There was another medium that between 1660 and 1700 formed, deformed, or merely expressed, the soul of soulless London. Charles II, having relished the Parisian drama, licensed two theaters: one for the King’s Company in Drury Lane, one for the Duke of York’s Company in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. In 1705 the Queen’s Theatre opened in Haymarket, but she rarely attended. Usually, under Charles II, two theaters sufficed. The Puritans still boycotted the drama, and in any case the general public was not admitted to the theaters between 1660 and 1700. 4 The audience came mostly from the roisterers of the court, the lower fringes of the “quality,” and the “men about town.” “A grave lawyer,” said the grave Dr. Johnson, “would have debased his dignity, and a young lawyer would have impaired his credit, by appearing in those mansions of dissolute licentiousness.” 5 Women were but a small part of the audience, and those that came concealed their identity behind a mask. 6 Performances began at three in the afternoon, but as street lighting improved (c. 1690) the hour was deferred to 6 P.M. Admission to the boxes cost four shillings, to the pit two and a half, to the gallery one. Stage machinery and scenic changes were much more elaborate than in Elizabethan days, though a bedroom and its approaches might have sufficed for most of the Restoration comedies. Actresses replaced boys in playing female parts. Most of the actresses were also mistresses; so Margaret Hughes, who played Desdemona in the first known appearance of a woman on the English stage (December 8, 1660), was the mistress of Prince Rupert; 7 and it was at a performance of Dryden’s Tyrannic Love that Charles II began to yearn for Nell Gwyn, who played Valeria. 8 The character of the audience, the reaction against Puritanism, the morals of the court, the memory and revival of Elizabethan and Jacobean plays (especially those of Ben Jonson), and the influence of the French theater and royalist emigrés, all came together to form the Restoration drama.
In the tragic drama of the Restoration the great name is Dryden. We put him aside for the moment, and open Thomas Otway’s Venice Preserved (1682), which outlived all of Dryden’s plays, and was acted as late as 1904. It is a love story grafted upon the conspiracy of Count de Osuna’s friends to overthrow the Venetian Senate in 1616. Its early success was due in part to its caricature of the first Earl of Shaftesbury (Charles II’s foe and Locke’s friend) in the character of Antonio, who loves to be beaten by his bawd; partly to the resemblance of the conspiracy to the recent Popish Plot; partly to the acting of Thomas Betterton and Mrs. Elizabeth Barry. But the play now stands on its own feet. The comic scenes are absurd and offensive, and the finale scatters death with operatic unanimity; but the plot is well woven, the characters are distinctively drawn, the action is intensely dramatic, and the blank verse rivals anything in Elizabethan drama barring Marlowe and Shakespeare. Otway fell in love with Mrs. Barry, who preferred to amuse the Earl of Rochester. After writing some further successes the poet produced a series of failures, drifted into poverty, and (in one account) died of starvation. 9
It is for its comedies that the Restoration drama is remembered. Their humor and wit, their bawdy dialogue and bedroom escapades, and their value as a mirror of one class in one generation, have given them a hardy if stealthy popularity which they scarcely deserve. Their range is narrow as compared with the Elizabethan comedies, or Molière’s; they describe not life, but the manners of town idlers and court profligates; they ignore the countryside except as a butt of ridicule, or as a Siberia to which husbands banish prying wives. Some English dramatists saw Molière play or played in Paris; some of them borrowed his characters or plots; but none rose to his flair for discussing basic ideas. The one basic idea in these comedies is that adultery is the main purpose and most heroic business of life. Their ideal man is described in Dryden’s Mock Astrologer as “a gentleman, a man about town, one that wears good clothes, eats, drinks, and wenches sufficiently.” A character in Farquhar’s Beaux’ Stratagem says, as one gentleman to another: “I love a fine horse, but let another keep it; and just so I love a fine woman” 10—which means not that he will not covet his neighbor’s wife, but that he proposes to enjoy her favors while letting her husband support her. In Congreve’s Way of the Worldthe admired Mirabell says to his friend’s wife: “You should have just so much disgust for your husband as may be sufficient to make you relish your lover.” 11 Rarely, in these plays, does love rise above its physical basis of mutual itching for mutual titillation. We hunger, as we read them, for some ray of nobility, but we are offered, as an ideal, the ethics of the stews.
