

Restoration comedy does not, however, restrict itself to negatives, nor to rejecting conventional morality and ridiculing its followers. The Truewit is indeed a libertine and often a spendthrift and freethinker, but he espouses positive values that offset these signs of youthful exuberance. Bravery, for example, is highly prized. The wit will not tolerate an insult; a sign of wit is a willingness to defend one’s honor. A character such as Captain Bluffe (in The Old Bachelor), who draws his sword only when all danger is past, or Fainall (in The Way of the World), who draws his sword on a woman, shows himself to be no true wit.

Urbanity is another attribute of the Truewit. He must be able to engage in brilliant repartee; his conversation must never be dull, vulgar, overly serious, or abstruse. A wit must never lose his temper, for reason should always control emotion. He must be aware of the latest fashions and observe them. Excesses in dress, manner, or speech are scorned, as are rusticity and bad taste. Because the wit must fit into polite society, the rustic is a butt of humor on the stage even though his political views probably harmonized with those of the playwrights who were mocking him.

Yet another virtue is intelligence, of which one outward sign is again brilliant conversation. A further indication is the ability to outsmart those who would thwart the wit’s desires—generally comic villains who try to prevent his attaining a suitable wife and estate. Although these villains make a pretense of being clever and urbane, their speeches and action expose their flawed nature, which leads to their punishment at the end of the play.

Selflessness is also a Restoration ideal. Prodigality is not a vice but rather a manifestation of generosity. Fondlewife (The Old Bachelor) leaves his wife to secure five hundred pounds and is almost cuckolded during his absence. By contrast, Valentine (Love for Love) is willing to give money to a discarded mistress (though not to a creditor). When wits scheme, they are trying to secure what should rightfully be theirs; when fools and Witwouds plot, they are trying to secure what should belong to another. The latter are greedy and so are frustrated.

Restoration comedy is thus moral in its intent, punishing those who deviate from societal values and rewarding those who are faithful to those norms. These values are not Victorian, nor are they the values of religious fanatics, Puritans, or nonjurors such as Jeremy Collier—hence the repeated charges of immorality brought against Congreve and his contemporaries. In emphasizing intelligence, generosity, urbanity, and bravery, though, these dramatists were drawing on a tradition that went back to Aristotle’s Ethica Nicomachea (335-323 b.c.e.; Nicomachean Ethics, 1797), and their view of comedy is Aristotle’s as well. Defending himself against Collier, Congreve conceded that he portrayed vice on the stage, but he did so because comedy, according to Aristotle, depicts “the worst sort of people.” It portrayed such people, Congreve continued, because “men are to be laugh’d out of their Vices in Comedy; the Business of Comedy is to delight, as well as to instruct: And as vicious People are made asham’d of their Follies or Faults, by seeing them expos’d in a ridiculous manner, so are good People at once both warn’d and diverted at their Expense.” Collier and his successors did not find this response persuasive; they saw little to choose between Bellmour and Heartwell (The Old Bachelor) or between Mirabell and Fainall (The Way of the World). On the other hand, Congreve’s appreciative audiences have always understood the important distinction.

At the same time that Congreve’s plays are the artistic consummation of the traditions of Restoration comedy, they also reveal a breaking away from those traditions. Though these plays accept societal norms, and though the hero and heroine must be able to conform to societal expectations, they recognize the flaws of society also. Instead of trying simply to blend into society, the true wits seek to establish a private world beyond it. They recognize that beneath the glittering costumes and language lurk hypocrisy and brutality. Marriages are more often made in countinghouses than in heaven; a wedding is often the beginning of a domestic tragedy rather than the end of a social comedy. Life does not always proceed smoothly, and even when it does, it leads to a loss of youth, beauty, and attractiveness. Congreve reaffirms the carpe diem spirit—eat, drink, and be merry—but he does not blink from the rest of the refrain—for tomorrow we die.

The sadness beneath the surface of Congreve’s plays also derives from his refusal to dehumanize the targets of ridicule. Restoration comedy is social rather than psychological, and Congreve’s plays are primarily concerned with how one should act in society. For the first time in the period, though, those who do not conform are not simply dismissed as fools. In fact, Pope wondered whether Congreve actually portrayed any fools, and in his dedication of The Way of the World, Congreve noted that audiences had difficulty distinguishing “betwixt the character of a Witwoud and a Truewit” in that work. Congreve probes beneath action to motivation to reveal what Heartwell, Fondlewife, Lord Plyant, and Lady Wishfort are thinking. These characters recognize their weaknesses; they are not merely two-dimensional types but three-dimensional people capable of suffering. By granting humanity to would-be wits and fools, Congreve was unconsciously moving away from the purely satiric toward sentimental comedy.

His one tragedy, which is actually a tragicomedy, similarly uses many of the conventions of the period while showing significant variations. The diction is inflated, as is typical of heroic tragedy. The action is remote in time and place, the characters of noble birth and larger than life, the conflict Hobbesian as rivals ruthlessly contend. Unlike earlier heroic tragedy, however, the resolution to the conflict comes not through a Leviathan, not through some divinely ordained ruler, but rather through a Glorious Revolution that overthrows unjust, though otherwise legitimate, authority in favor of a benign, popularly proclaimed monarch as exponents of power yield to advocates of love. The influence of John Locke and the deposition of James II echo in the play, especially when contrasted with Dryden’s tragedies, which espouse the divine right of kings.

