« ՆախորդըՇարունակել »
Of any moving creature? And sure I feel
Death's Jest Book, act iii., sc. 3.
The writer of these lines might have been a great tragic poet, if he could have achieved the construction of a coherent plot. Congreve might have been a greater, but for the conventions of an age that required his dramatis personae to be remote by a thousand years or thousand miles.
The dazzle of Congreve's wit has perhaps blinded critics to his more serious powers, and it may be that its brilliancy has been even exaggerated. What is chiefly admirable is perhaps not so much the occasional flashes and strokes, felicitous as they are, as the unflagging verve, energy, and gaiety. His plays are not of the kind that keep the audience in a roar from first to last, but they never cease to stimulate the spirits; the fire does not always blaze, but it never burns low: there is not a dull scene, or a tiresome or useless character. The general tone of good breeding, if it does not purify the pervading atmosphere of profligacy, at any rate prevents it from becoming offensive. In verbal impropriety and double entendre Congreve is even worse than Wycherley, but his plays are far from giving the same impression of a thoroughly obnoxious state of society. It is true that the pursuit of women seems the sole business of the men, and the pursuit of men the business of half the women; but the universal passion is so pleasantly variegated with extraneous humours and oddities that it is far from producing the monotony of a modern French novel. Thus, there is an amourette between Brisk and Lady Froth in The Double Dealer, but the pair are æsthetic as well as amorous, and the blue-stocking is more conspicuous than the unfaithful wife. The scene where Brisk corrects Lady Froth's poetry, imitated but not servilely copied from one in Les Femmes Savantes, is a good specimen of the humour and sparkle of Congreve's dialogue :
‘Lady Froth. Then you think that episode between Susan, the dairy-maid, and our coachman, is not amiss; you know I may suppose the dairy in town as well as in the country.
Brisk. Incomparable, let me perish !—But then being an heroic
poem, had not you better call him a charioteer? charioteer sounds great; besides, your ladyship's coachman having a red face, and you comparing him to the sun; and you know the sun is called heaven's charioteer.
Lady Froth. Oh, infinitely better! I am extremely beholden to you for the hint; stay, we'll read over those half a score lines again. [Pulls out a paper.] Let me see here, you know what goes before,—the comparison, you know.
[Reads. For as the sun shines every day,
So, of our coachman I may sayBrisk. I'm afraid that simile won't do in wet weather ;because you say the sun shines every day.
Lady Froth. No, for the sun it won't, but it will do for the coachman; for you know there's more occasion for a coach in wet weather.
Brisk. Right, right, that saves all.
Lady Froth. Then, I don't say the sun shines all the day, but that he peeps now and then; yet he does shine all the day too, you know, though we don't see him.
Brisk. Right, but the vulgar will never comprehend that.
For as the sun shines every day,
He shows his drunken fiery face,
Just as the sun does, more or less.
And when at night his labour's done,
Then too, like heaven's charioteer the sun-
Into the dairy he descends,
His fare is paid him, and he sets in milk.
Brisk. Incomparably well and proper, egad !—But I have one exception to make:-don't you think bilk (I know it's good rhyme), but don't you think bilk and fare too like a hackneycoachman ?
Lady Froth. I swear and vow, I am afraid so.—And yet our Jehu was a hackney-coachman when my lord took him.
Brisk. Was he? I'm answered, if Jehu was a hackneycoachman.—You may put that in the marginal notes though, to prevent criticism.—Only mark it with a small asterism, and say, Jehu was formerly a hackney-coachman.
Lady Froth. I will ; you'd oblige me extremely to write notes to the whole poem.
Brisk. With all my heart and soul, and proud of the vast honour, let me perish!'
Congreve excels not only in dialogue, but in painting a character by a single speech. How thoroughly we realize the inward and outward man of old Foresight the omenmonger, from a single passage in Love for Love :
Nurse. Pray heaven send your worship good luck! marry
and amen with all my heart; for you have put on one stocking with the wrong side outward.
Fore. Ha! hm? faith and troth I'm glad of it. And so I have; that may be good luck in troth, in troth it may, very good luck:
nay I have had some omens : I got out of bed backwards too this morning, without premeditation; pretty good that too, but then I stumbled coming down stairs, and met a weasel ; bad omens these, some bad, some good, our lives are chequered ; mirth and sorrow, want and plenty, night and day, make up our time. But in troth I am pleased at my stocking; very well pleased at my stocking.'
Or Mr. Bluffe, the miles gloriosus of The Old Bachelor :
• You must know, sir, I was resident in Flanders the last campaign, had a small part there, but no matter for that. Perhaps, sir, there was scarce anything of moment done but an humble servant of yours that shall be nameless, was an eye-witness of I won't say had the greatest share in it; though I might say that too, since I name nobody, you know. Well, Mr. Sharper, would you think it ? in all this time this rascally gazette writer never so much as once mentioned me—not once, by the wars !—took no more notice than as if Nol. Bluffe had not been in the land of the living !
Bluffe. Ay, ay, no matter.—You see, Mr. Sharper, that after all I am content to retire-live a private person-Scipio and others have done it.'
Vanbrugh has less individuality than his eminent contemporaries, and has consequently produced less impression than they upon the public mind, has added fewer typical characters to comedy, and stands some steps nigher to oblivion. Yet he is their equal in vis comica, and their superior in stage workmanship. He is no writer at all,'
• , says Hazlitt, 'as to mere authorship; but he makes up for it by, a prodigious fund of comic invention and ludicrous description, bordering upon caricature. He has none of Congreve's graceful refinement, and as little of Wycherley's serious manner and studious insight into the springs of character; but his exhibition of it in dramatic contrast and unlooked-for situations, where the different parties play upon one another's failings, and into one another's hands, keeping up the jest like a game of battledore and shuttlecock, and urging it to the utmost verge of breathless extravagance, in the mere eagerness of the fray, is beyond that of
any other of our writers.' In Hazlitt's opinion, Vanbrugh did not bestow much pains upon the construction of his pieces, and their excellent dramatic effect is mainly to be attributed to his promptness in seizing upon the hints for powerful situations which continually arose as he went along. He has nothing of the passion which sometimes raises Congreve so near to the confines of tragedy, nor has he the airy gaiety of Farquhar; but his animal spirits are abundant and unforced, and his humour has a true Flemish exuberance. His characters are always lively and well discriminated, but the only type he can be said to have created is the model fop, Lord Foppington in The Relapse, and even he is partly borrowed from Etheredge's Sir Fopling Flutter. He is nevertheless a most perfect portrait, and gives real literary distinction to what would otherwise have been a mere comedy of intrigue. The powerful though disagreeable character of Sir John Brute lends force to The Provoked Wife; and the unfinished Journey to London is grounded on an idea which might have been very fruitful, the country senator who has gone into Parliament as a speculation, but who, upon taking up
his residence in London, finds that he loses more by the extravagance of his wife than he can gain by the prostitution of his vote. Vanbrugh's other plays are mere comedies of intrigue, written without moral or immoral purpose for the sake of amusement, of which they are abundantly prolific for readers not repelled by a disregard of virtue so open and unblushing that, being too gay for cynicism, it almost seems innocence. The scene between Flippanta and her pupil in The Confederacy is an