Home  »  Volume VIII: English THE AGE OF DRYDEN  »  § 3. The Double-Dealer

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

VI. The Restoration Drama

§ 3. The Double-Dealer

In the same year (1693), The Double-Dealer was played at Drury lane, and Congreve’s reputation, great already, was vastly enhanced. In character, style and construction, The Double-Dealer is far above its predecessor. The one fault commonly imputed to it is that it has too grave a motive for a comedy of manners. Lady Touchwood is in love with Millefont, to whom Cynthia is promised. Maskwell, lady Touchwood’s gallant, knows her secret, and attempts to use it for Millefont’s discomfiture and his own conquest of Cynthia. Such is the simple story, told with a simplicity of purpose in which Congreve himself took a proper pride.

  • “The mechanical part of it,” said he, in the dedication addressed to Charles Montague, “is regular.… I designed the moral first, and to that moral I invented the fable, and do not know that I have borrowed one part of it anywhere. I made the plot as strong as I could, because it is single, because I would avoid confusion, and was resolved to preserve the three unities of the drama.”
  • That he succeeded in his design none will deny. The Double-Dealer is sternly classical in construction, and moves, from the rise of the curtain in the first act to the fall of the curtain in the fifth, to a settled end and with a settled purpose. The machinery of the play is still conventional. A wrong letter given to Sir Paul by lady Plyant, the villain surprised from behind a screen—these are the keys which unlock the plot. We might forget their simple artifice, were it not for the conscious villainy of Maskwell. That surpasses pretence and belief. Maskwell, indeed, is the familiar villain of melodrama. He is the ancestor in a direct line of Blifil and Joseph Surface, “a sedate, a thinking villain,” as lady Touchwood calls him, “whose black blood runs temperately bad.” The violence of his scenes with this lady exceeds the proper limit of comedy, and his discovery by lord Touchwood verges upon the tragic:
  • “Astonishment,” he exclaims, “binds up my rage! Villainy upon villainy! Heavens what a long track of dark deceit has this discovered! I am confounded when I look back, and want a clue to guide me through the various mazes of unheard-of treachery. My wife! damnation! my hell!”
  • But there is no anticlimax. Congreve, with characteristic restraint, permits Maskwell after his unmasking to say no word.

    Indeed, were it not for Maskwell’s inveterate habit of soliloquy, he might trick us almost as easily as he tricks Millefont.

  • “Why let me see,” he murmurs, “I have the same force, the same words and accents, when I speak what I do think, and when I speak what I do not think—the very same—and dear dissimulation is the only art not to be known from nature.”
  • And, again, “I will deceive ’em all and yet secure myself: ’t was a lucky thought! Well, this double-dealing is a jewel.” Here Congreve resolutely parts company with nature, and relies upon an artifice of the stage, an artifice which he defends with considerable ingenuity. “A man in a soliloquy,” he argues, “is only thinking, and thinking such matter as were inexcusable folly in him to speak.” In other words,
  • because we are concealed spectators of the plot in agitation, and the poet finds it necessary to let us know the whole mystery of his contrivance, he is willing to inform us of this person’s thoughts; and to that end is forced to make use of the expedient of speech, no other better way yet being invented for the communication of thought.
  • That is as good a defence of soliloquy as may be made, and, employed by Congreve, soliloquy had this advantage: it gave the author an opportunity, which he was quick to seize, of Sophoclean irony. None of the personages of the drama, except lady Touchwood, knows what is evident to the audience, that Maskwell is a villain. When Millefont says, “Maskwell, welcome! thy presence is a view of land appearing to my shipwrecked hopes,” the sense of irony is complete, and Congreve plays upon this note with the highest skill.

    But it is not for its fable or for its Sophoclean irony that The Double-Dealer is chiefly admirable. Rather, we wonder to-day, as the town wondered then, at its well drawn characters and its scenes of brilliant comedy. Lord and lady Froth, who might have been inspired by the duke and duchess of Newcastle, are masterpieces of witty invention. The scene is never dull when her ladyship, a true précieuse, counters the gallantry and bel air of Mr. Brisk, the most highly finished of coxcombs, with her coquettish pedantry. And is not Sir Paul Plyant, a kind of Fondlewife in a higher sphere, an excellent creature? And is not the vanity of his lady touched with a light and vivid hand? When she accepts Millefont’s addresses to Cynthia as an assault upon her own honour, bidding him “not to hope, and not to despair neither,” the true spirit of comedy breathes upon us. That the play was ill-received, until it won the approval of the queen, is surprising. Dryden, the omnipotent dispenser of reputations, had no doubt of its merit. He wrote such a set of commendatory verses as might have put a seal upon the highest fame. He pictured himself as worn with cares and age, “unprofitably kept at Heaven’s expense,” and living “a rent-charge on his providence.” He implored Congreve to be kind to his remains, to defend his departed friend, and “to shade those laurels, which descend to him.” Meanwhile, he lavished the most generous praises upon him whom he looked upon as his inevitable successor:

  • In easy dialogue is Fletcher’s praise;
  • He moved the mind, but had not power to raise.
  • Great Jonson did by strength of judgment please;
  • Yet doubling Fletcher’s force, he wants his ease.
  • In differing talents both adorned their age;
  • One for the study, t’other for the stage.
  • But both to Congreve justly shall submit,
  • One matched in judgment, both o’ermatched in wit.
  • ……
  • This is your portion, this your native store;
  • Heaven, that but once was prodigal before,
  • To Shakespeare gave as much; she could not give him more.
  • This, of course, is the hyperbole of friendship. Congreve was supreme in his own realm; it was not for him to match his prowess against greater monarchs.