BORN: 1670, Yorkshire, England
DIED: 1729, London, England
GENRE: Drama, fiction
Incognita; or, Love and Duty Reconcil'd (1692)
The Old Batchelour (1693)
Love for Love (1695)
The Mourning Bride (1697)
The Way of the World (1700)
Examining the social conventions of love and marriage with wit and subtlety, William Congreve is hailed as the master of Restoration comedy. His brilliant depictions of human behavior are concentrated in the skillful banter of characters in such plays as Love for Love, The Mourning Bride and The Way of the World. Still performed today, Congreve's dramas have come to represent the standard against which all other comedies of the period are measured.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Beginning Rich in Opportunities Congreve was born into an old family of wealth in Bardsey, West Yorkshire, England. After his father received a lieutenant's commission, the family moved to Ireland, where Congreve was educated, along with friend and future satirist Jonathan Swift, at Kilkenny School and Trinity College, Dublin, his curriculum focusing on theology as well as Greek and Latin classics. Congreve often visited Dublin theaters and was exposed to the most celebrated dramas of the time, including Ben Jonson's Volpone and Thomas Durfey's The Boarding House, before these of performances were banned during the reign of James II. A reader of dramatic theory, Congreve was most likely more familiar with the theater than most young men of his era by the time he moved to London around 1689.
The English Restoration and the Golden Age of Satire Congreve was born at a time when England had only recently recovered from a violent civil war, during which the ruling English monarchy was removed from power. In its place, a commonwealth led by Puritan military commander Oliver Cromwell was created. Under Cromwell's strict rule, theaters throughout England were closed down due to their alleged debasement of moral values. When the monarchy was finally restored to power in 1660 under the rule of Charles II—hence the term “Restoration”—theaters were once again opened, and the exuberant feelings of the day made their way into the comedies that became popular during that time. Accordingly, the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century are often referred to as The Golden Age of Satire.
London Drama In 1691 Congreve entered the Middle Temple, London, to study law; however, the literary community in London proved to be more appealing to him. With the novel Incognita; or, Love and Duty Reconcil'd, he established himself as a gifted writer of pointed, intelligent wit and soon became John Dryden's friend, legal adviser, and literary protégé. While his legal expertise enabled him to negotiate agreements between Dryden and his publisher, Congreve's educational background helped him make a number of important contributions as a translator to Dryden's editions of classical authors. In addition to Congreve's gift for translation, Dryden recognized the younger writer's ear for the nuances of his own language and predicted that Congreve would be a great literary success.
Congreve's first real success came in 1693 with the drama The Old Batchelour. Like most of the plays produced during this period, The Old Batchelour was written with specific actors in mind. Most biographers believe that Congreve created the role of Araminta, the virtuous and witty ingénue, for actress Anne Bracegirdle, the object of his lifelong—and unrequited—affection.
Attempt at Tragedy Despite glowing endorsements from such notable writers as Dryden and Swift, 1693's The Double-Dealer was met with much less enthusiasm than its predecessor. However, the overwhelming success of Congreve's next drama, Love for Love, revived his popularity and earned him a full share in a new acting company under William III's protection. Traveling with dramatist Thomas Southerne the next year, Congreve visited Ireland, where he received a master of arts degree from Trinity College and was briefly reunited with his parents. The author of several successful tragedies, Southerne may have encouraged Congreve to try his hand at what most critics of the time considered a higher dramatic form. Ignoring jeers from friends and fellow writers who were certain his attempt would fail, Congreve wrote
The Mourning Bride (1697), a tragedy that received praise for both its morality and literary merit.
Public Feud Having received, for the most part, accolades for his work, Congreve was unprepared for clergyman Jeremy Collier's attack in A Short View of the Immortality and Profaneness of the English Stage (1698). Collier condemned Congreve's work as shamelessly immoral, prompting Congreve to refute those claims in Amendments to Mr. Collier's False and Imperfect Citations (1698), which asserts that all well-crafted art is innately moral. While Congreve's rebuttal was witty and cogent, his emotionally charged approach against Collier's self-righteousness and social standing provoked further arguments. Tired of these exchanges, Congreve concentrated on writing his last comedy, The Way of the World, a drama that enjoyed moderate success.
