The Old Bachelor by William Congreve (1693)

BELLMORE: Come, come, leave business to idlers and wisdom to fools; they have need of ’em.  Wit be my faculty, and pleasure my occupation; and let Father Time shake his glass.

In his lengthy reply to the stinging criticisms of the contemporary stage contained in the polemical pamphlet, A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage written by the bishop and theologian Jeremy Collier, William Congreve tells us that he wrote his first play, The Old Bachelor, while recovering from ‘a fit of sickness’ aged just 19! It’s an astonishing achievement for one so young.

A few years later, in 1692, young William arrived in London and showed The Old Bachelor to the leading literary figure of the day, John Dryden who, with typical generosity, declared he had never seen such a good first play in his life, but that it needed a bit of work cutting down to length and re-ordering some of the scenes.

Once revised, The Old Bachelor was promptly accepted by the only theatre company then performing in London, the United Company, and opened in March 1693. It was a smash-hit and had an extraordinary run of fourteen nights, which was getting on for a record for a Restoration comedy; some new plays ran for the bare minimum of three nights!

If you think about it, these incredibly short runs tell you everything about the size of the audience for these plays. It was minuscule. Was it even in the thousands? And this puts in context the many prologues and epilogues to the plays. Often the playwright and the actors knew key members of the audience personally, and so were directly addressing known individuals in the prologues and epilogues.

The Old Bachelor‘s success was in part attributed to the skilful performances of veteran performers Thomas Betterton and Anne Bracegirdle in the roles of Heartwell and Araminta, respectively.

I was startled to learn in a footnote that the music for the play was composed by Henry Purcell.

Cast list

I find the cast lists of these plays not only useful, but sometimes amusing – the comic names and descriptions – in their own right:

MEN
Heartwell, a surly old bachelor, pretending to slight women, secretly in love with Silvia
Bellmour, in love with Belinda
Vainlove, capricious in his love; in love with Araminta
Sharper
Sir Joseph Wittol
Captain Bluffe
Fondlewife, a banker
Setter, a pimp
Tribulation Spintext, a Puritan preacher (who never actually appears in the play)
Mr Gavot, musician to Araminta
Servant to Fondlewife.

WOMEN.
Araminta, in love with Vainlove
Belinda, her cousin, an affected lady, in love with Bellmour
Lætitia, wife to Fondlewife
Sylvia, Vainlove’s forsaken mistress
Lucy, maid to Sylvia
Betty, maid to Belinda

It’s all set in London. As I’ve read more of the plays, I’ve realised that Aphra Behn’s setting her most successful play, The Rover, in Italy, is by far the exception not the rule of Restoration comedy. Almost all the comedies are set in the same city and the same time as the audience. They are completely contemporary.

Act 1

Bellmour and Vainlove are two weary rakes. Vainlove likes seducing women but is easily bored and actively dislikes it if they come on to him. He goes to show Bellmour but gives him the wrong one by mistake, it is a letter from Vainlove’s recently spurned lover, Sylvia, reproving him for abandoning her. It then comes out that Bellmour slept with her, apparently in disguise so she didn’t realise who he was! But she sincerely loves Vainlove and he has dumped her.

Next Vainlove gives Bellmour the letter he’d intended to show him, a love letter from Laetitia, the wife of the comic character Fondlewife – he paid her a few polite compliments and now she’s sent him a damn love letter telling him her husband will be out of town on business and to come and see her in disguise. He asks Bellmour to do him a favour and do it for him – but Laetitia’s lovely says Bellmour – yes, but I hate being forced into an affair, complains Vainlove. They discuss getting Vainlove’s tailor, Settler, to provide a disguise for Bellmour. They briefly discuss the feeble character of the husband, Fondlewife, then Vainlove leaves ‘on business’.

Bellmour complains that he is already in love with one woman, has a dozen or so mistresses, and now Vainlove is suggesting he take on his beloved, God it’s an exhausting business, being a libertine! He says this in the form of a soliloquy, alone onstage, at which point enter Sharper, whose role is to provide comic asides, and start with a good line:

SHARPER:  I’m sorry to see this, Ned.  Once a man comes to his soliloquies, I give him for gone.

