The Comedies of William Congreve.

William Congreve (1670 - 1729) is a Restoration poet and playwright and known for writing some of the earlier 'comedy of manners' plays. Yet in his whole life he in fact only wrote five plays: the tragedy The Mourning Bride (1697), and four comedies: The Old Bachelor (1693), The Double Dealer (1694), Love for Love (1695), and The Way of the World (1700). Over the past fortnight I read these comedies, but I'm afraid I didn't get on too well with any of them, so I'm taking a bit of a risk even attempting this post, but it would be helpful (if only to me) to try and bring together as it were what I've read.

The Old Bachelor

The Old Bachelor, or The Old Batchelor as it was then known, largely centres around Sylvia. The old bachelor of the play is Heartwell, described as "a surly old Batchelor" who is in love with Sylvia, little realising she is the forsaken mistress of Vainlove (with whom Araminta is in love). He remains unaware until after their marriage when his friends tease and make sly comments about her. However, the parson who married them, Bellmour (himself in love with Belinda who returns his love) is not a parson and so their marriage is not in fact a marriage. The old bachelor remains an old bachelor, and a young and foolish knight, Sir Joseph Wittol, is able to pursue and marry Sylvia. The only problem with that is that he thinks she is Araminta. This was Congreve's first play: it's an amusing one, full of confusion, witty remarks, and rather lusty characters!

Mr. Thomas Betterton, who originally played
the part of Heartwell in The Old Bachelor,
Maskwell in The Double Dealer, Valentine in
Love for Love, and Fainall in The Way of the
World
. Painting by Godfrey Kneller (1723).
The Double Dealer

In this we meet Mellefont, the heir and nephew of Lord Touchwood, on the point of marrying his cousin Cynthia with whom he is in love. However her mother Lady Touchwood is also in love with Mellefont, however he rejects her advances. In revenge she asks her lover the villainous Maskwell to ruin the marriage. He, who is also in love with Cynthia, does so, leading Cynthia's father (not Lord Touchwood but Sir Paul Plyant) to suspect an affair between  Lady Plyant and Mellefont and leading Lord Touchwood to suspect an affair between Lady Touchwood and Mellefont. In disgrace poor Mellefont is sent away and Cynthia is to marry Maskwell, owing to Lady Touchwood's jealous of Maskwell marrying Cynthia, all is finally revealed and ends happily.

Love for Love

In Congreve's third comedy Valentine is the disgraced son of Sir Sampson Legend on account of his extravagant spending habits. As the debtors pursue him his father offers him enough money to pay off his debts if he agrees to forgo his right to inherit his father's estate and let it pass to his younger brother. Valentine agrees, and continues to attempt to woo Angelica, the rich niece of Mr. Foresight, a man who claims to be a fortune teller. His daughter Prue is to be married to Ben, the soon to be heir of the Legend estate, however he is still away at sea. Valentine regrets his decision to move aside for Ben, and so tries a variety of ways to convince his father to change his mind, including being mad and thus unable to sign the necessary papers. It is Angelica who saves the day, first by getting Sir Sampson to propose to her, thus gaining access to the bond Valentine has signed, and then professing her love for Valentine and tearing up said bond.

The Way of the World

The Way of the World is Congreve's final comedy and perhaps his best known. Before the play begins we learn that Mirabell, a young man with little fortune, has had an affair with Mrs. Fainall (a widow), the daughter of Lady Wishfort. To avoid embarrassment (she gets pregnant) he arranges a marriage for her to Mr. Fainall, who is having an affair himself with Mrs. Marwood. Mirabell then falls for the niece of Lady Wishfort, Millamant, though for very obvious reasons she opposes the match and wishes Millamant to marry Sir Wilfull, her nephew. As Lady Wishfort controls half of Millamant's fortune, she does have a say in who Millamant may marry. To win the woman he loves he must resort to trickery, so he asks his valet Waitwell to woo Lady Wishfort (though Waitwell intends to marry Foible, Lady Wishfort's maid) and then Mirabell would rescue Lady Wishfort from an unsuitable marriage, thus putting her in his debt. However Mrs. Marwood hears of the scheme and of her husband's affair, and with Mr. Fainall plans to undo all of Mirabell's plans. Mirabell however makes it all work in his favour.

These four plays are fun, tricky at times to follow (not unlike Shakespeare's comedy in that respect), but nonetheless enjoyable to read on the whole. They are the first Restoration comedies I've read and I appreciated their wit, spirit, and the business-like approach to love, but still couldn't bring myself to love them. I do believe Oscar Wilde is the master of comedies of manners plays, but it was good to read the early versions! I'm glad to have read them, but doubt very much I'll revisit them. All that said, I do very much want to read Congreve's tragedy The Mourning Bride.

Comments

  1. in imagination, i see the couples tripping through the stage door, the ladies with bouffant hair styles(i remember a picture of one with a full-rgged frigate riding on top), low-cut dresses and enormous bustles, with black spots on their faces and their partners with skin-tight pants and raked coats with lace fringes poking out, the high shoe heels painted red, both parties' faces painted with arsenic to cover up facial embarassments... all in all, a bit of this sort of thing is interesting, but wears fairly quickly, imo...

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    1. It did wear a little quick to be honest. I think maybe I should have spaced the plays out, but I did *think* I was in the mood for them at first! Even so would like to read more Restoration plays. Got another collection for later in the year (not of Congreve, other playwrights).

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