Peter Gill, playwright and theatre director
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William Congreve

Major Works

Incognita, or love and duty reconcil'd: a novel.
The Old Bachelor
The Double Dealer
The mourning Muse of Alexas: a pastoral, lamenting the death of Queen Mary
A Pindarique ode, humbly offer'd to the King on his taking Namure,
Love for Love
The Mourning Bride
The birth of the Muse: a poem
The Way of the World
The Judgement of Paris: a libretto
Semele: An Unacted Opera
An impossible thing: a tale
A letter from Mr Congreve to the Viscount Cobham

William Congreve was born in 1670 at Bardsey, near Leeds, in Yorkshire. His father was a younger son of an old Staffordshire family, and fought for the King during the Civil War. After the Restoration, the family settled in lreland where Congreve went to school, and then to Trinity College Dublin where he was a contemporary of Swift.

He returned to London, and was enrolled as a law student of the Middle Temple. Like many at that time, Congreve was pulled in two directions, his sharp wit and facility of expression drew him to be a writer, yet writing then was hardly a profession for a gentleman, and Congreve's lively conversation and polished manners drew him to the company of men of fashion. He compromised, and wrote his first play as if by chance. Dr Johnson in his Lives of the Poets noted this: "Congreve's The Old Bachelor was written for amusement in the languor of convalescence. Yet it is apparently composed with great elaborateness of dialogue and incessant ambition of wit." Dryden said he had never read such a fine first play and, with his recommendation, it was staged in 1693.

Congreve's second play The Double Dealer, was graced by the actress Mrs Anne Bracegirdle for whom Congreve was to draw some of his most memorable heroines. Her virtue was famous. Colley Cibber said that when Congreve or Rowe gave her a lover in a play they seemed palpably to plead their own passions, and make private court to her. But Garrick remarked that he once heard her repeat some lines from Shakespeare in a way that convinced him that her virtuous reputation was totally undeserved. Most of her contemporaries considered she was Congreve's mistress. He lived in the same street, and had ample opportunity to enjoy her company.

Congreve belonged to the Kit Cat Club whose members were amongst the most illustrious men of the age. They included eight Dukes, a sitting of Earls, famous soldiers like Marlborough, fellow writers — Sir John Vanburgh and Richard Steele. It was here that art and patronage mixed, and here that Congreve picked up a few sinecures. Writers did not consider it incongruous to collect "places" like Court cards from the pack. Congreve became Commissioner for Hackney Coaches, Customer at Poole, Wine Licenser, Undersearcher at the Port of London, and in 1714, on the accession of George I, was appointed Secretary of Jamaica. He also became friendly with the Earl of Godolphin, whose wife Henrietta (inheritor of the Dukedom of Marlborough) succeeded Mrs Bracegirdle in his affections.

Congreve's five plays The Old Bachelor (1693 ), The Double Dealer (1694), Love for Love (1695), The Way of the World (1700), and his sole tragedy, The Mourning Bride (1697) were all written before he was thirty. After that, apart from collaborating with Vanburgh on Squire Trelooby (adapted from Moliere's Monsieur de Pourceaugnac), he wrote no more plays. He helped Vanburgh in the planning of the new Queen's Theatre in the Hay Market, which opened in April of 1705; contemporary broadsheets linked Henrietta Godolphin, Congreve, and Vanburgh in this enterprise, "by Beauty founded and by Witt designed". An opera, The Loves of Ergasto, with an epilogue by Congreve, began the season. It was a failure. "The new set of singers arrived from Italy proved to be the worst that ever came from thence, and after three days marched back to their own country."

Congreve is said to have stopped writing partly because of the attacks of Jeremy Collier in his A Short View of the Profaneness and Immorality of the English Stage (1698) which was an instant success amongst the Puritans who had won the Civil War but lost the peace. The playwrights were incensed by these attacks, as they considered themselves to be moral satirists exposing vice and ridiculing hypocrisy as Moliere had done. But the Puritans noted that many of the husbands cuckolded in the Restoration comedies were city Aldermen. The gallants, returned from France, were satirising the rich "cits" who had stayed at home to make money out of the Civil War.

In 1722, after the death of the Duke of Matlborough, when Henrietta Godolphin became Duchess in her own right, her mother, Sarah, referred to her as Congreve's "moll". Henrietta and Congreve retired to Bath together, and there, after twenty years, her Grace produced a child, Mary.

When Congreve died in 1729 (from internal injuries received when his carriage overturned on a journey to Bath), he left the rich Duchess the whole of his fortune — £10,000. To Mrs Bracegirdle he left £200 as a fond rememberance of good times in green rooms past. Henrietta buried her "friend" with great pomp in Westminster Abbey and on his monument had inscribed that it was a "mark of how dearly she remembers the happiness and honour she enjoyed in the sincere friendship of so worthy and honest a man... and whose writing will be the admiration of the future". She bought herself a large diamond necklace with his £10,000 and kept a wax effigy of him presumably to remind her husband of his eternal cuckoldom. " After Congreve's death" wrote Boswell, "he (Godolphin) joined with, her in grief, and allowed her to have an image of him in wax daily set at table and nightly In her bedchamber, to which she spoke, believing it through the heat of fancy, or believing it in appearance, to be Congreve himself."

Madeleine Bingham


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Last modified: 2012-03-15