William Congreve



  • (1670 - 1729) English playwright, the most sophisticatedexponent of the comedy of manners during the Restorationera. Congreve wrote five plays before he was 30. His first, TheOld Bachelor, was an enormous success at Drury Lane in 1693,in a production starring Thomas Betterton and Mrs Bracegirdle. Accordingto Congreve he wrote the play to amuse himself during a convalescence.

    The Double Dealer (1694) was not so well received butin 1695 he produced another hit, Love for Love (again withBetterton and Mrs Bracegirdle), to open the new Lincoln's InnFields Theatre. Its success secured his reputation and earnedhim a share in the theater. His promise to write at least one playa year for the theater of which he was now a part owner, was unfortunatelynot fulfilled.

    Congreve's only tragedy, The Mourning Bride (1697),was his most popular work during his lifetime but is now rarely seen.It starred Mrs Bracegirdle as Almeria, a part that became much covetedby tragic actresses.

    In 1700 The Way of the World - a highly sophisticatedand complex work now considered his masterpiece - met with a cool reception.This failure, together with his continued discomfort athaving been attacked in Jeremy Collier's influential pamphletA Short View of the Profaneness and Immorality of the English Stage(1698), persuaded him to retire. (Congreve had replied to Collierwith little effect in Amendments of Mr Collier's False and ImperfectCitations.)

    Voltaire later visited him and accused him of wasting hisgenius. Congreve told him he wished to be visited as a gentleman,not as an author. To this Voltaire replied that if Mr Congreve wereonly a gentleman, he would not have bothered to call upon him.

    Congreve was by all accounts a warm man who won the love andrespect of his many friends. John Dryden called him the equal of Shakespeare,Alexander Pope dedicated his translation of the Iliad to himin 1715, and John Gay called him an "unreproachful man."When he died he left nearly all of his £10,000 estate to his mistress,Henrietta, the second Duchess of Marlborough, who arranged for hisburial in Westminster Abbey. Congreve was said to be the father ofher second daughter.

    The charms of his conversation must have been very powerful,since nothing could console Henrietta Dutchess of Marlborough, forthe loss of his company, so much as an automaton, or small statueof ivory, made exactly to resemble him, which every day was broughtto table. A glass was put in the hand of the statue, which was supposedto bow to her grace and to nod in approbation of what she spoke toit.
    Thomas Davies: Dramatic Miscellanies (1784)