William Wycherley set the tone and pace. His father was a royalist of ancient family and large estate, who, when the Puritans came to power, sent the boy to France for education, resolved that he should never be a Puritan. William never was, but he shocked his family by becoming a Catholic. Restored to England and soon to Protestantism, he studied at Oxford, left without a degree, took to writing plays. At thirty-two he struck gold with Love in a Wood (1671), which he dedicated to Lady Castlemaine. He was received at court by the amiable King, who did not complain when he found that Wycherley, as well as Churchill, was supplementing him in Milady’s love. 12
He fought in the Dutch War of 1672 with the bravery expected of a gentleman, returned to England whole, and scored another success with The Country Wife (1673). The prologue invited the audience, if it disliked the play, to enter the dressing room of the actors at the close, where
We patiently . . . give up to you
Our poets, virgins, nay, our mistresses too.
Mr. Pinchwife has brought his spouse to London for a week, and guards her so thoroughly that she is seduced under his nose. A Mr. Horner, returning from France and desiring unhindered access to wives, spreads the rumor that he is a eunuch. Pinchwife concludes that to such an incompetent he may safely open his home. Soon he finds his wife writing a love letter to the maimed gallant. He forces her to write another, which calls Horner the vilest names; while his back is turned she substitutes her first letter for the angry one; the husband, proud in domination, delivers the original missive to Horner. Later, suspecting that Horner is an abler man than rumor described him, he thinks to keep him occupied by agreeing to take his sister Alithea to him. The wife disguises herself as Alithea, and is delivered by her husband to her paramour. The play ends with a “Dance of the Cuckolds,” Horner has the last triumphant word, and an epilogue, spoken by an actress, chides the men in the audience for insufficient virility:
And men may still believe you vigorous,
But then we women—there’s no cozening us. 13
Wycherley had taken much of The Country Wife from Molière’s École des maris and École des femmes. His next comedy, The Plain Dealer (1674), transformed the Alceste of Molière’s Misanthrope into Captain Manly, whose notion of plain dealing is to berate all persons and all things with billingsgate. The surprising thing is that London, and even some surburbanites, liked to have life described as a round of carnal seeking seasoned with profanity. In a bookstore at Tunbridge Wells Wycherley had the ecstasy of hearing a lady ask for his recently published Plain Dealer. She was the Countess of Drogheda, a rich widow. He courted her, married her, and found that she kept him under surveillance with more than Pinchwife’s continuity and vision. Suddenly she died, and he thought himself now possessed of her fortune; but the legacy was so cobwebbed with lawsuits that he could not use any of it. Unable to pay the debts that he had confidently contracted, he was sent to jail, where he languished for seven years, until James II, before or after Wycherley’s reconversion to Catholicism, paid his debts and pensioned him. He lived to a bad old age, pursuing women beyond his capacity, and writing verses that his young friend Pope struggled to turn into poetry. At seventy-five the old rake married a young woman. Ten days later he died (January 1, 1716).
Sir John Vanbrugh was the most amiable of these adulterographers. He was John Bull incarnate, rough, jolly, good-natured, loving the food and drink of England; yet his grandfather was Gillis van Brugg, a Fleming from Ghent, who came to Britain in the reign of James I. John was promising enough to be sent to Paris at nineteen to study art. Returning at twenty-one, he joined the army, was arrested at Calais as a British spy, served a term in the Bastille, and there wrote the first draft of The Provoked Wife, Released, he turned his versatile hand to playwriting. In six weeks, he tells us, he conceived, wrote, and staged The Relapse (1696), with its hilarious satires of the London fop as Lord Foppington, of the country squire as Sir Tunbelly Clumsey, and the ruttish Miss Hoyden. Sir Tunbelly has kept her under watch and guard since puberty, and rejoices in her innocence: “Poor girl, she’ll be scared out of her wits on her wedding night, for, honestly speaking, she does not know a man from a woman but by his beard and his breeches.” 14But Miss Hoyden describes herself otherwise: “It’s well I have a husband a-coming, or ecod, I’d marry the baker, I would so! Nobody can knock at the gate but presently I must be locked up; and here’s the young greyhound bitch can run loose about the house all day long, she can.” When Tom Fashion asks for her hand, and her father wants them to wait a week, she protests: “A week!—why, I shall be an old woman by that time!” 15
This Relapse succeeded so well that Vanbrugh hurried to complete The Provoked Wife (1697). This was one of the greatest “hits” of the time; half a century later David Garrick was still amusing London with his riotous playing of Sir John Brute, the most memorable character in all the dramatis personae of the Restoration. Sir John is a caricature of the more porcine aspects of the English squire—drinking, boasting, blustering, bullying, cursing, and complaining that “ ‘tis a damned atheistical age.” He opens the play with his opinion of marriage:
What cloying meat is love, when matrimony is the sauce to it! Two years’ marriage has debauched my five senses. Everything I see, everything I hear, everything I feel, everything I smell, and everything I taste, methinks, has wife in’t: No boy was ever so weary of his tutor, no girl of her bib, no nun of doing penance, or old maid of being chaste, as I am of being married.
