Or: Knew People of Even Greater Fame
William Congreve still makes the cut on many a British Literature survey course syllabus. Purveyor of wit, cyncism, and rakes, Congreve made for himself a large-writ name in the world of Restoration theater.
His works are considered to be among the best of the period,The Way of the World being the most famous among them. It is unlikely, though, that you would have encountered it anywhere but the printed page; revivals of the work are few and far between, despite its genuine excellence.
Congreve was born and grew up during great literary times in England. He went to the right schools, met the right people, and found success. Just like today, except in those days, you also needed talent.
Congreve was born on January 24, 1670 near Leeds, England. He took his education at Trinity College, Dublin, where he met Jonathon Swift. The two became lifelong friends, the one periodically lending assistance to the other.
After Dublin, Congreve went on to study law--hmph, another lawyer turned writer--at the Middle Temple.
Neither institution remembers him in their lists of distinguished alumni, indicating that he must not have donated any money to them after becoming famous.
Of Quill and Ink
Congreve, upon leaving the educational phase of his youth, became the literary apprentice to John Dryden, considered at the time to be the country's premiere playwright. When he wasn't fetching tea and picking up the laundry, he must have learned to write.
- 1691: Congreve publishes In Cognita, a story of intrigue and his first attempt at a novel. He is believed to have started it during late adolescence, so hopefully it isn't as angst-filled and depressing as most material that comes out of that age.
If the book wasn't very well received, it was likely because no one really knew quite yet what a novel was--Aphra Behn's Oroonoko, which some claim was the prototype, came out only four years earlier.
- 1692: Back to the basics. Congreve turns on the novel in favor of what people actually read-- translations of Juvenal and Persius.
- 1693: He produced his first plays this year. First, The Old Bachelor, which played to great acclaim at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Dryden called it the most brilliant first play he'd ever read, putting it above the initial works of Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe. That's a bold statement.
However, thumbs went down at his next effort of year, The Double-Dealer, which is probably a better play technically, but didn't earn popularity amongst contemporary critics and audiences.
Congreve, in true writerly form, blamed the response on audience obtuseness.
- 1695: He must not have done it too loudly, though, as Love for Love brought him back to the public eye and favor.
- 1697: Tragedy struck in the form of The Mourning Bride, which was every bit as funny as the title suggests. Fortunately, it was morbid by intent, and audiences again granted Congreve rounds of applause.
Congreve went on from there to produce his masterpiece.
With Triumph Comes Trouble
You couldn't write a play in just post-Puritan England without upsetting someone, and by 1698 Congreve had attracted his share of attacks. He spent a good measure of time laboring over his response to Jeremy Collier, who published a rather famous essay railing the theater on grounds of immorality and profaneness.
With any luck, Congreve mentioned something about originality in his reply.
Regardless, the next two years saw a conservative middle class siding largely with Collier, making it increasingly difficult to get a play produced. Theater changed and audiences dwindled, frustrating Congreve no end.
Nevertheless, 1700 was the year that brought The Way of the World to the stage. It was first performed at Lincoln's Field Inns, but Congreve's finger had slipped from the pulse of the nation, and the play's sexual content and commentary did not win it much support.
Thus, with his greatest work just complete, and at the summit of his career, Congreve retired from writing for the stage at the age of thirty, deciding to 'commit his quiet and his fame no more to the caprices of an audience.'
Seems a bit of a sore loser there, but he had other things to worry about.
Other Things To Worry About
Congreve wasn't in terribly good health, suffering from gout and the additional occasional headache from his mistress, Anne Bracegirdle, for whom he wrote many of his female roles.
Another actress gone home with the director.
Congreve also got himself involved in politics, though only in minor positions, and maintained friendships with Swift, Voltaire, Richard Steele and Alexander Pope, all writers of great reknown and wicked tongue.
The rumor of his romantic involvement with Sarah, duchess of Marlborough, was spread further by the fact that Congreve never married, and that when he died, she erected the monument over his grave.
Congreve lived quietly and economically for a further twenty-nine years after retiring, paying bills out his royalties and reputation, before being killed in a carriage accident five days short of his sixtieth birthday, in 1729.
He is buried under the duchess' marker in Poet's Corner, in Westminster Abbey.
And I Quote
Just a few of Congreve's best.
Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast, To soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak.
~The Mourning Bride. Act i. Sc. 1.
Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned,
Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned.
~The Mourning Bride. Act iii. Sc. 8.
Defer not till to-morrow to be wise, To-morrow's sun to thee may never rise.
~Letter to Cobham
And my favorite:
If there's delight in love, 'tis when I see That heart which others bleed for, bleed for me.
~The Way of the World, Act iii. Sc. 12.
Cynical little bleeder, wasn't he?
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