William Congreve (1670-1729)


Life
b. 24 Jan., Bardsley, a village nr. Leeds; brought up in Ireland, travelling to Ireland where father, a soldier and the son of a Staffordshire land-owner, commanded the Youghal garrison, and acted as estate agent of 1st Earl of Cork; ed. Kilkenny, where his father served in the Duke of Ormonde's Regt.; acquainted with Swift and John Keally; entered TCD, 1686;
entered Middle Bar, 1691, following his father's return to Ireland as Lord Boyle's agent in Cork; befriended in London by Dryden, Southerne, and Steele, and turned to literature; member of Kit-Kat Club; Dryden published part of his translation of Homer; issued Incognita (1692), under pseud. “Cleophil”, a romantic novel deemed ‘feeble’ [ODNB];
contrib. to Dryden’s metrical versions of Juvenal (1692), and Virgil (1697); wrote The Old Bachelor (Covent Garden, Jan. 1693), a successful play, followed by The Double Dealer (Drury Lane 1694); engaged with Lincoln’s Inns Fields new theatre company, and produced Love for Love (Lincoln’s Inn Fields, 30 April 1695); also The Mourning Bride (1697), a tragedy, with great profit;
published An Essay Concerning Humour in Comedy (1697), explaining wit in terms of character-psychology and nature as opposed to farcical incident; joining others, he attacked Jeremy Collier’s A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage (1698) in his Amendments to Mr. Collier’s False and Imperfect Citations ((1698);
 
issued The Way of the World (Lincoln’s Inns Field, 25 Dec. 1700), his most famous play, though at first received coldly by the public, in which the part of Mrs Millamant was written for his friend Mrs. Bracegirdle who appeared successfully in all his comedies; issued three-vol. Works (1710); occupied sinecures as commissioner of hackney coaches, 1695-1707; of wine licences, 1705-14;
 
appt. Sec. of Jamaica, 1714, at Whig return to power; played part of man of fashion and reproached for doing so as a writer by Voltaire, who visited him and recorded his impressions of this celebrated meeting; a monument in Westminster raised by his friend Henrietta (2nd) Duchess of Marlborough, who bore him a dg. (her second, Mary) and remained a close and caring friend; suffered gout in later years;
he left small legacy to Mrs Bracegirdle and the remainder to the Duchess of Marlborough; there is a portrait of Congreve by Kneller, National Portrait Gallery, London, identical to that in the Kit-Kat series; his theory of comedy attracted the attention of Yeats in counterpoint to his own idea of tragic theatre [see infra]; he is accredited with the English currency of the phrase ‘folie de grandeur’. ODNB JMC OCTH DIB DIW DIL OCEL ODQ

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Works
Montague Summers, ed., The Complete Works of William Congreve (London: Nonsuch Press 1923); F. W. Bateson, ed., The Works of Congreve (London: Peter Davies 1930); Anthony G. Henderson, ed., The Comedies of William Congreve [q.d.]

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Criticism
  • Emmett Langdon Avery, Congreve’s Plays on the Eighteenth-Century Stage [Modern Language Association of America] (New York: MLAA 1951);
  • Laurence Bartlett, William Congreve: A Reference Guide (Boston: G. K. Hall [1979];
  • Bonamy Dobrée, William Congreve (London: Longmans, Green, 1963), pamph.;
  • Edmund Gosse, Life of Congreve (New York: Scribner’s 1924);
  • John C. Hodge, William Congreve the Man [Modern Language Association of America] (NY 1941);
  • John C. Hodges, ed., William Congreve: Letters and Documents New York: Harcourt, Brace & World; London: Macmillan 1964);
  • Nortnan N. Holland, The First Modern Comedies: The Significance of Etherege, Wycherley and Congreve (Harvard UP 1959);
  • Ursula, Jantz, Targets of Satire in the Comedies of Etherege, Wycherley and Congreve (Salzburg: Institut fur Englische Sprache und Literatur 1978);
  • Alexander Lindsay & Howard Erskine-Hill, eds., William Congreve: The Critical Heritage (London: Routledge 1989);
  • Harold Love, Congreve (Totowa, NJ: Rowman & Littlefield 1975);
  • Kathleen Martha Lynch, A Congreve Gallery (Harvard UP 1951);
  • Maximillian E. Novak, William Congreve (New York: Twayne 1971);
  • W. H. Van Voris, The Cultivated Glance: The Designs of Congreve’s Plays (Dolmen [1965]), 186pp.; port. front; and Do., rep. edn. (Chester Springs: Dufour [1967]);
  • Aubrey L. Williams, An Approach to Congreve (Yale UP 1979); David Thomas, William Congreve (Macmillan 1992), 179pp.
See also R. W. Bevis, English Drama: Restoration and Eighteenth Century (London: Longmans 1988) and Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, 76, pp.136.

