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Whatever the reason, Congreve's career as a dramatist was now at an end. Except a masque called The Judgement of Paris, an opera, Semele, and an adaptation of Molière's Monsieur de Pourceaugnac in which he collaborated with Vanbrugh and Walsh, he did nothing more for the stage. Until his death, nearly thirty years later, he lived the life of a well-to-do gentleman 1 of literary tastes and of a sadly impaired constitution. He was a constant martyr to gout in all its insidious forms, including painful and tedious affections of the eyes. Moreover, even before he reached middle age, he had grown very fat; so that the spectacle of his later years has more than a touch of that physical grotesqueness which so often afflicts us in the personal chronicles of the eighteenth century - probably because that age was less careful than our own to dissemble its uglier aspects. His literary reputation remained very high. He was the peer and valued friend of Swift, Addison, Steele, Arbuthnot, Gay and Pope. His cheerful and equable disposition made him acceptable in every society; he was on good terms with both political parties and all literary cliques. To him Pope dedicated his translation of the Iliad, a distinction dukes might have envied; and, as Mr. Gosse happily puts it, “Not Mrs. Blimber merely, but every lover of letters, might wish to have been admitted, behind a curtain, to the dinner of five at Twickenham, on the seventh of July, 1726, when Pope entertained Congreve, Bolingbroke, Gay, and Swift.”
1 Mr. Gosse has, very justly in my opinion, attempted to vindicate Congreve against the reproach of vanity or affectation in saying to Voltaire that he was to be regarded “simply as a gentleman who led a life of plainness and simplicity.” He probably meant that his literary achievements, whatever their value, were now things of the distant past, and had ceased, as it were, to b3 part of his present self.
In the latter years of his life — that is to say, when he was well advanced in middle age — he became a constant guest in the household of Henrietta, Duchess of Marlborough, the eccentric daughter of the great Duke. To her he left the bulk of his fortune, and to Mrs. Bracegirdle only two hundred pounds — no doubt on the scriptural principle that to her that hath shall be given. His apparent desertion of the actress-friend, to whose beauty and genius he owed so much, has been often and severely commented on; but in such matters it is wise to withhold judgement until we know all the circumstances; whereas here all is empty conjecture. Congreve died on January nineteenth, 1729, and a week later was buried with great pomp in Westminster Abbey. The Duchess of Marlborough erected the monument over his grave, and is said to have kept his memory alive in her household by nursing and tending a figure of wax or ivory made in his image. Serious biographers accept the legend, but it is probably an absurd misunderstanding or misrepresentation of some very trivial fact.
The fate of Congreve's plays in their novelty was, on the face of it, paradoxical, and calculated to beget in him a contempt for the public judgement. He very well knew that The Double-Dealer was a far maturer effort than The Old Bachelor, and that The Way of the World was a much finer piece of work than Love for Love. Yet The Old Bachelor and Love for Love were triumphantly successful, while The Double-Dealer and The Way of the World were comparative failures. Whether he actually formed such a resolve or not, it would certainly not have been surprising if, after the cool acceptance of the play illumined by the exquisite creation of Millamant, he had vowed, as Genest says, "to commit his quiet and his fame no more to the 'caprices of an audience.”
Yet, had he been able to look into the matter with dispassionate penetration, he might have found the public judgement not so very capricious after all. Many theories have from time to time been advanced to explain why the curve of success ran so directly counter (it would seem) to the curve of merit; but the main and sufficient reason, I think, was a purely technical one. For the immediate success of a new play, the one thing absolutely needful is clearness of construction. An audience cannot endure to have its attention overtaxed in a futile effort to follow the windings of a labyrinthine intrigue; and that was precisely the task which, in The Double-Dealer, and to a less degree in The Way of the World, Congreve had imposed upon his public. In both cases he rashly essayed to write a “well-made play,” without possessing the rudiments of what was then an undiscovered, or at any rate an unimported, art. Now there is nothing more irritating than a play which sets forth to be wellmade, but is, in fact, helplessly ill-made; so that it need not at all surprise us to find that The DoubleDealer and The Way of the World had to live down the confused and fatiguing impression which they at first produced, whereas the comparatively simple and perspicuous action of The Old Bachelor and Love for Love offered no obstacles to instant appreciation. We must not forget, of course, that the accepted dramatic formula or ideal of that age was widely different from that which is now dominant. Unity of action, or at any rate of theme, is to our mind indispensable in any play which pretends to rank as a work of art. The dramatist seizes upon a crisis in the lives of his characters, states its conditions, and follows its evolution to an end, comic or tragic, ironic or sentimental, as the case may be. We start from a state of calm which contains in it the elements of a dramatic conflict; we see these elements rush together and effervesce; and we watch the effervescence die back again into calm, whether it be that of triumph or disaster, of serenity or despair. No dramatist of the smallest skill will introduce a character that is wholly unnecessary to the advancement of the action, or a conversation that has no bearing on the theme. In a second-rate order of plays, indeed, a certain amount of “comic” (or sentimental)“relief” may be admitted; but even if, for instance, a pair of young lovers is suffered to lighten the gloom of a tragic story, an effort is always made to weave them into the main fabric and give them an efficient part in it. This conception of a play as the logical working-out of a given subject has had for its necessary consequence the total abandonment of the old five-act convention. The main crisis of which the action consists falls naturally and almost inevitably into a series of sub-crises, to each of which an act is devoted. Five acts are still the limit which can scarcely be exceeded in the three hours to which a representation is confined; but a four-act distribution of the subject is far commoner, while three acts — a beginning, middle, and end —
may almost be called the normal and logical modern form.
In Congreve's day, on the other hand, the dramatist's problem was, not to give his action an organic unity, but to fill a predetermined mould, so large that one action seldom or never sufficed for it. The underplot, therefore, was an established institution; and sometimes a play would consist of two or three loosely interwoven actions, so nearly equal in extent and importance that it was hard to say which was the main · plot and which the underplots. The result of this mingling of heterogeneous matters was to render doubly difficult the manipulation of a complex intrigue. Audiences, indeed, were not so exacting on the score of probability as they now are. But though they would accept a good deal that we should now reject as extravagant, they wanted to understand what they were accepting; and that they could not do when a chain of events demanding close and continuous attention was being constantly interrupted by the humours and intrigues of subsidiary characters. Both from internal and external evidence, we can see that Congreve's keen intellect was dissatisfied with the loosely-knit patchwork play of the period. In the preface to The Double-Dealer he says: “I made the plot as strong as I could, because it was single; and I made it single, because I would avoid confusion, and was resolved to preserve the three unities of the drama.” In the preface to The Way of the World, again, he complains of the spectators “who come with expectation to laugh at the last act of a play, and are better entertained with two or three unseasonable jests, than with the artful solution of the fable.” These