William Congreve: Restoration Drama

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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.

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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.

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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.

MIRABELLE. 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.

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Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mary Rowlandson by Mary Rowlandson

Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mary Rowlandson

I know that this picture is insensitive, tasteless and not an excellent piece of photography, but I am ok with it.

Notable for being:

  • a genre starter.
  • the first bestseller in what would become America.
  • the first book on my list authored by a woman!

In 1667 the English settlement of Lancaster, Massachusetts was attacked by Native American tribes including the Narragansett and Wampanoag.  Mary Rowlandson was captured and held for eleven weeks until a group of women in Boston heard about her plight and raised money to buy her back.  In 1682 Rowlandson published an account of her captivity, which was widely popular in its time.

This book is brutal.  She describes the initial raid of Lancaster in vivid, frank and plain detail, so you really get a sense of how horrifying it would be to witness the slaughter of nearly everyone in your town.  On page one Rowlandson sees a man get shot, beg for his life, get knocked on the head, stripped naked and disemboweled.  She is forced out of her burning house into the line of fire.  A bullet goes through her side and into the child she is holding.  Brutal.  Rowlandson and her three children are taken by the “bloody heathen” as she calls them.

For eleven weeks of incredible physical and emotional strain, Rowlandson was held by her captors while they fled from the colonial militia.   Although she was traveling many miles a day, she was barely fed. Her injured daughter had no chance to recover in such difficult conditions and soon passed away.  Her captors tormented her by refusing to give her information about her other two children or by claiming they had died.  If one person took pity on her and gave her a scrap of food, horse liver for example, another would take it from her after she had cooked it.  She eventually learned that she could sew garments and trade them for food, which helped prevent her from starving.

Amazingly, what kept Rowlandson from complete despair was her religious faith.  She had a Bible and continually looked to it for guidance.  Which is pretty boring for the reader, but I have to admire the strength of her faith and conviction.  As I was reading Narrative of Captivity I was amazed over and over again that under her circumstances she was grateful to God.  I would have been enormously angry with him.  I would have started building a Tower of Babel so I could punch him in the face.  The point of the Tower of Babel was to build it so high they could walk right into heaven and chat with God, right?  I might be using the wrong parable here.

Anyway, as the daughter/granddaughter of naturalists, to me the most interesting part of Narrative of Captivity was the description of what they ate.  Which leads us to:

Favorite Snippet:

“As we went along they killed a deer, with a young one in her, they gave me a piece of the fawn, and it was so young and tender that one might eat the bones as well as the flesh, and yet I thought it was very good.”

You might like this book if you are interested in:

  • early Colonial history.
  • early interactions between Colonists and Native Americans.
  • the natural history of North America before we ruined it.
  • non-fiction survival stories.

You might not like this book if:

  • you are a sensitive soul who doesn’t do well with violence.

 

Final thoughts: Reading this made me wonder what kind of psycho would move their family to the New World.  Not worth it, too risky.  As a kid, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s father, Charles Ingalls, was my hero and model of manhood.  Now I see that he was a crazy person who moved his family into Indian Territory, because he couldn’t bear to hear the sound of another man’s gun.  They could have all been killed!  It completely blows my mind to think of the incredible hazards that settlers exposed themselves to while stealing this country from earlier inhabitants.

The Pilgrim’s Progress from this world to that which is to come delivered under the similitude of a dream by John Bunyan.

Christiana from Pilgrim's Progress

To fuse the literature aspect of the blog with the makeup aspect, I have decided to start transforming myself into the characters from the books I blog about.  That’s me as Christiana from Pilgrim’s Progress.  I was going for bloodless and absent of all worldly desire.  I think it worked out.  Hold on for Robinson Crusoe, it’s gonna be weird.  Does anyone have some spare goat skins?

So, Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan is one of the most popular books of all time.  It was published in 1678 and has never been out of print.  Impressive.  I have always been interested in this book, because the sisters in Little Women read it.  Remember?  This first chapter of Little Women is titled “Playing Pilgrims,” because they decide to emulate the characters in Bunyan’s book in order to improve themselves and bear their burdens without complaint.  Pilgrim’s Progress is all about self-improvement and living a godly life.  I have a hard time imagining children enjoying this book.  There are some exciting moments.  The protagonist, Christian, fights a demon, for example.  However, the language is dull and you have to plod through copious sanctimonious speech making between the exciting parts.  I guess you’re not actually supposed to enjoy it.  You’re probably supposed to reflect on God’s will and your own life or whatever.

The “delivered under the similitude of a dream” part of the title refers to Bunyan’s device of stating that he saw the events of the book in a dream he had.  The book is divided into two parts.  In part one Christian leaves his family to go on a pilgrimage to God’s kingdom.  That’s right, his wife mocks his religious calling so he regretfully leaves his family to damnation.  The book is meant to guide the reader along the path to a righteous life, but seriously any life that involves abandoning your family behind to ruin and damnation is not righteous in my opinion.  Bunyan would probably say that God’s will is more important and blah blah blah, but no.  Just no.  I don’t care what God says, take care of your kids!  In part two Christian’s wife, Christiana, has a change of heart and takes her children on the same pilgrimage that her husband completed.  So, I guess it turns out ok in the end…sort of.

