When the grand old man of Restoration theater, John Dryden, finished reading the manuscript of The Old Bachelor, he declared that he had never seen such a first play in his life. With several other experienced playwrights, Dryden helped William Congreve put the finishing touches on his play. With the added enhancement of music by England’s leading composer, Henry Purcell, Congreve’s fledgling dramatic effort propelled the young playwright to fame and fortune. The reasons are not hard to find.
The Old Bachelor is cast in the tried and tested mold of Restoration comedy, but if the bottle is old, the wine is new. Congreve’s dramatic situations are varied and interesting. The plot is not too complicated to follow, the dialogue is sparkling, the characters appealing, and the obligatory Restoration cynicism tempered with just a hint of pathos.
Congreve uses such stock characters as skeptical, witty rakes and reluctant heroines, as well as the cast-off mistress, the braggart soldier, the elderly cuckold, and the old, supposedly woman-hating bachelor. The philosophical assumptions behind the drama are also common Restoration currency: Pursuing women is like pursuing game, the pleasure being in the pursuit more than in the catch (and certainly the game is not expected to pursue the hunter); there is no more ridiculous a sight in nature than the old bachelor taking a young wife; the married state, though it is the goal to which all strive, is by its very nature, an unsatisfying one; the most reprehensible faults of character are dullness, age, and taking oneself seriously.
One of the qualities that distinguishes Congreve from such earlier Restoration masters as William Wycherley and Sir George Etherege (in addition to his more consistently brilliant dialogue) is that he shows a trace of compassion, as well as scorn, for his characters. The cuckold Fondlewife, for instance, and to a greater extent, the old bachelor Heartwell, are figures of pathos as well as fun. The latter is aware of his dangerously intense feelings for Silvia, knows that he should resist them because they will only serve to make him look foolish, and yet is unable to overcome his passion with reason. “O dotage, dotage!” he moans, “that ever that noble passion, lust, should ebb to this degree.” Readers cannot help but sympathize as he writhes in the toils of the old, familiar snake, especially when he is mocked by others (including Belinda) for his folly. Luckily, Bellmour, with a stroke of generosity unusual in a Restoration rake, has taken pity on the poor man: “Heartwell is my friend; and tho he is blind, I must not see him fall into the snare and unwittingly marry a whore.” Neither Wycherley nor Etherege would have troubled their heads for a moment about this piece of cruelty; indeed, they would have considered it as more fodder for their comic resolutions.
At the end of the play, all of the characters, even the fools, seem reasonably content, though their hopes and expectations have in some cases been thwarted. Congreve intends that the audience arise from its comic repast remembering a good taste, though one that is spiced and sauced with the relieved Heartwell’s dour conclusions on the perils of aging: “All coursers the first heat with vigour run; But ’tis with whip and spur the race is won.”