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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

§ 2. The Old Bachelor

In his preface to the published play, Congreve pleaded in extenuation an ignorance of the town and stage. No plea was necessary; and, if his ignorance of the town were confessed, the stage had left him no lessons to learn. With him, indeed, the craft of the stage was instinctive. From the very first he translated whatever he saw and heard in terms of the theatre. The comedy, which beguiled “a slow recovery,” displays all the technical adroitness of an old hand. The dialogue is polished to an even surface; the play of wit flashes like sunlight upon water; of the writing no more need be said than that it is Congreve’s own. For the rest, The Old Bachelor wears upon it every sign of youth and inexperience. Neither of the two stories which are interlaced, none too closely, in its plot is fresh or original. Though none of Congreve’s contemporaries could have written the play, any one of them might have devised its fable. In other words, Congreve is playing supremely well the tune of the time. Heartfree and Silvia are but counters of artificial comedy. The marriage of the lady in the mask, which unties the knot of the play, is no better than an accepted convention of the stage. Bluffe, Sharper, and Wittol, who conduct the underplot, are stock characters of a still older fashion. They might have stepped out from Ben Jonson’s comedy of humours. When Bluffe says: “Sir, I honour you; I understand you love fighting, I reverence a man that loves fighting, sir, I kiss your hilts,” you recognise the authentic accent of Bobadill. Even Fondlewife, that “kind of mongrel zealot,” owes less to life than to Zeal-of-the-land Busy. In the scene where Lucy, Silvia’s maid, altercates with Setter, the pimp, the language is marked by all the bombast of youth, which Congreve presently laid aside. Says Setter: “Thou art some forsaken Abigail we have dallied with heretofore, and art come to tickle thy imagination with remembrance of iniquity past.” And Lucy replies: “No, thou pitiful flatterer of thy master’s imperfections! thou maukin, made up of the shreds and parings of his superfluous fopperies!” This is the language neither of life nor of comedy, and it was doubtless acceptable to the audience by its mere unexpectedness.

But if we put aside the youthful extravagance of some passages and the too frequent reliance upon familiar types, we may discern in The Old Bachelor the germs of Congreve’s comedy. Not merely is the style already his own; his purpose and sense of character are evident on every page. Belinda, an affected lady, who “never speaks well of Bellmour herself, nor suffers anybody else to rail at him,” might be a first, rough outline of Millamant. And Bellmour sketches, in a single speech, the whole philosophy of the poet: “Come, come,” says he, “leave business to idlers, and wisdom to fools: they have need of ’em: wit be my faculty, and pleasure my occupation, and left father Time shake his glass.” Henceforth, wit was Congreve’s faculty, pleasure his occupation; and he succeeded so well that time still shakes his glass at him in vain.