Literary Output Hindered by Illness Afflicted with gout and advancing blindness early in the eighteenth century, Congreve composed a libretto, or the text for an opera—in this case, The Judgment of Paris. It was well-received despite opera's unpopularity during that time. He joined with dramatist John Vanbrugh to establish a new theater, the Haymarket, a project financed by members of the Kit-Kat Club, a literary-political society that included members of Whig nobility and renowned authors Joseph Addison and Richard Steele. Although the Haymarket soon closed, Congreve's association with influential members of the Kit-Kat Club gained him two government posts and a lifelong appointment as secretary of Jamaica, both positions of financial security. By 1706, however, bad health limited Congreve's literary output. Living a quiet life in London entertaining family and friends but publishing little, Congreve died in 1729 after a carriage accident.
Works in Literary Context
Inspired as a writer by such extraordinary thinkers as Plato, Aesop, Miguel de Cervantes, and William Shakespeare, Congreve's career as an author of Restoration comedy was influenced by the satirical plays of Francis Beaumont, John Fletcher, and Ben Jonson. In addition, the French playwright Moliére provided Restoration dramatists a model for comic relief through dialogue, along with ideas for many themes and plots. Perhaps what had the most impact on Congreve's writing life was Restoration society itself—that rigid, artificial, refined world of eighteenth-century England. For the most part, Congreve's work was well-received by his contemporaries, the condemnation from Jeremy Collier's notwithstanding.
Comedy of Manners A comedy of manners is a witty form of dramatic comedy that satirizes the manners and pretentiousness of society. In calling attention to ridiculous schemes and frivolous conversation, this literary form attacks the superficiality and materialism by which people judge others. By presenting the question of whether characters meet certain social standards—standards that are often morally inconsequential—the comedy of manners reveals the conflict between self-interested motives and refined behaviors. Aware of the shallowness of decorum, the protagonist manipulates situations to his own advantage. Because aristocratic audiences were not interested in didactic lessons being aimed directly at them, the purpose of the comedy of manners was to entertain.
As do most all comedy of manners dramas, The Way of the World consists of comic material revolving around intimate relationships and farcical situations. For instance, marriage occurs for the sake of convenience, characters brazenly carry on affairs, jealousy is commonplace, gallantry is feigned, and women are falsely demure. In this play, Congreve's message is clear: The way of the world may be humorous, but it is not kind. Like all romantic comedies, The Way of the World has a happy ending; however, the avenue to a joyful resolution is one of cruelty, degradation, and treachery.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Congreve's famous contemporaries include:
William Wycherly (1641–1715): Wycherly wrote plays of sharp social criticism, particularly of marriage and sexual morality.
George Frideric Handel (1685–1759): Famous for his operas and oratorios, this German-born composer lived in England most of his adult life.
Joseph Addison (1672–1719): Writer of the opera libretto Rosamond, Addison also founded the Spectator with Richard Steele in 1711 with the intent of presenting morally instructive stories of gallantry, foreign and domestic news, and poetry with satirical undertones.
Jonathan Swift (1667–1745): After writing several poems, Swift turned to prose satire directed against philosophers, intellectuals, politicians, and aristocrats, culminating in his most famous work, Gulliver's Travels.
Alexander Pope (1688–1744): Pope was well-known for his satirical poetry and his mastery of the heroic couplet, notably in The Rape of the Lock.
Congreve's mastery of Restoration comedy influenced his contemporary playwrights and made a significant impact on the genre. In addition, Congreve's words resonated with audience members such that several phrases from Congreve's play The Mourning Bride (1697) have made their way into common parlance including “music has charms to soothe a savage breast”
and “heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, nor hell a fury like a woman scorned.” Congreve's influence continues to be felt today and his plays are still performed.
Works in Critical Context
From the time of Jeremy Collier's attack to the twentieth century, Congreve's critical reception has been influenced by moral perception. Despite his controversial ideas of sexual morality, as well as his shortcomings as a playwright, Congreve has maintained a reputation of being the master of the English comedy of manners. Although some critics judge Congreve's work to be impenetrable and his dialogue nothing more than babble, others, including Bonamy Dobrée, disagree. Dobrée states, “If you cannot translate the idiom of a past time—the idiom of behavior as well as of language—into that of your own, it may seem dull; if you can do so it appears highly relevant. Trivial? Only if you cannot see through the universality that underlies every phase of the social mask.” Recent academic criticism transcends the brilliant dramatic language in favor of deconstructing the distinctive manner by which Congreve transforms the material of his plays into a body of coherent actions.
