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WHEN AND WHERE CONGREVE WAS BORN.
of any body who ever before wrote on the subject, to prove that this country had the honor of producing her ladyshipthe Wild Irish Girl. We freely give her up to the sister island. But not so William Congreve, though we are equally indifferent to the honor in his case.
The one party, then, assert that he was born in this country, the other that he breathed his first air in the Emerald Isle. Whichever be the true state of the case, we, as Englishmen, prefer to agree in the commonly received opinion that he came into this wicked world at the village of Bardsea or Bardsey, not far from Leeds in the county of York. Let the Bardseyans immediately erect a statue to his honor, if they have been remiss enough to neglect him heretofore.
But our difficulties are not ended, for there is a similar doubt about the year of his birth. His earliest biographer assures us he was born in 1672, and others that he was baptized three years before, in 1669. Such a proceeding might well be taken as proof of his Hibernian extraction, and accordingly we find Malone supporting the earlier date, producing, of course, a certificate of baptism to support himself; and as we have a very great respect for his authority, we beg also to support Mr. Malone.
This being settled, we have to examine who were his parents; and this is satisfactorily answered by his earliest biographer, who informs us that he was of a very ancient family, being the only surviving son of William Congreve, Esq. (who was second son to Richard Congreve, Esq., of Congreve and Stretton in that county),” to wit, Yorkshire. Congreve père held a military command, which took him to Ireland soon after the dramatist's birth, and thus young William had the incomparable advantage of being educated at Kilkenny, and afterward at Trinity, Dublin, the “silent sister," as it is commonly called at our universities.
At the age of nineteen, this youth sought the classic shades of the Middle Temple, of which he was entered a student, but by the honorable society of which he was never called to the bar; but whether this was from a disinclination to study “Coke upon Lyttelton," or from an incapacity to digest the requisite number of dinners, the devouring of which qualify a young gentleman to address an enlightened British jury, we have no authority for deciding. He was certainly not the first, nor the last, young Templar who has quitted special pleading on a crusade to the heights of Parnassus, and he began early to try the nib of his pen and the color of his ink in a novel. Eheu! how many a novel has issued from the dull, dirty chambers of that same Temple! The waters of the
CONGREVE FINDS HIS VOCATION.
Thames just there seem to have been augmented by a mingled flow of sewage and Helicon, though the former is undoubtedly in the greater proportion. This novel, called "Incognita; or Love and Duty Reconciled," seems to have been—for I confess that I have not read more than a chapter of it, and hope I never may be forced to do so-great rubbish, with good store of villains and ruffians, love-sick maidens who tune their lutes—always conveniently at hand - and love-sick gallants who run their foes through the body with the greatest imaginable ease. It was, in fact, such a novel as James might have written, had he lived a century and a half ago. It brought its author but little fame, and accordingly he turned his attention to another branch of literature, and in 1693 produced “The Old Bachelor," a play of which Dryden, his friend, had so high an opinion that he called it the “best first-play he had ever read." However, before being put on the stage it was sub
” mitted to Dryden, and by him and others prepared for representation, so that it was well fathered. It was successful enough, and Congreve thus found his vocation. In his dedication—a regular piece of flummery of those days, for which authors were often well paid, either in cash or interest-he acknowledges a debt of gratitude to Lord Halifax, who appears to have taken the young man by the hand.
The young Templar could do nothing better now than write another play. Play-making was as fashionnble an amusement in those days of old Drury, the only patented theatre then, as novel-writing is in 1860; and when the young ensign, Vanbrugh, could write comedies and take the direction of a theatre, it was no derogation to the dignity of the Staffordshire squire’s grandson to do as much. Accordingly, in the following year he brought out a better comedy, “The Double Dealer," with a prologue which was spoken by the famous Anne Bracegirdle. She must have been eighty years old when Horace Walpole wrote of her to that other Horace-Mann: “Tell Mr. Chute that his friend Bracegirdle breakfasted with me this morning. As she went out and wanted her clogs, she turned to me and said: 'I remember at the playhouse they used to call, Mrs. Oldfield's chair! Mrs. Barry's clogs! and Mrs. Bracegirdle's pattens !"" These three ladies were all buried in Westminster Abbey, and, except Mrs. Cibber, the most beautiful and most sinful of them all—though they were none of them spotless—are the only actresses whose ashes and memories are hallowed by the place, for we can scarcely say that they do it much honor.
The success of “The Double Dealer" was at first moderate, although that highly respectable woman, Queen Mary, honor
VERSES TO QUEEN MARY.
ed it with her august presence, which forthwith called up verses of the old adulatory style, though with less point and neatness than those addressed to the Virgin Queen:
"Wit is again the care of majesty,” said the poet, and
"Thus flourished wit in our forefathers' age,
And thus the Roman and Athenian stage.
So fair a circle, and so bright a queen.” But this was not enough, for when Her Majesty departed for another realm in the same year, Congreve put her into a highly eulogistic pastoral, under the name of Pastora, and made some compliments on her, which were considered the finest strokes of poetry and flattery combined, that an age of addresses and eulogies could produce.
“As lofty pines o'ertop the lowly steed,
And sable clouds her chalkie cliffs adorn." This play was dedicated to Lord Halifax, of whom we have spoken, and who continued to be Congreve's patron.
