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Congreve Post by :marvelboy Category :Essays Author :William Ernest Henley Date :November 2011 Read :2116

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His Biographers and Critics.

An American literary journal once assured its readers that Congreve has a 'niche in the Valhalla of Ben Jonson.' The remark is injudicious, of course, even for a literary American, and there is no apparent reason why it should ever have got itself uttered. It is probably the unluckiest thing that ever was said of Congreve, who--with some unimportant exceptions--has been singularly fortunate in his critics and biographers. Dryden wrote of him with enthusiasm, and in doing so he may be said to have set a fashion of admiration which is vigorous and captivating even yet. Swift, Voltaire, Lamb, Hunt, Hazlitt, Thackeray, Macaulay, to name but these, have dealt with him in their several ways; of late he has been praised by such masters of the art of writing as Mr. Swinburne and Mr. George Meredith; while Mr. Gosse, the last on the list, surpasses most of his predecessors in admiration and nearly all, I think, in knowledge.


The Real Congreve.

It is no fault of Mr. Gosse's that with all his diligence he should fail to give a complete and striking portrait of his man, or to make more of what he describes as his 'smiling, faultless rotundity.' As he puts it: 'There were no salient points about Congreve's character,' so that 'no vagaries, no escapades place him in a ludicrous or in a human light,' and 'he passes through the literary life of his time as if in felt slippers, noiseless, unupbraiding, without personal adventures.' That, I take it, is absolutely true. It is known that Congreve was cheerful, serviceable, and witty; that he was a man of many friends; that Pope dedicated his Iliad to him; that Dryden loved and admired him; that Collier attacked his work, and that his rejoinder was equally spiritless and ill-bred; that he was attached to Mrs. Bracegirdle, and left all his money to the Duchess of Marlborough; that he was a creditable Government official; and that at thirty, having written a certain number of plays, he suddenly lost his interest in life and art, and wrote no more. But that is about all. Thackeray's picture of him may be, and probably is, as unveracious as his Fielding or his Dick Steele; but there is little or nothing to show how far we can depend upon it. The character of the man escapes us, and we have either to refrain from trying to see him or to content ourselves with mere hypothesis. So abnormal is the mystery in which he is enshrouded that what in the case of others would be notorious remains in his case dubious and obscure: so that we cannot tell whether he was Bracegirdle's lover or only her friend, and the secret of his relations with the Duchess of Marlborough has yet to be discovered. Mr. Gosse succeeded no better than they that went before in plucking out the heart of Congreve's mystery. He was, and he remains, impersonal. At his most substantial he is (as some one said of him) no more than 'vagueness personified': at his most luminous only an appearance like the Scin-Laeca, the shining shadow adapted in a moment of peculiar inspiration by the late Lord Lytton.


The Dramatist.

But we have the plays, and who runs may read and admire. I say advisedly who runs may read, and not who will may see. Congreve's plays are, one can imagine, as dull in action as they are entertaining in print. They have dropped out of the repertoire, and the truth is they merit no better fate. They are only plays to the critic of style; to the actor and the average spectator they are merely so much spoken weariness. To begin with, they are marked by such a deliberate and immitigable baseness of morality as makes them impossible to man. Wycherley has done more vilely; Vanbrugh soars to loftier altitudes of filthiness. But neither Wycherley nor Vanbrugh has any strain of the admirable intellectual quality of Congreve. Villainy comes natural to the one, and beastliness drops from the other as easily as honey from the comb; but in neither is there evident that admirable effort of the intelligence which is a distinguishing characteristic of Congreve, and with neither is the result at once so consummate and so tame. For both Wycherley and Vanbrugh are playwrights, and Congreve is not. Congreve is only an artist in style writing for himself and half a dozen in the pit, while Wycherley and Vanbrugh--and for that matter Etherege and Farquhar--are playwrights producing for the whole theatre. In fact Congreve's plays were only successful in proportion as they were less literary and 'Congrevean.' His first comedy was the talk of the town; his last, The Way of the World, that monument of characterisation (of a kind) and fine English, was only a 'success of esteem.' The reason is not far to seek. Congreve's plays were too sordid in conception and too unamusing in effect for even the audiences to which they were produced; they were excellent literature, but they were bad drama, and they were innately detestable to boot. Audiences are the same in all strata of time; and it is easy to see that Wycherley's Horner and Vanbrugh's Sir John and Lady Brute were amusing, when Lady Wishfort and Sir Sampson Legend and the illustrious and impossible Maskwell were found 'old, cold, withered, and of intolerable entrails.' An audience, whatever its epoch, wants action; and still action, and again and for the last time action; also it wants a point of departure that shall be something tinctured with humanity, a touch of the human in the term of everything, and at least a 'sort of a kind of a strain' of humanity in the progress of events from the one point to the other. This it gets in Wycherley, brute as he is; with a far larger and more vigorous comic sense it gets the same in Vanbrugh; it gets it with a difference in the light-hearted indecencies of Farquhar. From the magnificent prose of Congreve it is absent. His it was to sublimate all that was most artificial in an artificial state of society: he was the consummate artist of a phase that was merely transient, the laureate of a generation that was only alive for half-an-hour in the course of all the twenty-four. He is saved from oblivion by sheer strength of style. It is a bad dramatic style, as we know; it leaves the Witwoulds and the Plyants as admirable as the Mirabels and Millamants and Angelicas; it makes no distinction between the Mrs. Foresights and the Sir Sampson Legends; it presents an exemplar in Lady Wishfort and an exemplar in Petulant; it is uneasy, self-conscious, intrusive, even offensive, the very reverse of dramatic; and in Congreve's hands it is irresistible, for, thanks to Congreve, it has been forced from the stage, and lives as literature alone.


The Writer.

Congreve was essentially a man of letters; his style is that of a pupil not of Moliere but of the full, the rich, the excessive, the pedantic Jonson; his Legends, his Wishforts, his Foresights are the lawful heirs--refined and sublimated but still of direct descent--of the Tuccas and the Bobadils and the Epicure Mammons of the great Elizabethan; they are (that is) more literary than theatrical--they are excellent reading, but they have long since fled the stage and vanished into the night of mere scholarship. To compare an author of this type and descent to Shakespeare is a trifle unfair; to compare him to Moliere is to misapprehend the differences between pure literature and literature that is also drama. Congreve, as I have said, has disappeared from the boards, and is only tolerable or even intelligible to the true reader; while Shakespeare worked on so imperfect a convention that, though he keeps the stage and is known indeed for the poet of the most popular play ever written--(for that, I take it, Hamlet is)--he is yet the prey of every twopenny actor, or actor-manager, or actor-manager-editor, who is driven to deal with him. Now, Moliere wrote as one that was first of all a great actor; who dealt not so much with what is transient in human life as with what is eternal in human nature; who addressed himself much more to an audience--(Fenelon who found fault with his style is witness to the fact)--than to a circle of readers. And the result is that Moliere not only remains better reading than Congreve, but is played at this time in the Rue de Richelieu line for line and word for word as he was played at the Palais-Bourbon over two hundred years ago.

(The end)
William Ernest Henley's essay: Congreve

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