Congreve’s five plays, The Old Bachelor, The Double Dealer, Love for Love, The Mourning Bride, and The Way of the World, were staged from 1693 to 1700. Congreve, like Wycherley, had a short and impressive career as dramatic writers. He was almost retired from the stage at age thirty-something and lived until the end of his days on the success that accompanied his seven-year work.
Critics of the beginning of the nineteenth century were vocal in their praise of him. Charles Lamb gave him his full due, and even Macaulay could not resist his admiration. Hazlitt also paid him fine tribute for his The Way of the World.
Congreve as a traditional dramatist
Congreve, after all belonged, not to the Restoration but to the age of William and Mary and of queen Anne. Congreve was the intimate of the people like Walsh, Gay, Pope, Lady Mary Montagu etc. The life of Congreve was also characterized by prudence. There were no scandals, no drunken brawls or surgeons to heal the pox, and unwise marriage to widows. In reality, Congreve prudently remained a bachelor. The increased stress on the judgment that characterized his age also shows in his work, with more emphasis on sound sense and good nature, and discipline.
Realism and understanding of human nature of Congreve in The Way of the World
In The Way of the World Congreve, has drawn a realistic picture of the daily life of the court and courtly circles of the time. The upper class of London was a pleasure-seeking class. Their life is an empty round of frivolity and pleasure seeking. They would get up late in the morning and after dressing up would assemble in some Chocolate house to pass time in gossiping, scandal mongering or playing cards. Sexual immorality is widespread and marriage is looked down upon. Adultery is the calling, the profession of a fine gentleman. Moral conditions do not count.
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The manners and habits of this elegant society are unnatural and artificial, and it was the fashion to make a statement about elegant and sparkling things. This was The Way of the World during the era of Charles II. Congreve has a deep understanding of human character on the realistic ground. He portrayed precisely and clearly the circumstances and lifestyles in the upper-class society and their embraced habits and lifestyles. He was aware of human nature and consequently defined people in The Way of the World.
The charming wit of Congreve
Congreve’s writings are the culmination of comedy of wit; however, it is still a traditional work and hints at the age of the enlightenment. The carefree, humorous spirit of the previous Bachelor eventually gives way to the solid sense and matured thought process in The Way of the World, and, at this point, Congreve isn’t far from Addison, who balanced his wit by balancing his moral compass. Congreve was, in fact, extremely warm-hearted as well as morally upright to make an ideal True wit. His central theme is usually simple wickedness without passion or pleasure.
Congreve also possessed personal distinction of a sort that would endear him to other True wits. Steele noted that his sense of humor was always delighted and never annoyed. The brilliance of his wit is evident from his correspondence and his non-dramatic writings and in his personal letters even.
The wit that comes from Congreve is more refined and often more striking than that of Etherege or Wycherley but it is free of Etherege’s malice and Wycherley’s mordant irony. In his letter, there is no hint of the sharpness of Etherege’s wit because Congreve united in himself the virtues, he admired in a friend, a clear wit, solid judgment, and a gentle manner. His peers regarded him as a gentleman of wit and good sense.