His wife, knowing his views, thinks to tame him with horns:
LADY BRUTE. He has used me so barbarously of late that I could almost resolve to play the downright wife, and cuckold him. . . .
BELINDA. But, you know, we must return good for evil.
LAPY BRUTE. That may be a mistake in the translation. 16
Her neighbor Lady Fanciful, similarly inclined, discusses her qualms with her French maid, who answers in French, here translated:
LADY F. My reputation, mademoiselle, my reputation!
MADEMOISELLE. Madame, when one has once lost it, one is no longer embarrassed by it.
LADY F. Fie! mademoiselle, fie! Reputation is a jewel.
MADEMOISELLE. Which costs much, madame.
LADY F. Why, sure, you would not sacrifice your honor to your pleasure?
MADEMOISELLE. I am a philosopher. . . .
LADY F. Honor is against it [a rendezvous].
MADEMOISELLE. Pleasure is for it. . . .
LADY F. But when reason corrects nature, mademoiselle—
MADEMOISELLE. Reason is then very insolent, since nature is reason’s older sister.
LADY F. Do you then prefer your nature to your reason?
MADEMOISELLE. Yes, certainly.
LADY F. Why?
MADEMOISELLE. Because my nature make me very merry, my reason make me mad. 17
It was probably this play that angered Jeremy Collier into publishing, in the year following its production, a powerful attack upon the Restoration drama, especially upon Vanbrugh. Collier was an Anglican clergyman of some learning and dogmatic courage. Having sworn allegiance to James II in 1685, he refused to take the oath of loyalty to William and Mary in 1689. He denounced the Glorious Revolution, even to inciting revolt. He was arrested, and was with difficulty persuaded to let his friends bail him out. He gave public absolution to two men about to be hanged for conspiring against what he considered a usurping government. Denounced by his bishop and indicted by the Attorney General, he refused to appear before a court. He was outlawed, and lived under the ban till his death; but the government respected his integrity, and took no further steps against him. William III expressed warm approval of Collier’s historic blast.
It was called A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage. There was much nonsense in it, as in most books; the passionate pastor denounced in the English drama many faults that now seem to us trivial or no faults at all; he protested against any irreverent reference to reverends, and generously spread this umbrella of ineffability over pagan prophets, Catholic priests, and Dissenting divines. He condemned so many dramatists, from Aeschylus to Shakespeare to Congreve and Dryden, that all the indicted might feel acquitted by their company. He weakened his case by arguing that the public stage should not deal with crime or immorality at all. But he struck some healthy blows, for shining targets faced him everywhere. He mourned the effect, upon audiences, of the admiration which several Restoration dramatists had shown for the addicts of adultery. For a year the book was the talk of London. The playwrights offered diverse defenses. Vanbrugh turned from drama to architecture, labored for a decade over Blenheim Palace, then built Castle Howard in fine Palladian style (1714). Dryden admitted his sins and expressed repentance. Congreve denied his guilt, but reformed his art.
William Congreve brought the Restoration drama to its apex and conclusion. He was born near Leeds (1670) of a family whose antiquity remained through all his triumphs his dearest pride. His father was given command of an English garrison in Ireland, so William was educated at Kilkenny School, where he sat on the same bench as Jonathan Swift; then at Trinity College, Dublin; then at Middle Temple, London. The virus of literary ambition entered his blood from an environment in which even dukes wrote books. In his first year as a law student he wrote Incognita (1692), which Edmund Gosse praised for its “light raillery and humour” and as “the earliest novel [of manners?] in English,” 18 but of which Samuel Johnson said, “I would rather praise than read it.” 19Fame came to Congreve at a bound with his first comedy, The Old Bachelor (1693). Dryden, then the acknowledged head of English letters, vowed that he had never seen so good a first play. Not sure that a gentleman should write for the theater, Congreve excused himself as having written it “to amuse myself in a slow recovery from a fit of sickness”; whereupon Collier remarked: “What his disease was, I am not to inquire; but it must be a very ill one to be worse than the remedy.” 20 Halifax agreed with Dryden; he appointed Congreve to two government posts, which brought sufficient income to enable him to remain a gentleman while being a dramatist.
