Peter Gill, playwright and theatre director
Congreve's London
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An engraving of the city seen from the South Bank in the 18th Century

Congreve's London

The London of the year that Congreve wrote his masterpiece (The Way of the World) was a great stage set of the Augustan Age. This was built by Wren out of the optimistic cosmos of Newton, he who thought it necessary to put a second flap in his front door for his cat's kitten. Here Congreve could slight his theatrical triumphs to the death, or have others slight them, in a happy balancing of periods.

Wallowing in the age of clocks, London's inhabitants felt a tremendous surge of confidence. The new rational epidemic was everywhere, in the endless turning wheels that still chained factories to the river, here where one quarter of all souls worked in shipping around Wapping and Rotherhithe.

Why not feel this optimism, as the world's wool sailed down the improved river? The Monarchy was confirmed in office, the last of the Plagues was gone. William of Orange had routed James II in Ireland, so that Congreve's Protestant schoolfriends sheltering around the Inns of Court could go home to their glorious preferments. Agricultural prices had gone down markedly. Those mystical Catholics were now barred from all public offices, while a young Pope had succeeded Dryden as the reigning wit of Covent Garden where all baths taken were Turkish.

Was not this the biggest city in the world? With half a million souls, and twice as many young people in the population as today? Did it not have a staggeringly high per capita income of £90, to bequeath to Brazil of the 1960s? Was London not greater than Paris, despite the vast population of France? As efficient in its shipping as the grand Dutch? Grasping three quarters of the world's overseas trade? As Defoe put it, sucking the vitals of the island's trade to itself?

London's triumphant atmosphere was that of Drury Lane Theatre, ruled from the wit's Pit. In the cartoons of the time, wit spewed out of the mouths in acrid pools. This wit was like fine smoke from the lost works of the discarded, barbarous Jacobean dramatists, twisting up from the Grand Fire of London into the dark ether of the Sublime. Now a man's life was worthless if he couldn't engineer his own obituary, as in a sense Congreve did by writing The Way of the World. The grain of life was still coarse and agrarian, raw gin and bread, thousands of turkeys were still driven on foot all the way from Norfolk. But in the city, Societies were founded on a single dish. A soup, a steak, or the dainty shoe of a Great Impure garnished on a platter to hold a dinner rather than a mirror to the Age. Even joining the new Royal Society it was hard to keep a straight face. For, to Covent Garden amateur scientists in that age as in this, a fresh Widow in a Window promised a new cosmos behind some screen.

The historical tide had erased all topics of conversation but love and money.  The gossip was voracious. Was it really , true that the new Bank of England, on its knees like a theatre manager before an audience, had begged to lend the government £l1 million! Was Princess Anne only the Heir if an heir should come out of her! If none did, would William III's Crown be hawked round Europe like one of the new linen condoms. Thus Londoners — the jewellers of Clerkenwell or the silk weavers of Spitalfields or the tanners of Bermondsey -kept reversing what Virginia Woolf called their 'virgin energy for the two prime objects of life'. If the one could not procure you the other, then the English King was a bisexual Dutchman.

Marriage-cryers down Fleet Street drummed up business, or 'Fleet Marriages' where purely verbal declarations were still legally binding. Pleading one's suit publicly was very much the fashion. Aristocrats at the theatre enjoyed seeing their latest properties — the new actresses — framed within the proscenium arch. The new dropsical embryo of the Stock Exchange — Ah! Name it not! — was now in place in Change Alley, where Lloyd's Coffee House dispensed shares, mortgages and handbills of insurance odds.

The matrimonial odds were by no means forlorn. Women in 1700 had begun to marry late at an average age of twenty six, and the general life expectancy being thirty-six then bereavement became a hopeful indemnity. ("Sign your will before you sup from home", advised the city where felons' bodies were stolen from the very gibbet for medical dissection.) Late marriage was a natural means of controlling the population and therefore family comforts. After all, this was the age of the simple folk in far-flung villages like Kensington and Islington who would undertake manufacturing projects family by family with the four year olds doing what they could.

Well-born men were found living off prostitutes, notorious women from the Nurseries of Debauchery married into the gentry. Receiving parasitical nurture from the Inns of Court were the 'literary Templers' — the dramatists Etheredge, Wycherley, Congreve — placed there to study the Laws of the Land, and most learned in the Laws of the Stage.' It was impossible for the very low to rise very high, but there was easy mobility between the infinite social shades of the middle group. Social divisions then were not horizontal. Divisions were vertical, by rank and stream in a city which, although a Mecca for the leading professions, still had founded no Anglican university to serve them.

