William Congreve in 1709 by Godfrey Kneller
|Born||24 January 1670|
Bardsey, West Riding of Yorkshire, England
|Died||19 January 1729 (aged 58)|
London, Great Britain
William Congreve (24 January 1670 - 19 January 1729) was an English playwright and poet of the Restoration period. He is known for his clever, satirical dialogue and influence on the comedy of manners style of that period. He was also a minor political figure in the British Whig Party.
William Congreve was born in Bardsey Grange, on an estate near Ledston, West Riding of Yorkshire. Although Samuel Johnson disputed this, it has since been confirmed by a baptism entry for "William, sonne of Mr. William Congreve, of Bardsey grange, baptised 10 February 1669 [i.e. 1670 by the modern reckoning of the new year]". His parents were Colonel William Congreve (1637-1708) and Mary Browning (1636?-1715), who moved to London in 1672, then to the Irish port of Youghal.
Congreve was educated at Kilkenny College, where he met Jonathan Swift, and at Trinity College in Dublin. He moved to London to study law at the Middle Temple, but preferred literature, drama, and the fashionable life. Congreve used the pseudonym Cleophil, under which he published Incognita: or, Love and Duty reconcil'd in 1692. This early work, written when he was about 17 years of age, gained him recognition among men of letters and an entrance into the literary world. He became a disciple of John Dryden whom he met through gatherings of literary circles held at Will's Coffeehouse in the Covent Garden district of London. Dryden supported him throughout his life, often composing complimentary introductions for his publications.
William Congreve shaped the English comedy of manners through his use of satire and well-written dialogue. Congreve achieved fame in 1693 when he wrote some of the most popular English plays of the Restoration period. This period was distinguished by the fact that female roles were beginning to be played predominantly by women, and was evident in Congreve's work. One of Congreve's favorite actresses was Mrs. Anne Bracegirdle, who performed many of the female lead roles in his plays.
His first play The Old Bachelor, written to amuse himself while convalescing, was produced at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in 1693. It was recognized as a success, and ran for a two-week period when it opened. Congreve's mentor John Dryden gave the production rave reviews and proclaimed it to be a brilliant first piece. The second play to be produced was called The Double-Dealer which was not nearly as successful as the first production. By the age of thirty, he had written four comedies, including Love for Love (premiered 30 April 1695) staged at the Lincoln's Inn Theatre, which was nearly as well received as his first major success, and The Way of the World (premiered March 1700). This play was a failure at the time of production but is seen as one of his masterpieces today, and is still revived. He wrote one tragedy, The Mourning Bride (1697) which was extremely popular at the time of creation but is now one of his least regarded dramas. After the production of Love for Love, Congreve became one of the managers for the Lincoln's Inn Fields in 1695. During that time, he wrote public occasional verse. As a result of his success and literary merit, he was awarded one of the five positions of commissioner for licensing hackney coaches.
Congreve's career as a playwright was successful but brief. He only wrote five plays, authored from 1693 to 1700, in total. This was partly in response to changes in taste, as the public turned away from the sort of high-brow sexual comedy of manners in which he specialized. Congreve may have been forced off the stage due to growing concerns about the morality of his theatrical comedies. He reportedly was particularly stung by a critique written by Jeremy Collier (A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage), to the point that he wrote a long reply, "Amendments of Mr. Collier's False and Imperfect Citations." Although no longer on the stage, Congreve continued his literary art. He wrote the librettos for two operas that were being created at the time, and he translated the works of Molière.
As a member of the Whig Kit-Kat Club, Congreve's career shifted to the political sector, and even a political appointment in Jamaica in 1714 by George I. Congreve continued to write, although his style changed greatly. During his time in Jamaica, he wrote poetry instead of full length dramatic productions, and translated the works of Homer, Juvenal, Ovid, and Horace.
Congreve withdrew from the theatre and lived the rest of his life on residuals from his early work, the royalties received when his plays were produced, as well as his private income. His output from 1700 was restricted to the occasional poem and some translation (notably Molière's Monsieur de Pourceaugnac). Congreve never married; in his own era and through subsequent generations, he was famous for his friendships with prominent actresses and noblewomen for whom he wrote major parts in all his plays.These women included Anne Bracegirdle and Henrietta Godolphin, 2nd Duchess of Marlborough, daughter of the famous general, John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough. Congreve and Henrietta most probably met some time before 1703 and the duchess subsequently had a daughter, Mary (1723-1764), who was believed to be his child. Upon his death, he left his entire fortune to the Duchess of Marlborough.
As early as 1710, Congreve suffered both from gout and from cataracts on his eyes. He was involved in a carriage accident in late September 1728 from which he never recovered (having probably received an internal injury); he died in London in January 1729, and was buried in Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey.
Congreve coined another famous phrase in Love for Love (1695):