His next play, The Double Dealer (1694), had a poor reception, but Dryden’s encomium, equating Congreve with Shakespeare, held up the young author’s spirit; and in 1695, aged twenty-five, he returned to the boards with Love for Love, whose success exceeded any in living memory. Collier denounced the play as giving aid and comfort to lechers. Congreve’s reply fell so flat that for three years he kept from the theater. When he returned to it with The Way of the World (1700) he had profited from the castigation, and showed that wit did not depend upon inverting the Decalogue. This play, which the hyperbolic Swinburne called “the unequalled and unapproached masterpiece of English comedy,” 21 has some of the faults, but none of the vices, of the Restoration drama. When merely read it may tire us with its bantering wit, reminding us of the silly word play in Shakespeare’s early efforts; acted and spoken (as by Betterton and Mrs. Bracegirdle in its première), it would probably delight us with its sparkle. (Says Witwoud, “I know a lady that loves talking so incessantly, she won’t give an echo fair play.” 22) The plot is too complicated; we grudge the time required to understand the schemes and quarrels of frivolous nonentities; and the denouement is unmitigated absurdity. But there is here a refinement of language and humor, a subtlety (though never a profundity) of thought, that can please the unhurried mind; no rough burlesque as in Vanbrugh, but such polite and graceful persiflage as had trickled down from Versailles to Whitehall and the Restoration court. And there is characterization. The hero, Mirabell, is an unattractive but lifelike legacyhunter; it is remarkable that he seeks to marry Millamant, instead of seducing her—but she had a fortune worth a dozen adulteries. She is Congreve’s liveliest creation, the flirt who wants a thousand lovers and demands a lifetime of adoration for a decade of charms. She consents to marry, but on conditions:
MILLAMANT. . . . Positively, Mirabell, I’ll lie abed in a morning as long as I please. . . .
MIRABELL. Have you any more conditions to offer? . . .
MILLAMANT. Trifles!—As liberty to . . . come to dinner when I please, dine in my dressing-room alone when I’m out of humour, without giving a reason. To have my closet inviolate; to be sole empress of my tea-table, which you must never presume to approach without first asking leave. And lastly, wherever I am, you shall always knock at the door before you come in. These articles subscribed, if I continue to endure you a little longer, I may by degrees dwindle into a wife.
MIRABELL. . . . Have I liberty to offer conditions . . . ?
MILLAMANT. . . . Propose your utmost . . .
MIRABELL. Item, I article that you continue to like your own face as long as I shall; and while it passes current with me, that you endeavour not to new-coin it. . . . Item, when you shall be breeding—
MILLAMANT. Ah! name it not.
MIRABELL. Which may be presumed, with a blessing on our endeavours—
MILLAMANT. Odious endeavours!
MIRABELL. I denounce against all straight lacing, squeezing for-ashape, till you mould my boy’s head like a sugar-loaf . . . 23
and so on; it is pleasant trifling and good satire, safely skimming the surface of life.
Congreve himself sampled many surfaces, preferring texture to substance and variety to unity. He never married, but serviced a succession of actresses. We hear of no children troubling or delighting him. He was a pleasant companion in coffeehouses and clubs, and was received into the best families. He ate well, and had his feet regularly blistered and anointed for the gout. When Voltaire visited him in 1726 Congreve deprecated the Frenchman’s praise of his plays, brushed them aside as forgotten trifles, and asked Voltaire to consider him merely as a gentleman. “If you had been merely a gentleman,” said Voltaire (according to Voltaire), “I should not have come to see you.” 24
In 1728, on a journey to take the waters at Bath, Congreve’s carriage overturned, and he sustained internal injuries from which he died (January 19, 1729). He was buried in Westminster Abbey. His will left two hundred pounds to Mrs. Bracegirdle, who was living out her old age in poverty; the bulk of the estate, some ten thousand pounds, was bequeathed to the immensely wealthy second Duchess of Marlborough, his favorite hostess. She turned the sum into a necklace of pearls. She placed permanently, in his usual place at her table, a wax and ivory replica of the poet, and had its feet regularly blistered and anointed for the gout. 25
Long before Congreve’s death the English theater had begun to cleanse itself. William III ordered the Master of the Revels to exercise with greater severity his power to license or prohibit plays, and a revulsion of public opinion supported this censorship. A law of Queen Anne forbade the wearing of masks in the theater, and women, denied this disguise, boycotted plays that were not of assured decency. 26 Swift agreed with the bishops in condemning the London stage as a blot upon the English character. Steele offered hisConscious Lovers (1722) as moral drama, and Addison rivaled the dignity of French tragedy in his Cato (1713). An earlier sign of the change was the tone of Dryden’s answer to Collier. He felt that the divine had often condemned the dramatists unfairly, and had “in many places . . . interpreted my words into blasphemy and bawdry, of which they were not guilty.” But he added:
I shall say the less of Mr. Collier, because in many things he has taxed me justly, and I have pleaded guilty to all thoughts and expressions of mine which can be truly argued of obscenity, profaneness, or immorality, and retract them. If he be my enemy, let him triumph; if he be my friend, as I have given him no personal occasion to be otherwise, he will be glad of my repentance. 27