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Commentary
H. Halliday Sparling, ed., Irish Minstrelsy: Being a selection of Irish Songs, Lyrics, and Ballads (London: Walter Scott 1888), Introducton: ‘Congreve was so anxious to hide even that he was born in Ireland that he persuaded Jacob to write him down as born in Bardsley in Yorkshire, a lie still copied to the compilers of biography.’ [xix] The eighteenth century opened with the Irish people ‘pacified’ into seeming death.’

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W. B. Yeats, “The Tragic Theatre” (1910): ‘I think it was while rehearsing a translation of Les Fourberies de Scapin [of Molière] in Dublin, and noticing how passionless it all was, that I saw what should have been plain from the first line I had written, that tragedy must always be a drowning and breaking of the dykes that separate man from man, and that it is upon these dykes comedy keeps house. But I was not certain of the site of that house (one always hesitates when there is no testimony but one’s own) till somebody told me of a certain letter of Congreve’s. He describes the external and superficial expressions of “humour” on which farce is founded and then defines “humour” itself - the foundation of comedy - as a “singular and unavoidable way of doing anything peculiar to one man only, by which his speech and actions are distinguished from all other men,” and adds to it that “passions are too powerful in the sex to let humour have its course”, or, as I would rather put it, that you can find but little of what we call character in unspoiled youth, whatever be the sex, for, as he indeed shows in another sentence, it grows with time like the ash of a burning stick, and strengthens towards middle life till there is little else at seventy years.’ (In The Cutting of an Agate, 1912; London 1919; rep. in Essays and Introductions, London: Macmillan 1961, p.2141. See longer extracts and link to full-text version under RICORSO Library, “Irish Classics > W. B. Yeats”, via index, or direct.)

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Kathleen M. Lynch, A Congreve Gallery (Harvard UP 1951; rep. London: Frank Cass 1967), for an appreciation of his better qualities in connection with the letters and memoirs of his lifelong friends, Lynch emphasises his lasting Irish associations, especially with his friend Joseph Keally: ‘There is a good deal that is not recorded about Congreve’s friendships. His wide circle of friends must be recognised as wider than has commonly been supposed. with a number of his Irish friends, now shrouded in oblivion, he was on terms of intimacy; and to one of them, at any rate, he was more warmly attached than to Swift or Pope.//All of his Irish associations meant much to Congreve. The present writer first reviewed the life of his most intimate Irish friend, Joseph Keally. In his letters to Keally it was his custom to sende his regards to “Robin and the rest”. One of the following essays concerns Robin Fitzgerald and his family. The other Irish correspond-ents whom Congreve mentions most often are Thomas Amory and Henry Luther, to whom only passing reference has been made by his biographers ... both were TCD men. Amory was among the Irish Protestants, including Keally and Fitzgerald, who fled to England in 1688. He settled in Bunratty, Co. Clare, and when he died in 1728, left a considerable estate ..’ [16-17] The chapter on Keally [pp.23-36] begins with Edmund Gosse’s assertion, ‘We should know little or nothing of what happened to Congreve between 1700 and 1710 if it were not for the Keally letters’. Keally was resident in Kellymount, Kilkenny, and a relative of Bishop Berkeley. [23] Fitzgerald became Prime Sarjeant. Bibl., K M Lynch, ‘Congreve’s Irish Friend, Joseph Keally’, in PMLA, LIII (1938), pp.1076-87. Note also that Swift intervened on Congreve’s behalf to retain the commissionership of wine licences [see Journal to Stella, II, 589]. Further, ‘The friendship of Congreve and Swift was not a literary friendship at all. Swift was, indeed, struck by Congreve’s youthful precocity. But after The Doubler Dealer was unfavourably received, he preferred not to send to Congreve the verses in which he had announced’; Godlike the force of my young Congreve’s bays”. some years later on a rainy evening Swift dipped into a volume of Congreve’s plays left by a servant in his room and “read in it till twelve, like an owl and a fool”. [p.3] See also 13 other refs. Note p.14, Congreve said to have jilted Mrs Bracegirdle in favour of his aristocratic admirer, Lady Mary Wortley Montague. Bracegirdle lived to 84. Thackeray on Congreve as ladies’ dramatist, ‘A touch of Steele’s tenderness is worth all his finery - a flash of Swift’s lightning - a beam of Addison’s pure sunshine, and his tawdry play-house taper is invisible. But the ladies loved him and he was undoubtedly a pretty fellow.’ (‘Congreve and Addison’, in The Engish Humourists of the Eighteenth Century, Lon. 1853, pp.77-78). BIBL, ‘Congreve’, life of, is to be found in Theophilus Cibber et al., Lives of the Poets of Great Britain and Ireland, IV, pp.83-98 (London 1753). Prominently cited is John C Hodges, William Congreve The Man (NY/Lon. 1941), also Hodges, ‘Congreve’s Library’, TLS, Aug. 12 1949, p.521; Edmund Gosse, Life of William Congreve (Lon 1888).

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R. W. Bevis, English Drama: Restoration and Eighteenth Century (Longmans 1988), notes: Dryden and Southerne ‘held Congreve as champion of high comedy, a worthy successor to Etherage and Wycherley’ (p.30).

