The Lives and Characters of the English Dramatick Poets/William Congreve
A Gentleman now living, who derives himself from an Ancient Family in Staffordshire of that Name. His Politer Knowledge he owes to Dublin Colledge, from whence being returned to England, his first Applications were to the Law. But Mr. Congreve was of too delicate a Taste, had a Wit of too fine a turn, to be long pleas'd with that crabbed, unpalatable Study; in which the laborious dull plodding Fellow, generally excells the more sprightly and vivacious wit; for the Law is something like Preferment at Court, won by Assurance and Assiduity; this concurring with his Natural Inclinations to Poetry, diverted him from the Bar to the declining Stage, which then stood in need of such a Support; and from whence the Town justly receiv'd him as Rome's other Hope.
Rochfoncault truly observes, that Merit alone will never make a Heroe, without the friendly Assistance of Fortune; and therefore Mr. Congreve must be said to be as much oblig'd to her for his Success, as to Nature for his Wit, which truly deserv'd it, and of which all those that read his Plays, must allow him a more than ordinary Share. And indeed, he took the most certain way to make sure of Fortune, by the Intimacy he contracted with the most active part of the establish'd and receiv'd Wits and Poets of the Age, before he ventur'd his Reputation to the Publick. For as a celebrated French Writer has observ'd, an Author should never expect to raise his Fame in the World, from an unknown State, by the Single Force of his own Genius, and without the Help and Concurrence of the Men of Wit, that have an Influence over the Opinion of the World in things of that Nature. But then on the other side, it must be confess'd, that his Merit was certainly of more than ordinary Power, to oblige them to forget their habitual Ill-Nature; and criminal Emulation or Jealousy (to give it no worse Name) of all those, whom they have any Cause to fear, will once prove any considerable Rivals in their Fickle Mistress, Fame. Mr. Congreve has already given us Four Plays, of which in their Alphabetical Order.
The Double Dealer, a Comedy, Acted at the Theatre Royal by their Majesties Servants, 1694. 4to. and Dedicated to the Right Honourable Charles Montague, Esq., one of the Lords of the Treasury. This Play not meeting with that Success as was expected, the Author, as Poets are generally apt to do, engages a little too violently in a Defence of his Comedy. The Character of Maskwell I take to be an Image of Vermish in The Plain Dealer.
Love for Love, a Comedy, Acted at the Theatre in Little Lincolns-Inn-Fields, by his Majesty's Servants, 1695. 4to. and Dedicated to the Right Honourable Charles, Earl of Dorset and Middlesex. This Play, tho' a very good Comedy in it self, had this Advantage, that it was Acted at the Opening of the New House, when the Town was so prepossess'd in Favour of the very Actors, that before a Word was spoke, each Actor was Clapt for a considerable Time. And yet all this got it not more Applause than it really deserv'd: For there is abundance of Wit in it, and a great deal of diverting Humour. The Characters are justly distinguish'd, and the Manners well marked. Yet in the Plot he has not given himself the Pains of avoiding that so often repeated Improbability of Marrying in Masques and Disguises, which Mr. Tattle, nor Mrs. Frail had Sense enough to avoid, if we may judge by the rest of their Characters; yet it must be own'd, that he has much better prepar'd this Incident to gain it, at least some shew of Probability, than in the Old Batchelor, or than I have generally met within other Plays. I leave the nicer Criticks to decide whether the unravelling of the Plot, and the Conduct of Angelica in it, be extreamly just or no: I shall only say it pleas'd, and that is a considerable Defence, whatever some may think to the contrary.
The Mourning Bride, a Tragedy, Acted at the Theatre in Little Lincolns-Inn-Fields, by His Majesty's Servants, and Dedicated to her Royal Highness the Princess ANN of Denmark, 1697. 4to. This Play had the greatest Success, not only of all Mr. Congreve's, but indeed of all the Plays that ever I can remember on the English Stage, excepting none of the incomparable Otway's; and if what Dr. Blackmore says of it be true, it deserved even greater than it met with; for the learned Doctor in the Seventh Page of his Preface to King Arthur, says thus:
———'Since the writing of this, I have seen a Tragedy, called, The Mourning Bride, which I think my self obliged to take Notice of in this Place. This Poem has receiv'd, and, in my opinion, very justly, universal Applause; being look'd on as the most perfect Tragedy that has been wrote in this Age. The Fable, as far as I can judge at first sight, is a very Artful and Masterly Contrivance; the Characters are well chosen, and well delineated; that of Zara is admirable. The Passions are well touch'd, and skilfully wrought up. The Diction Proper, Clear, Beautiful, Noble, and Diversified agreeably to the Variety of the Subject. Vice, as it ought to be, is punish'd; and oppress'd Innocence at last rewarded. Nature appears very happily imitated excepting one or two doubtful Instances, thro' the whole Piece; in which there are no immodest Images, or Expressions; no wild, unnatural Rants, but some few Exceptions being allow'd, all things are Chast, Just, and Decent. This Tragedy, as I said before, has mightily Obtain'd, and that without the unnatural, and foolish Mixture of Farce and Buffoon'ry; without so much as a Song or a Dance to make it more agreeable. By this it appears, that as a sufficient Genius can recommend it self, and furnish out abundant Matter of Pleasure and Admiration, without the paultry Helps above named: So likewise, that the Tast of the Nation is not so far deprav'd, but that a Regular and Chast Play, will not only be forgiven, but highly applauded.'