The Way of the World Despite its lukewarm reception by his contemporaries, The Way of the World has long been considered Congreve's masterpiece. It deviates not only from comedies of the period but also from comedic drama in general, giving some critics reason to deem the play's intricate plots and counterplots difficult to follow. Scholar Edmund Gosse emphasizes the fact that the plot is one of inaction, remarking that the audience “wishes that the actors and actresses would be doing something. In no play of Congreve's is the … human interest in movement and surprise so utterly neglected.” Every revival of The Way of the World is met by theater reviewers who declare its plot incomprehensible, but they also praise the subtlety and sophistication of its dialogue. Even Gosse concedes, “The Way of the World is the best-written, the most dazzling, the most intellectually accomplished of all English comedies, perhaps of all the comedies of the world.”
The Way of the World depends on the conventional devices of misunderstanding and deception to impart Congreve's cynical view of love, relationships, and the institution of marriage, common themes in Restoration comedy. Still, the drama embraces the ideas of human principles and real love. Like the earlier Love for Love, The Way of the World demonstrates, according to Dobrée, “Congreve's insistence that the precious thing in life— affection in human relations—must be preserved at all costs.” As a comedy of manners, The Way of the World has the purpose of exposing social behaviors—passion and foolishness—during Congreve's time to public scrutiny and laughter. Because of its success in doing so, The Way of the World is regarded as the classic example of the comedy of manners.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Congreve is renowned for his skill in producing witty and intricate conversations between characters. In fact, so essential is brilliant dialogue in his work that Congreve thought of a scene as a unit of dialogue affected by the arrival or departure of a character. Other works recognized for clever dialogue include:
Amphitryo (186 bce), a play by Plautus. The comedies of the Roman playwright are characterized by bright, amusing dialogue and humorous, boisterous incidents.
A Fine and Private Place (1960), fantasy fiction by Peter S. Beagle. Retelling fables in contemporary settings, Beagle is known for his clever dialogue and sophisticated character development.
Rameu's Nephew and First Satire (1761), satire by Denis Diderot. Through a fictional meeting between two friends in Paris, Diderot exposes the corruption of society during the French Enlightenment with brilliant and witty dialogue.
Responses to Literature
- Though he fathered a daughter, Congreve never married. Assess Congreve's portrayal of the external influences that jeopardize love or marriage. Do you feel that Congreve was fundamentally opposed to marriage? Support your answer with evidence from at least one of his dramas.
- Evaluate the complex plot of The Way of the World. Based on what you discover, write a summary of events that occurred before the beginning of the play. Would it have been helpful for Congreve to show these events in the play as well? Why do you think he chose not to?
- Research the political upheaval in England from the civil war in the 1640s that led to the downfall of the English monarchy and to the “restoration” of Charles II in 1660. In what ways did political change help shape Restoration drama? How did political events contribute to the popular appeal of the comedy of manners?
- In The Way of the World, Congreve gives his characters unusual names based on actual words. Some examples include Foible, Wilful, and even Mirabell, which is derived from the Latin word mirabilis. Make a list of all the unusual character names you can find, offer a definition for each, and state why you think Congreve used the name for that particular character.
- How close to reality do you believe the society in The Way of the World is in reference to Congreve's time? Does his presentation conform to English society during the Restoration?
Avery, E. L. Congreve's Plays on the Eighteenth-Century Stage. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1951.
Gosse, Edmund. Seventeenth Century Studies (Collected Essays of Edmund Gosse, Volume 1). New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1914.
Dobrée, Bonamy. Comedies by William Congreve. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1929.
Hodges, John C. William Congreve the Man. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1941.
Holland, Norman. The First Modern Comedies. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1959.
Holland, Peter. The Ornament of Action. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979.
Lynch, Kathleen. A Congreve Gallery. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1951.
Novak, Maximillian. William Congreve. New York: Twayne, 1971.
Van Voris, W. H. The Cultivated Stance. Dublin: Dolmen, 1965.
The English dramatist William Congreve (1670-1729) was the most brilliant of the writers of the Restoration comedy of manners. He possessed the wit and charm of the heroes of his plays and was universally admired by his contemporaries.