On their journey the pilgrims encounter many characters who are allegories for help or hurdles on the road to righteousness.  These characters are named for the qualities they represent.  Character names include: Obstinate, Pliable, Mr. Worldly Wiseman, Faithful, Mercy, Superstition, Ignorance etc.  The tone is pretty much exactly what I expected it to be: holier-than-thou, judgmental and preachy.  Christian likes to stop and explain ad nauseam how much better he is than the other people he encounters. Christiana is more humble, as she is feeling very guilty for not going along with Christian in the first place.  Overall, I found part two much more likeable than part one.  The language is actually delightful in parts.  The contrast between the often silly events of the novel and Bunyan’s unfailingly earnest tone creates a certain humor.

 

Favorite Snippet:

Now I saw in my dream, that just as they had entered this talk they drew near to a very miry slough, that was in the midst of the plain; and they, being heedless, did both fall suddenly into the bog.  The name of the slough was Despond.  Here, therefore, they wallowed for a time, being grievously bedaubed with dirt; and Christian, because of the burden that was on his back, began to sink in the mire.”

 

You might like this book if:

  • you are interested in Christianity and influential Christian literature.
  • you love heavy-handed allegory.

 

You might not like this book if:

  • you don’t like heavy-handed metaphor.
  • you are bored by preachiness in literature.
  • you get offended when Christians go on about how righteous they are relative to other people.

 

Final thoughts: There are some lovely little phrases like “grievously bedaubed with dirt,” but they are buried in 17th century sermons.  It is more an interesting work of Christian literature than an interesting work of literature.  Not among my favorites.  I should mention that the audio recording on one of my favorite sites, librivox.org, is done by my favorite librivox reader, Joy Chan.  She has a wonderful accent and reads with perfect solemnity.

Thomas Morton: Coolest Historical Figure You’ve Never Heard Of?

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Today I have the first of two reviews of non-fiction accounts by colonists in what is now Massachusetts.  I’m going to talk about The New English Canaan by Thomas Morton today and A Narrative of Captivity by Mary Rowlandson later.  They offer two very different perspectives on British colonists’ interaction with Native Americans.  Both accounts were very popular when they were published.  I can imagine that Brits wanted to hear about their countrymen who were living in the wilderness with “savages.”

The New English Canaan by Thomas Morton.

Morton is a fascinating figure.  He was a member of the gentry, but had a passion for social reform and, well, lawlessness.  He came over in 1623 with a Captain Wollaston to establish a settlement, Mount Wollaston, and trade furs with the Algonquin Indians.  Morton led the indentured servants in a rebellion against Captain Wollaston and established himself as the head of a new society, which he named Merrymount.

Morton quickly fell out with his neighbors, the Puritans.  They hated him.  People apparently continued to hate him quite some time.  In 1858 a historian in Boston published a reprint of The New English Canaan.  In his introduction he calls Morton a “vulgar Royalist libertine” and a dangerous criminal who recklessly sold guns to the Indians.  Can you see why the Puritans didn’t like him?  In William Bradford’s account Of Plymouth Plantation, Bradford relates that every once in a while people started to feel cheerful, because they had lived through the winter or someone had moved to the colony who knew how to make shoes.  On these occasions Bradford had to redouble his anti-dancing efforts to restore a godly state of sobriety in the settlement.  By contrast, Morton was a drinker and a reveler.  He set up maypoles and held bacchanals.  Really.  He got drunk and worshipped pagan gods right next door to the Puritans.  There were rumors that the settlers consorted with native women.

The Puritans were of course shocked and appalled.  Myles Standish, famous Mayflower passenger and massacre-er of Indians, stormed Merrymount, chopped down the 80 foot maypole and arrested Morton.  Morton tried to defend his little utopia, but he was too drunk.  The Pilgrims stranded him on an island to wait for a ship to take him back to England.  He would have starved there if his Indian friends hadn’t regularly brought food over for him.  He eventually did get back to England, only to return to Merrymount, get arrested again and sent back to England.   Morton really had an axe to grind with the Puritans now, so he sued them for some blah blah blah involving their charter.  Morton won the case and had their charter revoked, in large part because King Charles I also disliked the Puritans, those seditious gits.  Morton’s capitalist approach to settling the New World was much more profitable to the Crown than the Puritans’ somber collectivism.  Side note: they tried communism at Plymouth plantation, but abandoned it, because people just didn’t work as hard or grow as much corn when the fruit of their labor was taken away and redistributed.

Anyway, Morton published The New English Canaan and became a political sensation.  In the book he describes the flora and fauna of the New World, which he thinks is essentially paradise.  He talks about his interactions with the Puritans and the Indians.  Hates the Puritans, thinks the Indians are much nicer people.  He finishes up by describing his legal battle.  Despite the risk, Morton returned to the colonies and ended up dying in jail there.  I found all this incredibly interesting, but I can’t say that I recommend the book.  It’s a bit dry and so obscure that the only available texts I could find were garbled e-reader versions.

My favorite component of Morton’s account is his delightfully inaccurate facts about Native Americans and the natural world.  Morton informs us that:

  • Native American babies are born with a complexion as white as an English baby.  Their mothers stain their skin forever by bathing them in walnut husks and leaves.
  • The beaver “sits with his tail hanging in the water, which else would over heat and rot off.”

Who knew?