William Congreve is one of my favorite discoveries from the first few centuries of the Book List. He wrote five plays in seven years, from 1693 to 1700. I wish theater companies would take just a tiny break from Shakespeare and give Congreve some love. He has a witty, incisive style that reminds me of dear, beloved Oscar Wilde.
I am going to go over his four comedies, all of which have roughly the same central tension: will the rakish lover be able to trick his darling’s curmudgeonly/vengeful relations into allowing him to marry her?
First, in The Old Bachelor (1693) a bitter old misogynist finally falls in love and is pranked and mocked by some young fops. This one is not my favorite. An author’s first work is rarely their best, and The Old Bachelor lacks the refinement of Congreve’s last two plays. I think there are too many characters with overlapping motives and personalities.
The Double Dealer was produced just one year later and I greatly prefer it. It has all the elements of an entertaining intrigue: a jealous woman, a double agent, a desirable maiden, an aspiring lover and disguises. The end is effectively shocking. Congreve includes many teasing jabs at the British aristocracy. Take for example this dig at the upper class need to appear unlike the lower class:
LORD FROTH. But there is nothing more unbecoming of a man of quality than to laugh; ‘tis such a vulgar expression of the passion; everybody can laugh. Then especially to laugh at the jest of an inferior person, or when anybody else of the same quality does not laugh with one- -ridiculous! To be pleased with what pleases the crowd. Now when I laugh, I always laugh alone.
Love for Love (1695) won my heart with silly astronomical references. I just love mysticism in literature. Sir Foresight is a big believer in the portends of the stars, a failing his friends and family relentlessly tease or manipulate. This play features a naïve but bold country maiden, a forthright sailor, a reluctant maiden, a husband perpetually doubting his wife’s fidelity and a son who feigns madness to get out of (and into and out of again) an undesirable situation. The play also features the first use of the phrase “kiss and tell.”
Congreve’s only tragedy, The Mourning Bride, was produced in 1697. I didn’t read it, but I should mention that it originated the oft paraphrased quote “Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned.” Too true, William Congreve, too true. Scorned women frequently feature in Congreve’s plays, and, boy, are they furious.
The Way of the World (1700) contains the same plot elements as the other comedies, but pared down and simplified, which I appreciate. Mirabell, our leading man, contrives an elaborate ruse to win his lady against the machinations of both her relatives and his scorned lovers. This play is deservedly regarded as one of the best Restoration Dramas. Notably, it contains some interesting gender role play, including women openly castigating the entire male sex. However, that was not considered as radical as the pre-nuptial negotiations between Mirabell and his lady Millamant. Remember, Congreve wrote this play long before the idea that women should submit themselves entirely to the will of their father or husband began to lose favor. I would list her demands, but the conversation is well worth reading.
So, here it is:
MILLAMANT. [. . .] Mirabell, I’ll lie a-bed in a morning as long as I please.
MIRABELLE. Then I’ll get up in a morning as early as I please.
MILLAMANT. Ah! Idle creature, get up when you will. And d’ye hear, I won’t be called names after I’m married; positively I won’t be called names.
MILLAMANT. Ay, as wife, spouse, my dear, joy, jewel, love, sweet-heart, and the rest of that nauseous cant, in which men and their wives are so fulsomely familiar—I shall never bear that. Good Mirabell, don’t let us be familiar or fond, nor kiss before folks, like my Lady Fadler and Sir Francis; nor go to Hyde Park together the first Sunday in a new chariot, to provoke eyes and whispers, and then never be seen there together again, as if we were proud of one another the first week, and ashamed of one another ever after. Let us never visit together, nor go to a play together, but let us be very strange and well-bred. Let us be as strange as if we had been married a great while, and as well-bred as if we were not married at all.
MIRABELLE. Have you any more conditions to offer? Hitherto your demands are pretty reasonable.
MILLAMANT. Trifles; as liberty to pay and receive visits to and from whom I please; to write and receive letters, without interrogatories or wry faces on your part; to wear what I please, and choose conversation with regard only to my own taste; to have no obligation upon me to converse with wits that I don’t like, because they are your acquaintance, or to be intimate with fools, because they may be your relations. Come to dinner when I please, dine in my dressing- room when I’m out of humour, without giving a reason. To have my closet inviolate; to be sole empress of my tea-table, which you must never presume to approach without first asking leave. And lastly, wherever I am, you shall always knock at the door before you come in. These articles subscribed, if I continue to endure you a little longer, I may by degrees dwindle into a wife.
Don’t you just love Millamant?
You might like these plays if you are entertained by:
- witty banter.
- Oscar Wilde.
- comedy of manners.
- war of the sexes.
- scorned women.
- delightful ruses.
You might not like this play if:
- actually, I can’t imagine not liking them unless you don’t like classic literature at all.
Final thoughts: Congreve is wonderful and he deserves more attention in this day and age. I think his comedies are simply delightful. For Simone; when Bathsheba Everdene retires upstairs after her terrible disappointment, she calls for her lady’s maid to bring her most of Congreve’s plays.