The Old Bachelor

Congreve may have begun The Old Bachelor as early as 1689, at the age of nineteen. Although Dryden proclaimed it the best first comedy he had ever seen, it shows in many ways evidence of being an apprentice piece. It is the only one of Congreve’s comedies that lacks dramatic tension. There is no reason why Bellmour and Belinda could not marry in the first scene because there are no blocking characters to prevent the match. Another flaw is Congreve’s ambiguous attitude toward Belinda. In the dramatis personae, he describes her as “an affected Lady,” and in his Amendments of Mr. Collier’s False and Imperfect Citations, he indicates that she is not intended to be admirable. Anne Bracegirdle, who always played the heroine in Congreve’s works, took the role of Araminta; Belinda was played by Susanah Mountfort, who performed as the obviously foolish Lady Froth in The Double-Dealer. Because role and performer blended with each other in Restoration drama, audiences would expect that Belinda/Mountfort was intended as a butt of ridicule for her affectation and that Araminta would be the ideal to be admired. Yet at the end of the piece, Belinda is rewarded with marriage, while Araminta remains single.

The Old Bachelor also suggests its author’s youth in its close adherence to the conventions of Restoration drama. It is, for example, the only one of Congreve’s comedies that has for its hero a practicing, rather than a reformed, rake. It introduces, somewhat gratuitously, standard butts of Restoration satire: a rustic boor (Sir Joseph Wittol), a pretender to valor who is in fact a coward (Captain Bluffe), a Puritan merchant (Fondlewife), and an old man who, according to the dramatis personae, while “pretending to slight Women, [is] secretly in love.”

Aside from the treatment of Belinda, the play does show a sure hand in exposing these various pretenders and in providing suitable punishment for them. Sir Joseph Wittol is tricked out of one hundred pounds and married to Vainlove’s discarded mistress. Captain Bluffe is shown to be aptly named; he is valorous only in the absence of danger. He is beaten and kicked by Sharper and married off to Silvia’s maid, Lucy, who had been Setter’s mistress. Heartwell, who pretends to misogyny and candor, is punished by being made to believe that he has married Silvia and then being informed that she is not as chaste as he had assumed. Though he is again unmarried, he is tormented and mocked for his folly. Fondlewife has married a woman too young and sprightly for his years; additionally, he devotes himself to business, which Bellmour calls “the rub of life [that] perverts our aim, casts off the bias, and leaves us wide and short of the intended mark.” Fondlewife narrowly escapes cuckolding, and one senses that the escape is only temporary. As Vainlove notes, “If the spirit of cuckoldom be once raised up in a woman, the devil can’t lay it, ’till she has done ’t.”

Congreve shows great skill in handling the dialogue. Bellmour and Belinda exemplify the witty couple of Restoration comedy; as is typical of duels between the witty man and woman, Belinda has the better of their exchanges. Vainlove and Araminta, too, engage in witty debate, and again the woman proves the wittier; in one dialogue, Araminta reduces Vainlove to a defeated “O madam!,” at which point she dismisses the conversation—and her suitor—with a call for music. The men and women also engage in repartee among themselves, deftly leaping from one topic to another, devising fresh and apt similes, coining paradoxes, brilliantly sketching a character in a line. The play abounds in the sheer joy of words, as when Barnaby tells Fondlewife, “Comfort will send Tribulation hither.” Restoration audiences attended comedies less for their plots than for their wit, and the success of The Old Bachelor shows that Congreve did not disappoint them in this regard.

While Congreve was offering largely conventional fare in his first comedy, even here one finds hints of sadness beneath the comic surface. John King McComb argues (in his essay “Congreve’s The Old Bachelor: A Satiric Anatomy”) that Bellmour, Vainlove, Heartwell, Fondlewife, and Spintext are stages in the rise and fall of the lover—from rake, to fop, to gull, and finally, to cuckold. The “cormorant in love,” as Bellmour describes himself in the first scene, admits that “I must take up or I shall never hold out; flesh and blood cannot bear it always.” Vainlove has been a cormorant in love, too, but now contents himself with arousing desire and leaving to others the task of satisfying it. Heartwell, too, was a rake in his youth, but his passion has ebbed; unlike Vainlove, he no longer can excite women at those rare instances when he wishes to and so must attempt to purchase love. At the last stage are Fondlewife and Spintext; the latter never appears in the play but is mentioned as being a cuckold, while the audience sees Fondlewife first almost suffering the same fate and then refusing to believe the ocular proof. Bellmour, too, will age, Congreve seems to suggest; he will lose his looks and gaiety and perhaps be reduced to the state of a Heartwell or Fondlewife. The last speech of the play, which Congreve gives to Heartwell, projects such a fate for the youth.

Restoration satire is also muted in the play through the humanization of Heartwell and Fondlewife, both of whom show more sense than the typical comic butt. Heartwell’s pretended aversion to “the drudgery of loving” must be exposed, since love is the chief concern of the Truewit and thus not to be slighted. Neither can pretense go unpunished. Yet Heartwell himself understands his dilemma as he is caught between reason and desire. Standing before Silvia’s house he declares, “I will recover my reason, and begone.” He is, however, fixed to the spot; his feet will not move: “I’m caught! There stands my north, and thither my needle points.—Now could I curse myself, yet cannot repent.” After Heartwell is caught and exposed, Congreve does not mask his real anguish. In a speech reminiscent of Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew eyes,” Heartwell turns on his mockers: “How have I deserved this of you? any of ye?” Vainlove urges Bellmour to stop ridiculing Heartwell—“You vex him too much; ’tis all serious to him”—and Belinda agrees: “I begin to pity him myself.”

Similarly, Fondlewife, Puritan, banker, old man that he is—and any one of these characteristics would suffice in itself to render him ridiculous in a Restoration comedy—has moments of self-knowledge that grant him a touch of humanity. When he discovers Bellmour with his wife, he, too, speaks with dignity. Though Bellmour kisses Laetitia’s hand at the very moment she is being reconciled to her husband, Fondlewife’s tears and professions of kindness take some of the edge off the satire. If one must choose...

(The entire section is 6900 words.)