February 23, 2018

Congreve, Fondlewife, Maskwell....

On this day in 1670 English playwright William Congreve was born. His "comedy of manners" toasted and tilted at the "gala day of wit and pleasure" enjoyed by those who lived in the inner circles of Restoration power, or wished they did. His characters live the court-life fast and loose, and always rise to their names: Fondlewife, Maskwell, Wishfort, Witwoud. They are, as the Cambridge History says, "men and women of quick brains and cynical humours" who talk "with the brilliance and rapidity wherewith the finished swordsman fences." The sharp talk often left the plot in tatters and the swordsman skewered -- "Sir, I honour you, I understand you love fighting, I reverence a man that loves fighting, sir, I kiss your hilts" -- but his plays are full of world-famous, or just funny, lines:

From The Mourning Bride:
    Music has charms to soothe a savage breast,
    To soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak.

    Heav'n has no Rage like Love to Hatred turn'd,
    Nor Hell a Fury, like a Woman scorn'd.
From The Old Bachelor:
    Thus grief still treads upon the heels of pleasure:
    Married in haste, we repent at leisure.
    (to which the reply, "Some by experience find those words misplaced: At leisure married, they repent in haste.")

    In my conscience I believe the baggage loves me, for she never speaks well of me herself, nor suffers any body else to rail at me.
From The Way of the World:
    If there's delight in love, 'tis when I see
    That heart, which others bleed for, bleed for me.

    A wit should no more be sincere, than a woman constant; one argues a decay of parts, as t'other of beauty.
After a weak novel -- Samuel Johnson described it as one he'd "rather praise than read" -- Congreve turned to the stage, writing all four of his plays before he was thirty. Scholars have various theories to explain why, having gained early fame and respect (and the reward of various government sinecures), Congreve gave up playwriting. Perhaps his own words help: "I don't know how it is with others, but I confess freely to you, I could never look long upon a monkey without mortifying reflections." The words of one of his characters might help too: "Come, come, leave business to idlers, and wisdom to fools: they have need of 'em: wit be my faculty, and pleasure my occupation, and let father Time shake his glass."

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