« VorigeDoorgaan »
great elaborateness of dialogue, and incessant ambition of wit. The age of the writer considered, it is indeed a very wonderful performance ; for, whenever written, it was acted (1693) when he was not more than twenty-one years old; and was then recommended by Mr. Dryden, Mr. Southern, and Mr. Maynwaring. Dryden said that he never had seen such a first play ; but they found it deficient in some things necessary to the success of its exhibition, and by their greater experience fitted it for the stage. Southern used to relate of one comedy, probably of this, that when Congreve read it to the players he pronounced it so wretchedly, that they had almost rejected it; but they were afterwards so well persuaded of its excellence that, for half a year before it was acted, the manager allowed its author the privilege of the house.
Few plays have ever been so beneficial to the writer, for it procured him the patronage of Halifax, who immediately made him one of the commissioners for licensing coaches, and soon after gave him a place in the Pipeoffice, and another in the Customs, of six hundred pounds a year. Congreve's conversation must surely have been at least equally pleasing with his writings.
Such a comedy, written at such an age, requires some consideration. As the lighter species of dramatic poetry professes the imitation of common life, of real manners, and daily incidents, it apparently presupposes a familiar knowledge of many characters, and exact observation of the passing world ; the difficulty, therefore, is to conceive how this knowledge can be obtained by a boy.
But if The Old Bachelor be more nearly examined, it will be found to be one of those comedies which may be made by a mind vigorous and acute, and furnished with comic characters by the perusal of other poets, without much actual commerce with mankind. The dialogue is one constant reciprocation of conceits or clash
of wit, in which nothing flows necessarily from the occasion, or is dictated by nature. The characters, both of men and women, are either fictitious and artificial, as those of Heartwell and the ladies, or easy and common, as Wittol, a tame idiot; Bluff, a swaggering coward ; and Fondlewife, a jealous Puritan; and the catastrophe arises from a mistake, not very probably produced, by marrying a woman in a mask. Yet this gay comedy, when all these deductions are made, will still remain the work of very powerful and fertile faculties ; the dialogue is quick and sparkling, the incidents such as seize the attention, and the wit so exuberant that it wo'er-informs its tenement."
Next year he gave another specimen of his abilities in The Double Dealer, which was not received with equal kindness. He writes to his patron the Lord Halifax a dedication, in which he endeavours to reconcile the reader to that which found few friends among the audience. These apologies are always useless : de gustibus non est disputandum. Men may be convinced, but they cannot be pleased, against their will. But though taste is obstinate, it is very variable, and time often prevails when arguments have failed. Queen Mary conferred upon both those plays the honour of her presence; and when she died soon after, Congreve testified his gratitude by a despicable effusion of elegiac pastoral, a composi. tion in which all is unnatural and yet nothing is new.
In another year (1695) his prolific pen produced Love for Love, a comedy of nearer alliance to life, and ex. hibiting more real manners, than either of the former. The character of Foresight was then common. Dryden calculated nativities ; both Cromwell and King William had their lucky days; and Shaftesbury himself, though he had no religion, was said to regard predictions. The Sailor is not accounted very natural, but he is very pleasant. With this play was opened the New Theatre,
ander the direction of Betterton, the tragedian, where he exhibited two years afterwards (1687) The Mourning Bride, a tragedy, so written as to show him sufficiently qualified for either kind of dramatic poetry. In this play, of which, when he afterwards revised it, he reduced the versification to greater regularity ; there is more bustle than sentiment; the plot is busy and intricate, and the events take hold on the attention ; but, except a very few passages, we are rather amused with noise and perplexed with stratagem, than entertained with any true delineation of natural characters. This. however, was received with more benevolence than any other of his works, and still continues to be acted and applauded.
But whatever objections may be made either to his comic or tragic excellence, they are lost at once in the blaze of admiration, when it is remembered that he had produced these four plays before he had passed his twentyfifth year, before other men, even such as are some time to shine in eminence, have passed their probation of literature, or presume to hope for any other notice than such as is bestowed on diligence and inquiry. Among all the efforts of early genius, which literary history records, I doubt whether any one can be produced that more surpasses the common limits of nature than the plays of Congreve.
About this time began the long-continued controversy between Collier and the poets. In the reign of Charles I. the Puritans had raised a violent clamour against the drama, which they considered as an entertainment not lawful to Christians, an opinion held by them in common with the Church of Rome; and Prynne published "Histriomastix," a huge volume in which stage-plays were censured. The outrages and crimes of the Puritans brought afterwards their whole system of doctrine into disrepute, and from the Restoration the poets and players were left at quiet; for to have molested them would have
had the appearance of tendency to puritanical malignity. This danger, however, was worn away by time, and Collier, a fierce and implacable non-juror, knew that an attack upon the theatre would never make him suspected for a Puritan; he therefore (1698) published " A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage," I believe with no other motive than religious zeal and honest indignation. He was formed for a controvertist, with sufficient learning, with diction vehement and pointed, though often vulgar and incorrect, with unconquerable pertinacity, with wit in the highest degree keen and sarcastic, and with all those powers exalted and invigorated by just confidence in his cause.
Thus qualified and thus incited, he walked out to battle, and assailed at once most of the living writers, from Dryden to Durfey. His onset was violent; those passages, which, while they stood single, had passed with little notice, when they were accumulated and exposed together, excited horror. The wise and the pious caught the alarm, and the nation wondered why it had so long suffered irreligion and licentiousness to be openly taught at the public charge.
Nothing now remained for the poets but to resist or fly. Dryden's conscience or his prudence, angry as he was, withheld him from the conflict. Congreve and Vanbrugh attempted answers. Congreve, a very young man, elated with success, and impatient of censure, assumed an air of confidence and security. His chief art of controversy is to retort upon his adversary his own words : he is very angry, and hoping to conquer Collier with his own weapons, allows himself in the use of every term of contumely and contempt, but he has the sword without the arm of Scanderbeg ; he has his antagonist's coarseness but not his strength. Collier replied, for contest was his delight. He was not to be frighted from his purpose or his prey."
The cause of Congreve was not tonable ; whatever
glosses he might use for the defence or palliation of single passages, the general tenour and tendency of his plays must always be condemned. It is acknowledged, with aniversal conviction, that the perusal of his works will make no man better, and that their ultimate effect is to represent pleasure in alliance with vice, and to relax those obligations by which life ought to be regulated.
The stage found other advocates, and the dispute was protracted through ten years: but at last comedy grew more modest, and Collier lived to see the reformation of the theatre.
Of the powers by which this important victory was achieved, a quotation from Love for Love, and the remark upon it, may afford a specimen :
Sir Samps. “Sampson's a very good name ; for your Sampsons were strong dogs from the beginning.”
Angel. “Have a care-if you remember, the strongest Sampson of your name pulled an old house over his head at last."
" Here you have the sacred history burlesqued, and Sampson once more brought into the house of Dagon, to make sport for the Philistines !"
Congreve's last play was The Way of the World, which, though, as he hints in his dedication it was written with great labour and much thought, was received with so little favour, that being in a high degree offended and disgusted, he resolved to commit his quiet and his fame no more to the caprices of an audience.
From this time his life ceased to be public; he lived for himself and his friends, and among his friends was able to name every man of his time whom wit and elegance had raised to reputation. It may be therefore reasonably supposed that his manners were polite, and his conversation pleasing. He seems not to have taken much pleasure in writing, as he contributed nothing to the Spectator, and only one paper to the Tatler, though published by