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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

§ 7. Congreve and the Comedy of Manners

Congreve, then, carried to its highest perfection what is known as the artificial comedy or comedy of manners. He regarded himself as the legitimate heir of Terence and Menander, and claimed with perfect justice to paint the world in which he lived. Something, of course, he owed to his predecessors, and to the noble traditions of the English stage. Shakespeare, as has been hinted, was ever an example to him, and at the beginning of his career he worked under the domination of Ben Jonson. Of those nearer to his own time, he was most deeply indebted to the light-hearted Etherege. But, being himself a true master of comedy, he took for his material the life about him, a life which still reflected the gaiety of king Charles’s court. The thirty years which had passed since the restoration, when Congreve began to write, had not availed to darken “the gala day of wit and pleasure.” A passage, in which he describes the composition of The Way of the World, reveals in a flash his aim and ambition.

  • “If it has happened,” he writes in a dedication addressed to Ralph earl Montague, “in any part of this comedy, that I have gained a turn of style or expression more correct, or at least more corrigible, than in those that I have formerly written, I must with equal pride and gratitude ascribe it to the honour of your Lordship’s admitting me into your conversation, and that of a society where everybody else was so well worthy of you, in your retirement last summer from the town.”
  • When due allowance is made for the terms of a dedication, in which accuracy is asked of no man, it is easy to believe that, in lord Montague’s country house, he found that wit and sparkle of life which he transferred to his scene, “as upon a canvas of Watteau”—a Watteau, whose gaiety and elegance are tempered by malice.

    But the life which he painted was not the life of common day. It was a life of pleasure and gallantry, which had a code and speech of its own. No man ever selected from the vast world of experience what served his purpose more rigorously than Congreve. He never cared for seeing things that forced him to entertain low thoughts of his nature. “I don’t know how it is with others,” said he, “but I confess freely to you, I could never look long upon a monkey, without mortifying reflections.” Nor was he one who saw life whole. His sympathy was for “persons of quality,” and he lived in a world situate on the confines of cynicism and merriment. Had he ever descended to realism his comedies might have been open to reproach. But the scene, in which his Plyants and Froths, his Mirabells and Millefonts, his Millamants and Angelicas, his Brisks and Tattles, play their parts, is, like their names, fantastic enough half to justify the famous paradox of Charles Lamb. Even while we admit that Congreve painted what he chose to see, we may yet acknowledge that the persons of his drama “have got out of Christendom into the land of—what shall I call it?—of cuckoldry—the Utopia of gallantry, whose pleasure is duty, and the manners perfect freedom.”