Thus far the Learned Doctor, of whom I will not say, as the Plain Dealer says of my Lord Plausible, That rather than not Flatter, he will Flatter the Poets of the Age, &c. Yet I must needs say, so very great a Commendation, will make some of the Censorious Criticks imagine what it was that oblig'd him to take such particular Notice of this Play; which, tho' I should be never so willing to allow a Place in the first Form, yet I can never prefer it to the All for Love of Mr. Dryden, The Orphan, and Venice Preserv'd of Mr. Otway, or the Lucius Junius Brutus of Mr. Lee, either in true Art in the Contrivance and Conduct of the Plot; or the Choice and Delineation of the Characters for the true End of Tragedy, Pitty and Terror; or the true and natural Movement of the Passions, in which Particular, none of the Ancients (I was going to say equal'd, but I will boldly say) surpass'd our English dead Bards in those Plays, and our living Poet in this of his that I have mention'd. Or the Diction, either in regard to its Propriety, Clearness, Beauty, Nobleness, or Variety. Let any impartial Judge read but All for Love, and tell me if there is or can be a Style more Pure, or more Sublime, more adapted to the Subject in all its Parts: And I believe, notwithstanding all that some Gentlemen have urg'd against the Language in Otway's Plays, it seldom wants any of those Qualities that are necessary to the Perfection of the Piece he has undertaken; he has seldom given us any Persons of Kings or Princes, and if his Stile swell not so much in the Mouths of those of a Lower Degree, whom he has chosen, it was because he had too much regard to the Nature of the Person he introduces. And in Lee (with the Critick's permission let me speak it) you find always something Wildly Noble, and Irregularly Great; and I am unwilling, with some, to think his Stile puffie or tumid; I'm sure in his Play of Lucius Junius Brutus he is generally Just, both in his Thoughts and his Expressions; and it is rather for want of a true Taste of him, than his want of Merit, that he is condemn'd in that Play, I mean, if there be any that do not exempt that from the Faults of his other Plays.
I urge not this as any Reflection on Mr. Congreve's Performance, for which I have all the just Value the Merit of the Play commands; but to do Justice to his great Predecessors on the Stage, at the depressing whose Praise, the Doctor, both in this and his former Preface, seems rather to aim, than at the raising that of Mr. Congreve. No, had I a mind to exert the Critick, I might, like many other of that Denomination, urge those Defects that either the Malice, or too nice Palate of others have descover'd in the Play it self. But I think 'tis a very ungenerous Office (and not to be excus'd by any thing but some extraordinary Provocation) to dissect the Works of a Man of Mr. Congreve's undoubted Merit, when he has done his Endeavour to please the Town, and so notoriously obtain'd his End; and when the Faults that may perhaps be found in 'em, are of a Nature that makes them very disputable, and in which both his Predecessors and Contemporaries have offended; and I suppose he does not pretend to infallibility in Poetry. But tho' I purposely omit all Critical Reflections, yet the Duty of this Undertaking, and the Foundation I build on, obliges me to examine what he may have borrowed from others; which indeed is not much, tho' the Incident of the Tomb, seems to be taken from the Meeting of Artaban and Eliza, at the Tombe of Tyridates, in the Romance of Cleopatra. And Zara has many Features resembling Nourmahal in Aurenge Zebe, and Almeria in the Indian Emperor; I know some will have the whole Play a kind of a Copy of that; but I confess I cannot discover likeness enough to justify their Opinion: unless it be Zara's coming to the Prison to Osmin, as Almeria does to Cortez. I believe our Poet had the Bajazet of Racine in view, when he formed his Design, at least there is as much Ground for this as the former Opinion. Perez resenting the Blow the King gave him, is like an Incident in Cæsar Borgia; but the Spaniard's Revenge is more generous, and less cruel than that of the Italian.
Thus much for the Mourning Bride, of which, if I may be allow'd to speak my impartial Sense, I must needs say, that in spite of its Excellence, it discovers Mr. Congreve's Genius more inclin'd and turn'd to Comedy, than Tragedy, tho' he has gain'd an uncommon Praise for both; however, it being his first Poem of that Kind, it promises more perfect Products hereafter; and for which all Lovers of Poetry long with Impatience.
Old Batchelor, a Comedy, Acted at the Theatre Royal by their Majesties Servants, and Dedicated to the Right Honourable Charles Lord Clifford, of Lanesborough, 1693. 4to. This Comedy was Acted with so general an Applause, that it gave both Fame and Fortune to our Author; at once made him known to the Town, and to an Honourable Mecænas; who, to the Satisfaction of all Lovers of Learning, Wit, and Poetry, has ever since prov'd a generous Friend to our Poet. The Old Batchelor was usher'd into the world with several Copies of Verses of his Friends, and which the Merit of the Play abundantly : For there's a genteel and sprightly Wit in the Dialogue, where it ought to be; and the humorous Characters are generally within the Compass of Nature, which can scarce be truly said of those of several Poets, who have met with Success enough on the Stage. Bluff seems an Imitation of the Miles Gloriosus of Plautus; of Bounce in Greenwich Park; and Hackum in the Squire of Alsatia, &c. The Incident of Sir Joseph Wittoll's Marrying Sylvia, and Captain Bluff, Lucy, in Masques, has been too often an Incident on the Stage, since I'm confident it was scarce ever done in reality. Some other Characters are not entirely new, but that is very excusable in a Young Poet, especially in a Play, which I have been assur'd was writ, when our Author was but Nineteen Years Old, and in nothing alter'd, but in the Length, which being consider'd, I believe few Men that have writ, can shew one half so good at so unripe an Age.