Adventurers climbed straight up their own sinecure rope without jolting those of the adjacent cabals. The Tories kept to Drury Lane Theatre, the Whigs frequented the Haymarket. These loose groups were not formal parties yet, but the conflict was defined, and factions begot factions. The naked Posture Girls of Covent Garden 'Establishments' learned to strike poses to suit the Low, High, landed, moneyed, Jacobite or Hanoverian. But they kept strictly to the ranks of their particular Household. Influential Households like Lady Wishfort's abounded, or that of the Duke of Bedford in Bloomsbury. The wealthy quarters with their myriad city horses and old ghosts of private militias, great casts of intelligent servants to pass messages between tea table and stall.

The entire nobility consisted of just one hundred and sixty families: the top 1% of the population owned one eighth of the national income. At a time when a great dynasty of colonial clerkships, cashierships and controllerships broke out, the patronage was be-gruelled rather than bejewelled. A Mirabell might be tossed the Commissionership for Hackney Coaches, but in Swift's words, usually he 'like crazy Congreve scarce could spare / A Shilling to discharge his chair'.

Betray your sexual cabal, and you would be forced to make the cart-arse journey from a House of Chastisement to a House of Correction — Bridewell. Here in the spirit of the newly formed Society for the Reformation of Manners harlots had their noses slit or were forced to beat hemp until they had flayed their own hands. The artistic equivalent of this was offered to Congreve when his plays became the target of Jeremy Collier's notorious pamphlet diatribe, A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage. This concise glimpse of a lethal obsession did much to encourage the development of a new sentimental genteel drama in the century to follow. But Congreve, and his character Foible after him, declined to make the sentimental conversion of a 'Bridewell Bride'.

Collier's pamphlet, however, struck a heavy note among the lightly sketched social provisos of this new century known for Arcadian calm.

The rich, to speak and spare not, were very fatigued by the old Tudor phenomenon of the 'impotent poor'. It was no use telling the rich that Britain was a middling underdeveloped country, where half the population didn't earn enough to sustain life, where the root problem was not unemployment but under-employment, the harvest still the barometer of prosperity. The gentry's growing antipathy came from this very kind of argot.

England was then the most advanced economy in the world. The closing century had been one of enormous growth. No other European country had an organised system of relief, such as Britain had introduced in 1601. The trouble began when new laws changed the concept of relief after the Civil War. When charity stopped being an individual's spontaneous insurance for the next life and became a uniform tax in this one, the rich wanted to stipulate the exact means of payment. This was that the 'able-bodied poor' should only be granted relief within the walls of a useful workhouse.

Horrid proviso! That all paupers must be pushed back to their own parishes for relief! This Act of Settlement passed in 1662 may not have been effective in reducing internal migration in England. It certainly produced no metropolitan radicals, palely loitering with manifestos. But the poor, far from meek beneath the great aristocratic oak, gave their own form of witty retort.

Fed by an Old England of traditional rights and roast beef, they did not take ten years to learn the effectiveness of a single tax riot. The politicians of 1700, the Stanhopes and Walpoles, were involved in an agonising waiting game within the Westminster oligarchy. They must wait to see if their gambles on the polarised issue of succession would payoff. Meanwhile the ordinary people were successfully engaged in a vast political raillery of acid cartoons, hunger riots, turnpike-rooting, brothel-rifling, mackerel-strikes and exciseman murders. This was the 'Mob Century.'

The limited violence won them their concrete demands, but it never developed into general insurrection. The people did not want to overturn the way of the world, but rather to demand their equity within it. (Not only did they ask for the money, they had the gall to hold out for the love.) Their view did not exclude the educated Augustan vision of this optimistic age. A vision, possibly, of future Roman viaducts and legions of 'navigators' when brilliant engineers would shake hands with great entrepreneurs — when Wit would grow so exuberant it would "o'erinform its tenement." Thus in Congreve's time oligarchy and anarchy reached a breezy consensus that was like the river Thames itself: the chief source of prosperity in a period where still only one bridge crossed it.

The Strand to which Congreve retired to await a more subtle age was a revving scenario of hilarity which always made 'room for one more on top'. The Romantic poets who followed were not scenario folk. They didn't need another person on top. Unlike the Restoration dramatists, their solitary morning lie-ins were always darkly edifying.

A Singular View by Philomena Muinzer ©JGH

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