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References
Irish Literature, Justin McCarthy, ed. (Washington: University of America 1904); Way of the World, conspicuous for its all-conquering character of Mrs Millamant, interpreted by Mrs Bracegirdle, produced in 1700; his poetical remains, acc. Austin Dobson, ‘have but slender claim to vitality’; nevertheless, JMC selectes on ‘Amoret’, and extracts from the ‘Mourning Bride’. [No biographical connection with Ireland is made here.]

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Seamus Deane, gen. ed., The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing (Derry: Field Day 1991), Vol. 1: [Chris Murray, ed.], ‘We are talking about a body of drama which, for all its colonial origins, contributes a tradition of its own. It is really neither English no Irish, but something uneasily in between, for which the term Anglo-Irish seems just about adequate.’ (p.502); ‘Congreve does not really answer to the description of an Anglo-Irish playwright, and consequently his work is not represented in this anthology; born in Yorkshire, ed. in Ireland, MA TCD, left Ireland in 1688 ... In all his plays, the wit he exhibits has a serenity and a security of tone entirely lacking from most Anglo-Irish writers, whose ability to use the English language brilliantly masks an unease. Neither is Congreve autobiographical, as Anglo-Irish playwrights usually are ... content to work within the conventions of his day ... finally, there is nothing about Ireland, if one excudes the lines in Love for Love (1695) about a woman being as hard to describe as an Irish manuscript ... he invokes only to dismiss.’ Note, This account of the playwright and the reasons for excluding from The Field Day Anthology concur with those in Deane, A Short History of Irish Literature (1982)]. Cf., Seamus Deane, Short History (1982): ‘belonging without stress or strain to the English tradition and [his] Irish background [is] more peripheral than central to [his] literary achievement’ (p.9).

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A. N. Jeffares & Peter Van de Kamp, eds., Irish Literature: The Eighteenth Century - An Annotated Anthology (Dublin/Oregon: Irish Academic Press 2006) gives extract from The Way of the World [97]; “Song” [101]; “A Hue and Cry after Fair Amoret” [102]; “Song” [102].

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TCD Library: The Double Dealer: A Comedy as written by Congreve, distinguishing also the variations of the theatre, as performed at the Theatre-Royal in Drury-Lane, regulated from the prompt-book ... by Mr. Hopkins, prompter [Bell’s Edn.] (London: John Bell [... &c.] 1777), 82, [2]pp., pl., port, 12mo. [donated by Niall Montgomery].

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Marsh’s Library, Dublin holds Amendments of Mr Collier’s false and imperfect citations [&c.] (London: J. Tonson 1698), 8o.

Belfast Public Library holds holds Aubrey Williams, and Maxmillian E Novak, Congreve Consider’d [papers read at a Clark library seminar, 5 Dec 1970] (Calif. UP 1971), 54pp.

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Notes
On Love for Love (1695): It was the opening piece staged by the rebel actors under Thomas Betterton in their newly-furbished playhouse, and became Congreve’s most popular drama for the next hundred years; the prologues speak of English liberty and the enterprise of a new theatre, the epilogue of actors’ fortunes.

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Thomas Betterton: Thomas Arnott, Theatrical Literature (1970) calls Betteron [1635-1710] ‘one of the greatest if not the greatest of English actors’, adding: ‘Cibber says, Betterton was an actor as Shakespeare was an author; not more admirable for his genius than the worth and probity of his life’ (Lowe, Life of Thomas Betterton (London: Kegan, Paul, et. al. 1891; reiss. in Eminent Actors, ed. William Archer, with Archer’s Macready and Parry’s Macklin, also 1891).

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Contra Collier: in answer to Collier Congreve wrote: ‘sects, schisms and innumerable subdivisions in Religion ... plots, conspiracies, and seditions’ are not made by those who ‘frequent the theatres and consorts of music.’ (Quoted in Muriel McCarthy & Caroline Sherwood-Smith, Hibernia Resurgens, Marsh’s Library, 1994, p.79.)

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Irish Congreve?: The only hint of Ireland in the plays of William Congreve is a reference to Gaelic script, in Love for Love, ‘She is harder to understand than a piece of Egyptian antiquity, or an Irish manuscript, you may pore till you spoil your eyes and not improve your knowledge’ [IV, 1: NTRY] (CG Duggan, The Stage Irishman, 1937).

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Standish James O’Grady: In Ulrick the Ready (1896), O’Grady compares Congreve with an Irish bard, as one who combined literature with dandyism.

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Less and More: There is no entry on Congreve in Richard Ryan, Biographia Hibernia (1819-20). Sir William Congreve (1772-1828) the inventor of Congreve’s rocket, was son of Controller of Royal Laboratory, Woolwich, etc, and succeeded as 2nd bart. in 1814 [ODNB].

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Sir Richard Steele’s Preface to the 2nd edn. of The Drummer (1721) was addressed to William Congreve in reply to Tickell’s preface to Addison’s Works of that year; rep. in Arber’s English Garner, vol. VI. (See Bartleby.com - Bibliographies.)

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