William Congreve

William CongreveBorn on January 24, 1670, William Congreve was educated at Trinity College, Dublin, and the Middle Temple where he studied law. His literary apprenticeship was served under the tutelage of John Dryden, the leading playwright of the day. Congreve's first play, The Old Bachelor (1693) was an enormous success when it was produced at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Dryden wrote that he had never read so brilliant a first play. Congreve's next effort, however, was not so successful. The Double-Dealer (1693) revolves around a socialite who deceives everyone with the simple device of telling the plain truth. Although most modern critics consider The Double-Dealer an improvement over Congreve's first play, it was snubbed by critics and audiences alike. Congreve was irritated by what he perceived as the obtuseness of the public. Love for Love (1695) returned Congreve temporarily to the public favor, and his reputation improved still further with the production of his only tragedy, The Mourning Bride, in 1697. But Congreve's masterpiece was still to come.

Although The Way of the World (1700) was coolly received when it was first acted at Lincoln's Inn Fields, it has since come to be considered one of the most intellectually accomplished of English comedies. The story revolves around a pair of lovers, Millamant and Mirabell, who establish a rather unconventional marriage arrangement based on their knowledge of the way of the world which, as they know, is inhabited primarily by intriguers, fops, and fools. Unfortunately, Congreve's wit and his characters' sexual freedom and experimentation was at odds with the thinking of certain moralists of the day. Jeremy Collier's A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage (1698) was a direct attack on writers such as Congreve and Dryden. Collier succeeded in garnering public support for his cause by beginning with the accepted neoclassical doctrine that the purpose of drama is to teach and please and then pointing out the disparity between theory and practice. Congreve responded to Collier's accusations in Amendments of Mr. Collier's False and Imperfect Citations (1698), but the conservative middle class, determined to make its tastes felt, sided with Collier and the Society for the Reformation of Manners. It became increasingly difficult to get a play produced unless it conformed to Collier's doctrine. Realizing that his protests were in vain, Congreve gave up playwriting altogether, resolving to "commit his quiet and his fame no more to the caprices of an audience." He was only thirty years of age.

Although, he would write no more plays, Congreve did not retire entirely from the theatre. He wrote the libretto for two operas and collaborated, in 1704, in translating Molière's Monsieur de Pourceaugnac for Lincoln's Inn Fields. However, for the next twenty-nine years, he lived mostly on his reputation and the royalties from his plays. He died on January 19, 1729, in a carriage accident and was buried in Westminster Abbey. The Duchess of Marlborough, with whom he was rumored to have been romantically involved, erected a monument over his grave.

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Related Sites

British Theatre Index

William Congreve

William Congreve Bio

William Congreve: Poems

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