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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VIII. The Age of Dryden.

VI. The Restoration Drama

§ 1. Congreve

WILLIAM CONGREVE, a spoilt child of life and literature, was born in 1670 at Bardsey, near Leeds. He came of an ancient family, long settled in Staffordshire; and it was due to the accident of his father’s commanding the garrison at Youghal that he sat upon the same bench with Swift at Kilkenny school and finished his studies at Trinity college, Dublin. In 1691, he was admitted to the Middle Temple, deserted law for literature, like many another, composed a story called Incognita, or Love and Duty Reconciled, in which Aurelian, the son of a Florentine nobleman, plays an austere part, and of which Dr. Johnson rightly said that “he would rather praise than read it,” and then, in 1693, came upon the town with The Old Bachelor.

It was Congreve’s signal good fortune to appear at the right moment. The theatre then enjoyed a larger licence and a loftier repute than ever before. The town asked no other favour of its comic writers than to be amused, and the interpreters of comedy rose to the full height of their opportunity. “No stage,” said Cibber with perfect truth, “at any one period, could show thirteen actors, standing all in equal light of excellence, in their profession”; and it was these actors who came loyally to Congreve’s aid. The incomparable Betterton, the acclaimed master of them all, and the enchanting Mrs. Bracegirdle portrayed the two chief characters. The poet’s colleagues endorsed the approval of the pit. Dryden, then in the plenitude of his power, generously hailed the rising star. He declared that he had never seen such a first play, and gave the young author the practical benefit of his advice. Congreve, after his wont, set no great value upon his achievement. “When I wrote it,” said he, in his reply to Collier, “I had little thoughts of the stage; but did it, to amuse myself, in a slow recovery from a fit of sickness.” If it amused its author, it amused, also, its spectators. Its success was triumphant, and the fortunate Congreve became famous in a day.