As a playwright, Congreve still calls for more precise definition; as a man he is all but lost to us. Nor does any mere disguise blot out the man: what we have is more like an empty chair. And though few would deny that The Way of the World is the most brilliant artificial comedy in the language, Congreve seems to leave the critic as indifferent as he leaves the biographer stranded. Occasional stage revivals aside, Congreve has become a boneyard for the academic scholar who contrives that every small gain in substance shall mean a falling off in style, that every new effort to resurrect him shall be another interment. But if an effort to make flesh and blood of the man must clearly fail, there being nothing left to work with, just as clearly Congreve’s temperament and relation to his age, Congreve’s talent and relation to his art, could be asserted by some one consanguineous and perceptive enough.
Professor Hodges, twenty years ago in his biographical William Congreve the Man, and now in Letters & Documents, has scrupulously burrowed to bring to light many small new facts about Congreve’s background and associations. But even such scholarly perseverance can scarcely turn up much more; nor in its kind can we want much. Of the 157 letters and documents brought together here—many of them about Congreve rather than by him—twenty are “new”; but a number of these are mere laundry lists, none lets in new light, none furnishes clues to a new approach. What is of real value is our having all this related material in one volume.
There is something noteworthy about how many of England’s wittier and worldlier creative writers—whether Drydon or Pope, whether Thackeray or Trollope—have been disappointing, where not downright uninteresting, writers of letters; and Congreve is of their company. With Congreve, moreover, there is hardly more substance than sheen. He very little portrays his age, and almost never uniquely. To a Swift or Pope he writes too formally, to Robert Keally and other friends, too factually; while to the two women who occupied large if often dimly lighted places in his life—the actress Anne Bracegirdle and Henrietta Duchess of Marlborough—not one word that he wrote has survived.
In how little they reveal or are meant to, Congreve’s letters do represent him—as, at least, a discreet, detached, unillusioned worldling of a particular era. From an acquaintance with the surfaces of the polite world he inferred the secrets of those who inhabited it. These discoveries became in some measure the stuff of his plays; his letters, on the other hand, are bland, rather bored, sometimes boring. The writer is all but effaced, and the man keeps his distance. There is no assertive sense of a man-about-town or a drawing-room wit (perhaps gout and failing eyesight kept Congreve from often being one). Temperamentally he tends to look backward, with a touch of Horace, toward LaRochefoucauld or Halifax. There are not the faintest adumbrations of the dandy, of the fashionable self-dramatizer, the costumed individualist. Congreve never foretells a Byron or even a Beerbohm; he neither manipulates a personality, except as he perhaps manipulates it out of sight, nor preciously and quite publicly molds a style. What he must have labored to achieve was a dauntless composure. We know, from his reactions to the bad reception of The Double Dealer, that the young Congreve could lose his temper, just as we know from his rejoinder to Jeremy Collier’s famous blast at the stage, that critically he could lose his way. But as time went on, and his worldling’s armor changed to a kind of invisible cloak, Congreve became John Gay’s “unreproachful man”—some one, we must suppose, who was often more courteous than truthful. Men as great as Dryden and Swift, men as difficult as Dennis and Pope, became his friends and admirers (one of the few firm statements in Congreve’s letters is his confessing to Keally his dislike of A Tale of a Tub). In talk, at least, he must have let himself go—“I never knew anybody,” said Lady Mary Montagu, “that had so much wit as Congreve.” But his best wit, as we encounter it in his plays, does not just loop and tassle his writing, it is the actual texture of it—which may explain why, as against dozens of witty quotations in Bartlett from a Wilde or Sheridan, there is not a single one from Congreve. Nor is there much, by way of anecdote or table talk, to brighten his biography.
And there really is no biography, at any rate for our own day. Here, as in his earlier book (and often borrowing from it), Professor Hodges gives us many small, supplementary, juiceless bits of information, but not one stylish phrase or evocative comment or illuminating insight; and just when Congreve might faintly breathe with life, he is suffocated with footnotes—many of them arid, repetitious, often merely speculative foot-notes hemmed round in “apparentlys” and “perhapses.” Mr. Hodges does his work impeccably; but it is mole’s work, and from his very need to live underground, a mole cannot even look at Congreve’s own creatures and at all he sought to portray. Yet the mole can be intrepid enough; in the midst of his documented minutiae, Professor Hodges will announce that Congreve’s relationship with Henrietta Marlborough was the “one enduring passion of his life.” But for this there seems not a shred of direct testimony. We know—it is a deservedly famous story—how much the two were together: how, indeed, the Duchess took charge of the infirm, half-blind writer, and was referred to as “Congreve’s moll”; how, when he died, she sat up with his corpse, and was rumored to have a wax image of him propped up at her dinner table; and how at length she had herself buried near him—on the pretext of wanting to be buried near her father-in-law—in Westminster Abbey. But of Congreve’s feelings, let alone his “passion” for her, we know nothing. True, he left her his money, but plainly that it might pass without scandal to a daughter who was really his as well as hers.
As a playwright, which in the end is all that matters, Congreve was capable of crystallizations of wit, flashes of insight, surmises about character, glosses on worldly behavior, sentences deserving of marble while spun out of air, that win him a real if narrow English eminence. He enjoys it perhaps as a faute de mieux; for what is lacking to the English stage is a Molière, is comedy that joins amplitude to finesse. Our two most robust comic writers for the theater, Ben Jonson and Shaw, are overt satirists, and accordingly simplifiers, the one for the most part converting his characters into obsessions or animals, the other into viewpoints or talking machines. Congreve does not assault society with either subhuman images or didactic ideas; he uses neither whip nor birch rod. He pulverizes his world on its own terms—shows it eaten up with duplicity, self-seeking, self-indulgence, coldheartedness; he penalizes it with its own statutes—shows it defeated by vanity, credulousness, excess, gaucherie. To be sure, it is in The Way of the World alone that Congreve—despite dull and tortuous stagecraft—achieves something like greatness, filling out his scene with style in the very act of stripping it bare. Here is very often high comedy, with its sudden stabs of melancholy and intimations of the dark, here is distilled much of what Congreve must really have felt about life; and while offering here an assemblage of masks, he yet leaves an impression of faces.
The rewards in Congreve’s other three comedies are at a much lower level. In Love for Love, where wit and style enhance but nowhere transform the subject-matter, what counts is a certain swing and briskness: the play represents a halfway point between the author’s talent and the public’s taste. The Old Bachelor and The Double Dealer have delightful touches and scenes, but the one is chiefly comic formula, the other abandons comedy and fails. Congreve is scarcely a major playwright, but he is not a conveniently minor one, either, and hence is not easy to stamp. Virginia Woolf is as wide of the mark in speaking of Congreve’s “four great plays” as is L. C. Knights in dismissing Congreve almost as contemptuously as he dismisses the Restoration theater as a whole. Mr. Knights, though never touching on what is best in The Way of the World, has some acute observations to make. But the spectre of Scrutiny, the strong sense of the Weight of the World, keep interposing themselves: in looking for importance and not finding it, Mr. Knights manages to look straight past distinction, and down his nose at superlative froth. Yet the truth may very well be that no purely critical evaluation is possible to Congreve. A temperamental barrier must too much shrivel and alienate him, as a temperamental bond can induce a too gushing delight.
April 30, 1964