WILLIAM CONGREVE (1670-1729)
William Congreve, was born at Bardsey near Leeds, the son of William Congreve, an army officer who was in command of the garrison in Ireland. To Ireland, therefore, is due the credit of his education as a schoolboy at Kilkenny and as an under-graduate at Dublin. From college he came to London, and was entered as a student of law at the Middle Temple. He soon gave up law for literature, enjoyed the friendship of men like Swift, Steele and Pope and held several government offices. He died on January 19, 1729, in consequence of an injury received on a journey to Bath by the upsetting of his carriage and was buried in Westminster Abbey.
Congreve soon started writing plays and his real career began with the brilliant appearance and instant success of his first comedy, The Old Bachelor (1693), under the generous auspices of Dryden. The types of Congreve’s first work were the common conventional properties of stage tradition; but the fine and clear-cut style in which these types were reproduced was his own. The fame of his second and third comedy for the following year witnessed the crowning triumph of his art and life, in the appearance of The Double Dealer (1694) and Love for Love (1695). Two years later his ambition rather than his genius adventured on the foreign ground of tragedy, and The Mourning Bride (1697) began such a long career of good fortune as in earlier or later times would have been closed against a far better work. The ensuing comedy, The Way of the World (1700), however met with little success, possibly because the public were increasingly in favour of middle-class values and morality, partly influenced by Jeremy Collier’s attack A Short view of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage (1698). The Way of the World is now considered the unequalled masterpiece of English Restoration comedy, which may fairly claim a place beside or just beneath the mightiest work of Molière. On the stage which had acclaimed with uncritical applause the author’s more questionable appearance in the field of tragedy, this final evidence of his incomparable powers met with a rejection then and ever since inexplicable on any ground of conjecture.
In The Way of the World the two main characters of the play, Mirabell, a reformed rake, and Millamant, a coquette, are in love, though their feelings are often hidden beneath a mask of wit and cynicism. The name Millamant is of Italian origin (thousands of lovers) as the name Mirabell (good-looking); a typical feature of the Restoration Comedy is to give characters names that reflect their main traits.
During the twenty-eight years which remained to him, Congreve produced little beyond a volume of fugitive verses, published ten years after the failure of his masterpiece.
Congreve’s plays are characterized by complex intrigues in which the heroes contrast creditors, paternal interdictions and villains, in order to gain both money and love. His works stand out among Restoration comedies because of the sparkling brilliance of their dialogue and the purity and perfection of their language. The mastery of a form of dialogue made up of an interrupted flow of extraordinarily witty and epigrammatic remarks was overcome probably only by O. Wilde. Though the plays show a world of hypocrisy and the characters have their failings, Congreve has a clear message: marriage can be the basis for a happy relationship if the two partners show honesty and generosity.