The fame of the young man was now made; but in the following year it was destined to shine out more brilliantly still. Old Betterton-one of the best Hamlets that ever trod the stage, and of whom Booth declared that when he was playing the Ghost to his Hamlet, his look of surprise and horror was so natural, that Booth could not for some minutes recover himself—was now a veteran in his sixtieth year.
For forty years he had walked the boards and made a fortune for the patentees of Drury. It was very shabby of them, therefore, to give some of his best parts to younger actors. Betterton was disgusted, and determined to set up for himself, to which end he managed to procure another patent, turned the Queen's Court in Portugal Row, Lincoln's Inn, into a theatre, and opened it on the 30th of April, 1695. The building had been before used as a theatre in the days of the Merry Monarch, and Tom Killegrew had acted here some twenty years before; but it had again become a “tennis-quatre of the lesser sort, says Cibber, and the new theatre was not very grand in fabric, But Betterton drew to it all the best actors and actresses of his former company; and Mrs. Barry and Mrs. Bracegirdle reCONGREVE ABANDONS THE DRAMA.
mained true to the old man. Congreve, to his honor, espoused the same cause, and the theatre opened with his play of Love for Love,” which was more successful than either of the former. The veteran himself spoke the prologue, and fair Bracegirdle the epilogue, in which the poet thus alluded to their change of stage:
" And thus our audience, which did once resort
And some here know I have a begging face." The king himself completed the success of the opening by attending it, and the theatre in Lincoln's Inn Fields might have ruined the older house, if it had not been for the rapidity with which Vanbrugh and Cibber, who wrote for Old Drury, managed to concoct their pieces; while Congreve was a slower, though perhaps better, writer. “Love for Love” was here
“ after a favorite of Betterton's, and when in 1709, a year before his death, the company gave the old man—then in ill health, poor circumstances, and bad spirits—a benefit, he chose this play, and himself, though more than seventy, acted the part of Valentine, supported by Mrs. Bracegirdle as Angelina, and Mrs. Barry as Frail.
The young dramatist, with all his success, was not satisfied with his fame, and resolved to show the world that he had as much poetry as wit in him. This he failed to do; and, like better writers, injured his own fame, by not being contented with what he had. Congreve—the wit, the dandy, the man about town—took it into his head to write a tragedy. In 1697 "The Mourning Bride” was acted at the Tennis Court Theatre. The author was wise enough to return to his former muse, and some time after produced his best piece, so some think, “ The Way of the World,” which was also performed by Betterton's company; but, alas ! for overwriting—that cacoethes of imprudent men-it was almost hissed off the stage. Whether this was owing to a weariness of Congreve's style, or whether at the time of its first appearance Collier's attacks, of which anon, had already disgusted the public with the obscenity and immorality of this writer, I do not know; but, whatever the cause, the consequence was that Mr. William Congreve, in a fit of pique, made up his mind never to write another piece for the stage-a wise resolution, perhaps-and to turn fine gentleman instead. With the exception of composing a masque called the “ Judgment of Paris,” and an opera, “ Gemele, which was never performed, he kept this reso
lution very honestly; and so Mr. William Congreve's career as a playwright ends at the early age of thirty.
But though he abandoned the drama, he was not allowed to retire in peace. There was a certain worthy, but peppery little man, who, though a Jacobite and a clergyman, was stanch and true, and as superior in character-even, indeed, in vigor of writing—to Congreve, as Somers was to every man of his age. This was Jeremy Collier, to whom we owe it that there is any English drama fit to be acted before our sisters and wives in the present day. Jeremy, the peppery, purged the stage in a succession of Jeremiads.
Born in 1650, educated at Cambridge as a poor scholar, ordained at the age of twenty-six, presented three years later with the living of Ampton, near Bury St. Edmunds, Jeremy had two qualities to recommend him to Englishmen-respectability and pluck. In an age when the clergy were as bad as the blackest sheep in their flocks, Jeremy was distinguished by purity of life; in an age when the only safety lay in adopting the principles of the Vicar of Bray, Jeremy was a Nonjuror, and of this nothing could cure him. The Revolution of 1688 was scarcely effected, when the fiery little partisan published a pamphlet, which was rewarded by a residence of some months in Newgate, not in the capacity of chaplain. But he was scarcely let out, when again went his furious pen, and for four years he continued to assail the new government, till his hands were shackled and his mouth closed in the prison of “ The Gate-house.” Now, see the character of the man. He was liberated upon giving bail, but had no sooner reflected on this liberation than he came to the conclusion that it was wrong, by offering security, to recognize the authority of magistrates appointed by a usurper, as he held William to be, and voluntarily surrendered himself to his judges. Of course he was again committed, but this time to the King's Bench, and would doubtless in a few years have made the tour of the London prisons, if his enemies had not got tired of trying him. Once more at liberty, he passed the next three years in retirement.
'After 1693, Jeremy Collier's name was not brought before the public till 1696, when he publicly absolved Sir John Friend and Sir William Perkins, at their execution, for being concerned in a plot to assassinate King William. His “ Essays on Moral Subjects". were published in 1697; 2d vol., 1705; 3d vol., 1709. But the only way to put out a firebrand like this is to let it alone, and Jeremy, being no longer persecuted, began, at last, to think the game was grown stupid, and gave it up. He was a well-meaning man, however, and as long as he had the luxury of a grievance, would injure no one.