« VorigeDoorgaan »
the day were engaged in it; and Anne Bracegirdle, the beautiful, the lovable, the discreet, played Congreve's first heroine, as she was to play all the rest.
The young poet was overwhelmed with eulogies; but it is doubtful whether he was "instantly," as Macaulay and Thackeray have stated, given a post of profit in the Civil Service. That in the course of his life he held several such posts' is certain; but a couplet of Swift's,
“And crazy Congreve scarce could spare
A shilling to discharge his chair"seems to indicate that for some time, and even after his health had broken down about the end of the century, he was in straitened circumstances. It must be remembered that the dramatist of those days was not paid by royalties constantly rolling in, but by the profits of certain stated performances. The sale of the printed play was often worth at least as much to him as his share of the theatrical receipts. Nevertheless, there is no reason to doubt that Congreve was in the main fortunate in money matters, as in everything else save health. He enjoyed fat offices during the latter part of his life; he was an unmarried man, and his relations with women, so far as they are known, seem to have been characterized by a good deal of worldly prudence. One might almost call them suspiciously inexpensive.
Commissioner for licensing Hackney Coaches; Commissioner for Wine Licences; place in the Pipe Office; post in the Custom House; Secretary of Jamaica. (Thackeray's enumeration.)
? Congreve, however, was in a position to secure exceptional terms, and had at different times an actual share in the management of the theatres in Lincoln's Inn Fields and in the Haymarket.
The great success of The Old Bachelor spurred Congreve to vigorous effort, and before the year was out (November, 1693) he had placed on the stage a far more elaborate and highly-polished work, The Double-Dealer. Once more the cast was a superb one, Betterton playing Maskwell, Mrs. Barry the volcanic Lady Touchwood, and Mrs. Bracegirdle (by this time the author's intimate friend) the sedate but not unamiable Cynthia. Theatrical success, however, is not always commensurate with effort, and The Double-Dealer was a comparative failure. The reasons for this check we shall have to examine later; in the meantime it is sufficient to record that Congreve published the play with a rather ill-tempered Epistle Dedicatory to Charles Montague,' and that his vanity was soothed by a magnificent copy of verses, signed John Dryden, in which the monarch of contemporary letters generously proclaimed him heir apparent to the throne. Thus heartened, Congreve · set about the composition of his third comedy, the famous Love for Love.
While he was writing it, however, the affairs of the Theatre Royal, then the only playhouse in London, fell into sad disorder, which ended in a split between the patentee managers and their leading actors, headed by Betterton. The seceding players obtained a special licence from William III, and constructed a new theatre within the walls of a tennis-court in Lincoln's Inn Fields. At Easter,
He afterwards suppressed the passages in which his annoyance was most apparent.
? The theatre in Dorset Gardens existed, indeed, but had almost fallen into disuse, except for opera,
1695, the enterprise was inaugurated with the production of Love for Love, which, with Betterton as Valentine, Mrs. Bracegirdle as Angelica, and Doggett as Ben, scored an almost unexampled success, and placed Congreve easily first among the dramatists of the day. Two years elapsed before he followed up this success with another, in a different line of art. The Mourning Bridel is now remembered mainly because Dr. Johnson overpraised a single speech in it; but for more than a hundred years it was one of the most popular of English tragedies.
Mr. Gosse has shown that The Mourning Bride was produced early in 1697. Just a year later (March, 1698) appeared that famous invective, Jeremy Collier's Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage. On the subject of "profaneness” Collier's ecclesiastical prejudices led him to weaken his case by many trivial and ridiculous cavillings; but on the side of immorality he may be said to have understated rather than exaggerated. Into the controversy which ensued Congreve entered late and reluctantly, with a long pamphlet entitled Amendments of Mr. Collier's False and Imperfect Citations. Its tone and temper were unfortunate; but the writers who pronounce it an unmitigated blunder are perhaps judging it by modern canons of taste rather than by those of the seventeenth century.
We shall have to consider later whether the moral atmosphere of Congreve's comedies can be justified, or must be condemned, or (as Lamb would persuade us) ought simply to be ignored. Meanwhile, we may note that Congreve's impenitence under the scourge of Col
1 See also the note on page 368.
lier was evidently unaffected. He was not seeking, by bluster, to dissemble a conviction of sin; for the moral atmosphere of his next and last comedy, The Way of the World, was neither better nor worse than that of its predecessors. In The Old Bachelor and Love for Love there are, indeed, one or two passages of greater verbal grossness than any which we find in The Way of the World, but that is simply attributable to the higher animal spirits of the two plays. In point of verbal decency or indecency The Way of the World is very much on a level with The Double-Dealer, which preceded Collier's attack by more than four years; while in the total absence of any standard of rectitude, or even of merely conventional honour, all four plays are entirely of a piece. There is thus no sign either of repentance or of bravado in the post-Collier comedy. Comedy, for Congreve, meant a picture of society observed from a standpoint of complete moral indifference; and if the public chose to quarrel with that standpoint, why, then they should have no more comedies.
I would not, however, be understood to imply that the scant success of The Way of the World (produced in March, 1700) was due to a moral reaction in the public mind, consequent on Collier's rebuke, or that Congreve ceased to write simply because he realized that the spirit of the age was against him. The effect of Collier's diatribe was not nearly so immediate and startling as it is sometimes represented to have been. It did not prevent the success of Farquhar's Love and a Bottle, produced in December, 1698, while the air was still full of echoes of the pamphlet war; and the immense popularity of Farquhar's The Constant Couple, produced only three or four months before The Way of the World, proves that the public was in no unreasonably squeamish mood. The Constant Couple, indeed, was still at the height of its success when The Way of the World was produced; and it may perhaps be conjectured that the fashion of the moment set towards Farquhar's lighter, airier humour, in contradistinction to Congreve's more elaborate embroidery of wit.
I believe, however, and shall try to show later, that the cool reception of The Way of the World was probably due in the main to purely technical reasons. Congreve's statement in his Epistle Dedicatory that “but little” of the play “was prepared for that general taste which seems now to be predominant in the palates of our audiences," might at first sight seem like an allusion to a change of heart begotten by Collier's influence; but the context shows that he has in mind, not a moral reaction, but a preference for what he considers coarse and overcharged character-drawing. As years went on, and the comedies of Steele, with the later works of Farquhar, took possession of the stage, Congreve may very well have felt that the public mind was veering away from that attitude of moral indifference which was to him the great condition-precedent of comedy; and this feeling may have combined with his natural indolence, and his lingering resentment over the reception of The Way of the World, to deter him from again tempting fortune in the theatre. But it would almost certainly be a mistake to attribute the silence of his later years to any one cause, and most of all to see in it a direct result of Collier's onslaught.