The Restoration comedy of manners was similar to the satiric comedy of Ben Jonson in that it ridiculed violations of moral and social standards, but it centered upon the intrigues of ladies and gentlemen who lived in a highly polished, artificial society, and much of its effectiveness depended upon repartee and brisk and witty dialogue. In 1698 Jeremy Collier attacked the immorality of situation and indecency of dialogue characteristic of Restoration comedy. A change of taste followed, and William Congreve was forced to abandon the stage.
Congreve was born at Bardsey near Leeds on Jan. 24, 1670. His father was a soldier and a descendant of an old English family which owned considerable property in Staffordshire. When Congreve was 4, his father was commissioned to command the garrison at Youghal in Ireland. Later he became agent for the estates of the Earl of Cork, and ultimately the family moved to Lismore. Congreve received all of his education in Ireland. In 1681 he was sent to Kilkenny School, where he met his lifelong friend the satirist Jonathan Swift. In April 1686 Congreve followed Swift to Trinity College, Dublin. While at Trinity, Congreve seems to have written the novel Incognita; or, Love and Duty Reconciled, which was published under the assumed name of Cleophil in 1692.
After the Glorious Revolution of 1688 Congreve and his family returned to the family home in Staffordshire, where he seems to have remained for 2 years. It is most probable that it was here that he wrote his first play, The Old Bachelor, "to amuse himself in a slow recovery from a fit of sickness." In the spring of 1691 he went to London and enrolled at the Middle Temple to study law, but most of his energy was diverted to literature. Within a year he had made the friendship of John Dryden, the former poet laureate. In 1692 the two collaborated on a translation of the satires of Juvenal and Persius. That year he also contributed some verses to Charles Gildon's Miscellany.
In 1693 The Old Bachelor, which had been revised by Dryden, was produced at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane with the best actors and actresses of the time taking part in it—including Betterton, Mrs. Barry, and Mrs. Bracegirdle, who was to have the leading role in all of Congreve's plays. The play was a great success and ran for the unprecedented length of a fortnight. Congreve was so encouraged by its reception that he hastened to put forth a second play, The Double Dealer, before the end of the year. This play was more complex and better structured than the first, but it was not nearly so well received.
While Congreve was writing his third comedy, Love for Love, Betterton and other leading actors rebelled against the management of the Theatre Royal, the only theater in London at the time. They were given permission to build a new theater at Lincoln's Inn Fields, which opened with the production of Love for Love in the spring of 1695. Probably Congreve's best acting play, it met with immediate success and placed him among the leading dramatists of the day. He became one of the managers of the new theater and agreed to give the new company a play a year.
At this time he also began to write public occasional verse. He was well established in his literary career, and through Charles Montague, later Earl of Halifax, to whom he had dedicated The Double Dealer, he was appointed one of the five commissioners to license hackney coaches at a salary of £ 100 a year.
Congreve was unable to produce a play a year as promised, but early in 1697 he gave the company the tragedy The Mourning Bride. It met with instantaneous success and was the most popular English tragedy for almost a century. The following year he launched an unsuccessful counterattack on Collier's charges against the stage. But by 1700 the taste in comedy had so changed that his next play, The Way of the World, failed miserably, and he determined to leave the stage.
Although Congreve associated briefly with Sir John Vanbrugh at the Queen's Theatre and wrote librettos for two operas (The Judgment of Paris and Semele), he spent the rest of his life at leisure. In 1705 he was appointed commissioner for wines and retained this post until 1714, when he received a more lucrative appointment as secretary of Jamaica. In 1710 he published the first collected edition of his works in three volumes. He continued to write poetry and made translations of Homer, Juvenal, Horace, and Ovid. He was highly regarded as a person and colleague by Swift, Pope, Addison, and Gay. Voltaire was annoyed at Congreve's affecting the role of gentleman in preference to that of author, but Congreve's considerateness of his fellow authors was held to be remarkable.
Congreve never married, but he was intimate for many years with Mrs. Bracegirdle, the leading lady of his plays. In later years he was in constant attendance upon the Duchess of Marlborough and is believed to have been the father of the duchess's daughter, Lady Mary Godolphin. His life of pleasure was pursued at the expense of his health, and he suffered greatly from blindness and gout. In the summer of 1728 he went to Bath with the Duchess of Marlborough and John Gay to recover from a long illness. While there his carriage was overturned, and he suffered internal injuries from which he never recovered. He died on Jan. 19, 1729, and was buried in Westminster Abbey. He left the bulk of his fortune to the Duchess of Marlborough, who built a monument to his memory in the abbey.
