Critical Overview

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As a member of some of the most eminent literary circles in London, Congreve had the support of the era’s leading literary figures by the time he wrote his first play, The Old Bachelor. John Dryden, the most important poet and critic of the Restoration, said of Congreve ‘‘in Him all Beauties of the Age we see . . . all this in blooming Youth you have achieved.’’ Colley Cibber, an important actor and writer of the period, also praised Congreve in the 1690s. Love for Love also won great approval from Congreve’s circle, but Congreve was increasingly unhappy about the public’s reception of his work. A tepid enthusiasm greeted Love for Love, and Congreve’s later masterpiece, The Way of the World (1700), was positively rejected by audiences, probably because of its sharp criticisms of society.

Ironically, while sophisticated audiences resented Congreve’s criticisms of social shallowness and libertinism, more religious audiences were beginning to react against the libertine attitudes and sexual playfulness of the Restoration. In 1698, the Rev. Jeremy Collier condemned Congreve and Love for Love, calling the play ‘‘blasphemy’’ and arguing that, for Congreve, ‘‘a fine Gentleman is a fine Whoring, Swearing, Smutty, Atheistical Man.’’ (Congreve himself responded to Collier, arguing that the end of the play contained a virtuous message, since Valentine gave up his rakish ways for true love.) In 1748, Edmund Burke condemned the immorality of the play, writing that ‘‘the Rankness of [Angelica’s] ideas, and her Expressions . . . are scarce consistent with any Male, much less Female, Modesty.’’ The writer Fanny Burney commented in 1778 that ‘‘though it is fraught with wit and entertainment, I hope I should never see it represented again; for it is . . . extremely indelicate.’’ Not all eighteenth-century viewers were of the same opinion, however. A reviewer in the London Chronicle of 1758 remarked upon the revival of the play that it was ‘‘the best comedy, either ancient or modern, that was ever written to please upon the stage.’’ Victorian critics of the nineteenth century praised the play’s wit, but, like their predecessors, regretted its ‘‘indelicacy’’ and immorality.

Modernist critics and writers of the early to mid-twentieth century paid little attention to the Restoration period, adhering to the belief, espoused by T. S. Eliot, that Milton and Dryden had weakened English literature by injecting too much Latin into the language. London productions of the play appeared occasionally, most notably one directed by and starring John Gielgud in 1943. But the revival of interest in the seventeenth and eighteenth century that began in the 1980s and 1990s increased the study of Congreve greatly. Recent examination of the play has focused on everything from Congreve’s political stances to the presence of feminist themes in the play to an attempt to rediscover Restoration stage engineering.

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Essays and Criticism