|“Heav’n has no rage, like love to hatred turn’d, nor Hell a fury like a woman scorn’d”
The Mourning Bride, 1697
By the time he was 30, the Tennessee Williams of his time welcomed being washed out with the 17th century. There’s no other way to describe the career path abandoned by the English dramatist, William Congreve. His early retirement owed to the nuanced difference between dramatists and playwrights. An online search for “dramatist” yields a multitude of references to it being a mere synonym of “playwright,” as in any old person who writes plays. I prefer American playwright and Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Thornton Wilder’s description: “A dramatist is one who believes that the pure event, an action involving human beings, is more arresting than any comment that can be made upon it.” Indeed, the Greek derivation of drama is ‘to do.’
Congreve’s writing is so exceptional, his work is often attributed to William Shakespeare. But the man who penned the timeless line quoted above was born in 1670, more than a half century after the Bard of Avon had passed this world. By then, tragic comedy had been displaced by satire. The public reveled in ridiculing the high moral and social standards of the day. Congreve delivered and then some. His first smash hit was The Old Bachelor, which ran for a then unprecedented fortnight. The main character is sullen and old and, as such, feigns a disdain for women. Of course, he falls in love with who he believes to be a maiden, not knowing her to be a mistress. Only after being trapped into marrying her does he ascertain her true identity by way of his acquaintances’ mocking jeers. Congreve’s subsequent The Double Dealer and Love for Love kept him on top in an entertainment world dominated by the theater in the absence of other mediums. He was a rock star in his time.
The world today best remembers Congreve — the archetypal dramatist, who infused himself into the roles he wrote — for 1697’s The Mourning Bride. The original “scorned” woman, a character vividly named Zara, became entangled in a love triangle from which she emerged the vanquished and vengeful. The play was embraced as England’s greatest tragedy for the better part of the next century. Congreve’s understanding of the potential for contentiousness between the sexes produced a handful of mantras that also survive and will be familiar – “‘Tis better to be left than never to have been loved,” “You must not kiss and tell,” and ‘Married in haste, we repent at leisure.”