The English dramatist William Congreve (1670-1729) was the most brilliant of the writers of the Restoration comedy of manners. He possessed the wit and charm of the heroes of his plays and was universally admired by his contemporaries.
The Restoration comedy of manners was similar to the satiric comedy of Ben Jonson in that it ridiculed violations of moral and social standards, but it centered upon the intrigues of ladies and gentlemen who lived in a highly polished, artificial society, and much of its effectiveness depended upon repartee and brisk and witty dialogue. In 1698 Jeremy Collier attacked the immorality of situation and indecency of dialogue characteristic of Restoration comedy. A change of taste followed, and William Congreve was forced to abandon the stage.
Congreve was born at Bardsey near Leeds on Jan. 24, 1670. His father was a soldier and a descendant of an old English family which owned considerable property in Staffordshire. When Congreve was 4, his father was commissioned to command the garrison at Youghal in Ireland. Later he became agent for the estates of the Earl of Cork, and ultimately the family moved to Lismore. Congreve received all of his education in Ireland. In 1681 he was sent to Kilkenny School, where he met his lifelong friend the satirist Jonathan Swift. In April 1686 Congreve followed Swift to Trinity College, Dublin. While at Trinity, Congreve seems to have written the novel Incognita; or, Love and Duty Reconciled, which was published under the assumed name of Cleophil in 1692.
After the Glorious Revolution of 1688 Congreve and his family returned to the family home in Staffordshire, where he seems to have remained for 2 years. It is most probable that it was here that he wrote his first play, The Old Bachelor, "to amuse himself in a slow recovery from a fit of sickness." In the spring of 1691 he went to London and enrolled at the Middle Temple to study law, but most of his energy was diverted to literature. Within a year he had made the friendship of John Dryden, the former poet laureate. In 1692 the two collaborated on a translation of the satires of Juvenal and Persius. That year he also contributed some verses to Charles Gildon's Miscellany.
In 1693 The Old Bachelor, which had been revised by Dryden, was produced at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane with the best actors and actresses of the time taking part in it—including Betterton, Mrs. Barry, and Mrs. Bracegirdle, who was to have the leading role in all of Congreve's plays. The play was a great success and ran for the unprecedented length of a fortnight. Congreve was so encouraged by its reception that he hastened to put forth a second play, The Double Dealer, before the end of the year. This play was more complex and better structured than the first, but it was not nearly so well received.
While Congreve was writing his third comedy, Love for Love, Betterton and other leading actors rebelled against the management of the Theatre Royal, the only theater in London at the time. They were given permission to build a new theater at Lincoln's Inn Fields, which opened with the production of Love for Love in the spring of 1695. Probably Congreve's best acting play, it met with immediate success and placed him among the leading dramatists of the day. He became one of the managers of the new theater and agreed to give the new company a play a year.
At this time he also began to write public occasional verse. He was well established in his literary career, and through Charles Montague, later Earl of Halifax, to whom he had dedicated The Double Dealer, he was appointed one of the five commissioners to license hackney coaches at a salary of £ 100 a year.
Congreve was unable to produce a play a year as promised, but early in 1697 he gave the company the tragedy The Mourning Bride. It met with instantaneous success and was the most popular English tragedy for almost a century. The following year he launched an unsuccessful counterattack on Collier's charges against the stage. But by 1700 the taste in comedy had so changed that his next play, The Way of the World, failed miserably, and he determined to leave the stage.
Although Congreve associated briefly with Sir John Vanbrugh at the Queen's Theatre and wrote librettos for two operas (The Judgment of Paris and Semele), he spent the rest of his life at leisure. In 1705 he was appointed commissioner for wines and retained this post until 1714, when he received a more lucrative appointment as secretary of Jamaica. In 1710 he published the first collected edition of his works in three volumes. He continued to write poetry and made translations of Homer, Juvenal, Horace, and Ovid. He was highly regarded as a person and colleague by Swift, Pope, Addison, and Gay. Voltaire was annoyed at Congreve's affecting the role of gentleman in preference to that of author, but Congreve's considerateness of his fellow authors was held to be remarkable.
Congreve never married, but he was intimate for many years with Mrs. Bracegirdle, the leading lady of his plays. In later years he was in constant attendance upon the Duchess of Marlborough and is believed to have been the father of the duchess's daughter, Lady Mary Godolphin. His life of pleasure was pursued at the expense of his health, and he suffered greatly from blindness and gout. In the summer of 1728 he went to Bath with the Duchess of Marlborough and John Gay to recover from a long illness. While there his carriage was overturned, and he suffered internal injuries from which he never recovered. He died on Jan. 19, 1729, and was buried in Westminster Abbey. He left the bulk of his fortune to the Duchess of Marlborough, who built a monument to his memory in the abbey.
Edmund Gosse, Life of William Congreve (1888; rev. ed. 1924), was the first full biography. The fullest and most accurate is John C. Hodges, William Congreve, the Man: A Biography from New Sources (1941). Other useful biographical accounts are D. Crane Taylor, William Congreve (1931), and Kathleen M. Lynch, A Congreve Gallery (1951). Studies of the Restoration comedy of manners include John Palmer, The Comedy of Manners (1913); Kathleen M. Lynch, The Social Mode of Restoration Comedy (1926; rev. ed. 1965); and Norman N. Holland, The First Modern Comedies: The Significance of Etherege, Wycherley, and Congreve (1959).
Gosse, Edmund, Life of William Congreve, Norwood, Pa.: Norwood Editions, 1977, c1924.
Taylor, D. Crane (Daniel Crane), William Congreve, Norwood, Pa.: Norwood Editions, 1976.
Taylor, D. Crane (Daniel Crane), William Congreve, Philadelphia: R. West, 1977.