Edmund Gosse, Life of William Congreve (1888; rev. ed. 1924), was the first full biography. The fullest and most accurate is John C. Hodges, William Congreve, the Man: A Biography from New Sources (1941). Other useful biographical accounts are D. Crane Taylor, William Congreve (1931), and Kathleen M. Lynch, A Congreve Gallery (1951). Studies of the Restoration comedy of manners include John Palmer, The Comedy of Manners (1913); Kathleen M. Lynch, The Social Mode of Restoration Comedy (1926; rev. ed. 1965); and Norman N. Holland, The First Modern Comedies: The Significance of Etherege, Wycherley, and Congreve (1959).
Gosse, Edmund, Life of William Congreve, Norwood, Pa.: Norwood Editions, 1977, c1924.
Taylor, D. Crane (Daniel Crane), William Congreve, Norwood, Pa.: Norwood Editions, 1976.
Taylor, D. Crane (Daniel Crane), William Congreve, Philadelphia: R. West, 1977. □
(b. Middlesex, England, 20 May 1772; d. Toulouse, France, 16 May 1828),
Congreve was the eldest son of Lieutenant General Sir William Congreve, colonel commandant of the royal artillery and comptroller of the royal arsenal at Woolwich. He was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge (B.A., 1793; M.A., 1795) and became a barrister and, later, the proprietor of the Royal Standard, a newspaper. About 1804 he turned his interests to improving and perfecting the rocket as a military weapon. England subsequently adopted “Congreve rockets,” which were used with great success against the French at Boulogne, Copenhagen, Leipzig, and elsewhere. They were copied by most European armies by 1830.
Congreve was named an equerry to his friend the prince regent (later George IV) and elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1811. The same year he was made an honorary lieutenant colonel in the Hanoverian Artillery and subsequently rose to the rank of major general. At the death of his father in 1814, he succeeded as the second baronet (Congreve of Walton) and as comptroller of the royal arsenal.
Congreve married the widow Isabella M’Envoy in 1824 at Wesel, Prussia, and had two sons and a daughter. From 1826 he was compelled to settle permanently on the Continent because of failing health and in order to avoid the scandal of his involvement in a case of fraud. In convalescence, he devised his own wheelchair after losing the use of his legs, and also designed a “wave-wheel”-propelled vessel and a human-muscle-powered aircraft.
Eighteen patents were issued to Congreve in his lifetime. These included new methods of mounting naval ordnance, gunpowder manufacture, printing unforgeable currency, gas lighting, “hydropneumatic” canal locks, several kinds of clocks, a perpetual motion machine, a built-in sprinkler system, and a steam engine.
I. Original Works. Congreve wrote over a dozen treatises on his inventions, including Memoir on the Possibility… of the Destruction of the Boulogne Flotilla (London, 1806); A Concise Account of the Origin and Progress of the Rocket System (London, 1814); A Concise Account of the Origin of the New Class of 24-Pounder Medium Guns (London, 1814); Of the Impracticability of Resumption of Cash-Payments (London, 1819); Principles on… a More Perfect System of Currency (London, 1819); and A Treatise on the General Principles… of the Congreve Rocket System (London, 1827).
II. Secondary Literaur. The best biographical article on Congreve is Col. J. R. J. Jocelyn, “The Connection of the Ordnance Department With National & Royal Fireworks, Including Some Account of… Sir William Congreve (2nd Baronet),” in Journal of the Royal Artillery (Woolwich), 32 (1905–1906), 481–503. See also Elizabeth M. Harris, Sir William Congreve and His Compound-PlatePrinter, Museum of History and Technology Paper no. 71 (Washington, D.C., 1967); Willy Ley, Rockets, Missiles, and Space Travel (New York, 1944, and later eds.); Merigon de Montgéry, Traité des fusées de guerre, nommées…fusées à la Congreve (Paris, 1825); and the unsigned “Obituary, Sir William Congreve, Bart.,” in The Times (London) (27 Apr. 1828), 2, col. 3.
Frank H. Winter
J. A. Downie