Last Updated on September 16, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 658
Context: The Mourning Bride, first performed at the New Theatre, where Congreve's Love for Love brought up its curtain for the first time two years before, was Congreve's only tragedy, but except for Shakespeare's work it was the most frequently performed of any English tragedy for a century. It gains part of its effect from the dramatist's choice of blank verse to tell its improbable story. Few read it today but fewer will fail to recognize the line spoken by Almeria, Princess of Granada, first played by the famous Mrs. Bracegirdle, as the curtain rises: "Music has Charms to soothe a savage Breast," and, she adds, "to soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak." The Spanish scene was popular with Restoration theatre-goers because the complicated plots of Spain provided a model for intrigues. Dryden, driven by financial necessity, devoted twenty years to turning out plays for "The Merry Monarch," Charles II and his successors. In selecting themes he hoped would be popular, he wrote The Conquest of Granada (1669), The Spanish Friar (1691), and Don Sebastian (1690). So Congreve, eager for a comeback after an unpopular play, chose a situation used in scores of plays and stories of Spain, the reappearance of someone shipwrecked and thought lost forever. The decision of critics was that while the tragedy engaged the attention, pleased the ear, and charmed the eye, it never touched the heart. Yet Mrs. Sarah Kemble Siddons (1775–1831) increased her Shakespearean reputation with the role of Zara, and other actresses delighted in it. Actors, however, were not so happy about the chief male character, Osmyn-Alphonso. Though given lines to start Act II: "How rev'rend is the face of this tall pile . . . and shoot a chillness to my trembling heart," which Samuel Johnson called the most poetical image in the English language, neither Garrick nor Kemble could bring the part to life. From audiences, it had a mixed reception at first. Here was the most important comic writer of his era offering a tragedy. Dryden, at the first night, declared himself enraptured, but he must have had trouble following the plot. Some years before the play begins, Almeria, daughter of King Manuel of Granada, fell in love with Alphonso, a noble subject of King Anselmo of Valencia. They were married aboard a ship just before it wrecked on an African shore. As the play starts, Manuel returns after a victorious war with captives, Queen Zara and Osmyn, a nobleman who turns out to be Alphonso. Complications begin. Almeria must conceal the identity of her restored husband. Zara, in love with Osmyn, must let King Manuel think she loves him, to save herself and Osmyn; and Osmyn must pretend to love Zara to save himself and Almeria. Meanwhile, the king's favorite, the villainous Gonzalez, schemes for a marriage between his son Garcia and Almeria, to win the throne. The denouement of this typical Elizabethan "drama of blood" is swift and simple. Everybody discovers the secrets of the others. The king takes Osmyn's place in prison to catch Zara. Gonzalez gets there first and stabs the disguised king. Zara finds the body and, thinking it Osmyn, drinks poison. Almeria enters, and seeing the double tragedy, is about to drink the same potion when Alphonso and his retinue appear to provide a happy ending. Though an abrupt change of tone, it helped the popularity of the play. In the dramatic close of Act III, Zara has one of the fine poetic speeches that gave actresses of the early eighteenth century their big moments. Having left Osmyn in his dungeon and preparing to sacrifice and scheme for his release, Zara returns and finds him embracing Almeria.
Vile and ingrate! too late thou shalt repent
The base injustice thou hast done my love.
Yes, thou shalt know, spite of thy past Distress,
And all those ills which thou so long hast mourn'd;
Heav'n has no Rage like Love to hatred turn'd,
Nor Hell a Fury like a Woman scorn'd.
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