Although William Congreve is remembered today as a dramatist, his first publication was a novella, Incognita: Or, Love and Duty Reconcil’d, which appeared in 1692. He also published a translation of Juvenal’s eleventh satire and commendatory verses “To Mr. Dryden on His Translation of Persius” in John Dryden ’s edition of The Satires of Juvenal and Persius (1693), as well as two songs and three odes in Charles Gildon’s Miscellany of Original Poems (1692). Later, Congreve reprinted these odes, together with translations from Homer’s Iliad (c. 750 b.c.e.; English translation, 1616), in Examen Poeticum (1693). His other translations from the classics include Book III of Ovid’s Ars amatoria (c. 2 b.c.e.; Art of Love, 1612) in 1709 and two stories from Ovid in the 1717 edition of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. His original poetry was first collected with his other writings in The Works of Mr. William Congreve (1710) and frequently reprinted throughout the eighteenth century. After 1700, Congreve abandoned serious drama in favor of social and political interests, although he did write a masque and an opera after that date and collaborated with Sir John Vanbrugh and William Walsh on a farce. In response to Jeremy Collier’s attacks on Restoration playwrights, Congreve wrote a short volume of dramatic criticism, Amendments of Mr. Collier’s False and Imperfect Citations (1698). Congreve’s letters have been edited by John C. Hodges and are available in William Congreve: Letters and Documents (1964).
William Congreve’s first play, The Old Bachelor, was an instant success; its initial run of fourteen days made it the most popular play since Thomas Otway’s Venice Preserved (pr., pb. 1682). The Double-Dealer was not as instantly successful, but Love for Love was so popular that Congreve was made a manager of the theater. The Mourning Bride was still more successful; in 1699, Gildon said of the work that “this play had the greatest Success, not only of all Mr. Congreve’s, but indeed of all the Plays that ever I can remember on the English Stage.” Congreve’s last comedy, The Way of the World, though now universally regarded as his best and arguably the best Restoration comedy as well, met with little support at the time, and its cool reception drove Congreve from serious drama.
Throughout the eighteenth century, Congreve’s reputation remained high, both for his poetry and his plays. Edward Howard, in his Essay upon Pastoral (1695), said that Congreve possessed the talent of ten Vergils. Dryden, who equated Congreve to William Shakespeare on the stage, declared that in his translations from the Iliad, Congreve surpassed Homer in pathos. Alexander Pope’s translation of the Iliad (1715-1720) was dedicated to Congreve, as were Sir Richard Steele’s Poetical Miscellanies (1714) and his 1722 edition of Joseph Addison’s The Drummer: Or, The Haunted House. In the nineteenth century, Congreve’s reputation declined, along with the public’s regard for Restoration comedy in general, because of the sexual licentiousness depicted in the plays. With the twentieth century, however, came a reevaluation. When The Way of the World was revived at Cherry Lane Theatre in New York in 1924, it ran for 120 performances. That work and Love for Love remain among the most frequently acted of Restoration plays, and Congreve’s other two comedies are also occasionally staged. Although Congreve’s one tragedy has not worn as well, he may be today the most popular and most highly regarded English dramatist between William Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw.
William Congreve wrote four comedies and one quite financially successful tragedy (The Mourning Bride, 1697). He is best known for his play The Way of the World (1700), although The Old Batchelor (1693) was more popular during his lifetime. The Double Dealer (1693) is his darkest comedy, and Love for Love (1695) is currently favored by anthologists, who see it as both readable and playable. Congreve also wrote poetry, lyrics which were set by such famous musicians as Henry Purcell and John Eccles, and an opera, Semele (1710). He translated works of Ovid, Homer, Juvenal, and Persius and collaborated with William Walsh and Sir John Vanbrugh on a translation of Jean-Baptiste Poquelin Molière’s Monsieur de Pourceaugnac (1669), known as Squire Trelooby (1704).
Better known for his plays than for his fiction, translations, and poetry, Congreve was one of the later writers of Restoration comedy and is generally credited with bringing that genre to its maturity. Acclaimed for his clever plotting, his gift for characterization, and his witty and elegant dialogue, Congreve is considered one of the greatest playwrights of the Restoration. Following the phenomenal success of his first play, The Old Batchelor, Congreve enjoyed great popularity as a playwright, until the failure of what is considered to be his masterwork, The Way of the World. Discouraged by the failure and financially secure as a result of previous stage success and a series of lucrative government posts secured for him by a patron, Congreve eventually gave up writing for the stage.
The major works of William Congreve (KAWN-greev) are his plays: four comedies, The Old Bachelor (pr., pb. 1693), The Double-Dealer (pr. 1693), Love for Love (pr., pb. 1695), and The Way of the World (pr., pb. 1700), and one tragedy, The Mourning Bride (pr., pb. 1697). Congreve also wrote criticism, Amendments of Mr. Collier’s False and Imperfect Citations (1698); a novella, Incognita: Or, Love and Duty Reconcil’d (1692); a masque, The Judgement of Paris (pr., pb. 1701); and an opera, Semele (pb. 1710). Some of his letters were published in a collection edited by John Dennis (1696). His other miscellaneous writings include contributions to The Gentleman’s Journal (1692-1694), an essay for The Tatler (February 13, 1711), and the “Dedication to John Dryden’s Dramatick Works” (1717).
In his own day, William Congreve had a considerable reputation as a poet. John Dryden, in his poem “To My Dear Friend Mr Congreve,” crowned him as his successor, and as a political poet supporting William III, Congreve performed much the same function as Dryden did for Charles II and James II. Contemporary writers such asJonathan Swift and the lesser known Charles Hopkins and William Dove praised Congreve’s verse extravagantly. Almost all this praise, however, stemmed from Congreve’s reputation as a dramatist and from his pleasing personality. By the middle of the eighteenth century, critics began looking at Congreve’s poetry in isolation and harshly condemned it. In the nineteenth century, Thomas Macaulay pronounced Congreve’s poetry to be of little value and long forgotten, and Edmund Gosse concentrated on Congreve the man, giving no very favorable judgment. After such a great fall in Congreve’s reputation, critical judgment of his poetry has settled: He is considered an elegant minor poet, whose real fame rests on his plays. His best poems are his light love songs and his witty prologues; his greatest contribution to poetry was his condemnation of the irregular Cowleyan Pindaric, a form that had led to much laxness and mediocrity in poetry.
With William Congreve, comic drama in Restoration England reached a high point. In what manner does this theater mirror the rejection of Puritan values under the later Stuart kings?
What was Congreve’s point in having his characters cultivate appearances at odds with reality?
Consider the appropriateness of Congreve’s title The Way of the World.
Was Congreve a moralist? Explain your response.
Since a reader can go back and study the text of a drama, how can you explain the assertion that the complexity of Congreve’s drama is more difficult for the reader than the playgoer to understand?
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Bartlett, Laurence. William Congreve: An Annotated Bibliography, 1978-1994. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 1996. A bibliography of works concerning Congreve. Index.
Hodges, John C. William Congreve: The Man. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1941. Though somewhat dated, this is still a good standard biography of Congreve. Hodges traces Congreve’s youth in Ireland, his college years at Trinity College, Dublin, his life among the coffeehouses and theaters of London, and his relationships with the actress Annie Bracegirdle and the Duchess of Marlborough. A readable introduction to Congreve’s life, this volume also...
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