Enter Heartwell who they both mock for being a grumpy old misanthropist who doesn’t believe in love. Heartwell in turn mocks Bellmour and Vainlove for expending so much energy in the pursuit of women, and has a particularly cynical speech about how, when you’ve finally gone through all this faradiddle in order to get married, your baby will end up looking like half the aristocracy of England because your wife will have been unfaithful with them all. Visitors coo and tickle the baby and say:

‘Ay, the boy takes after his mother’s relations,’ when the devil and she knows ’tis a little compound of the whole body of nobility.

Heartwell leaves ‘on business’ and Bellmour spots two stock comic characters, Sir Joseph Wittol, a foolish knight, and his companion, the cowardly bully, Captain Bluffe, who he points out to Sharper. Bellmour explains that the night before he came across Wittol being set upon by footpads and freed him, though Wittol ran off without identifying his rescuer.

Act 2 scene 1

Sharper follows Sir Joseph to the location where he was mugged the night before, then pretends to be his mysterious rescuer but says that, alas, he lost a hundred pounds in the affray, and starts trying to dun Sir Joseph for it. This blustering old fool is trying to find a way out, when his sidekick and defender turns up, the swaggering blustering bully Captain Bluffe, and there is a richly comic scene of Sharper egging both men on to silly heights of boasting and braggartry, Bluffe in particular being scandalised that his heroic escapades in the recent wars don’t seem to have been reported in the news gazettes!

Act 2 scene 2

Araminta, in love with Vainlove, squabbles with her cousin Belinda, who affects to despise men –

BELINDA: Oh, you have raved, talked idly, and all in commendation of that filthy, awkward, two-legged creature man.

But is secretly in love with Bellmour. Araminta says Belinda dreamed of Bellmour last night, called out his name and embraced her (Araminta) as if she was him. Stuff and nonsense, cries Belinda, and calls her servant to prepare her things to go out, but at that moment a servant announces that Bellmour and Vainlove are visiting. After some indecision, Belinda decides to stay after all, in order to protect her cousin’s reputation, of course – though her cousin teases her it’s solely to see Bellmour.

Prolonged repartee during which all sides wittily cap each other’s allusions and barbs, with generalised sententiae about love and devotion. Araminta emerges as the quickest-witted of them – all of these plays feature one strong, determined and clever woman. There is a passage of particularly barbed banter between Bellmour who extravagantly paints his devotion and Belinda who scorns him. In fact when he asks her what she can do for her, she says shut up, which leads to a comic sequence where Bellmour continues his conversation in sign language until Belinda is so exasperated she lets him speak again.

Their musician, Mr Gavot, performs a song Araminta has written. This happens in most of the plays. Did Restoration aristocrats write songs this glibly and easily for their lady loves or is it purely a theatrical convention?

Act 3 scene 1

Sylvia is the woman Vainlove has jilted, and Lucy is her maid who, as so often, impertinently tells her boss the true state of affairs, namely that Vainlove will never love her again. Sylvia is consumed with envy for her love rival, Araminta, but Lucy says she has a Plan to fix that – send Vainlove a cloying letter as if from Araminta – a woman’s enthusiasm always puts Vainlove off.

LUCY: Contrive a kind letter as from her, ’twould disgust his nicety, and take away his stomach.

Meanwhile, here comes Heartwell – Lucy encourages Sylvia to make the best of a bad job and hook him. Soon she’ll be old. She needs to get a husband before she can.

Vainlove and Bellmour have tailed Heartwell to Sylvia’s house. They watch as the ageing foo hesitates whether to in or not and commit himself to the snare of womanhood. He does, as Bellmour and Vainlove stifle their mirth. Then Vainlove’s tailor, Setter, arrives: he has prepared a full set of clothes which allow Bellmour to masquerade as the earnest Puritan preacher Spintext.

Bellmour tells Setter to meet him with the costume later and exits. Setter launches into a comically high-minded speech about the relative merits of a manservant and a pimp. Lucy comes upon him and, as so often, a lead male character’s manservant is in love with a lead woman’s maidservant, their working class love affair echoing their betters’ affair but more crudely.

Congreve gives this kind of set scene an extra spin by having Lucy put on a face mask before talking to Setter and, given that his soliloquy was already laughably pretentious, the couple then launch into a parody of highfalutin’ tragedy, complete with what were obviously obscure and archaic words to convey their eminence and lofty sentiments. Lucy extracts from Setter that his master will be in Covent Garden later, then manages to get away without being covered in slobbery kisses.

Wittoll and Bluffe enter. Bluffe is cross that Sir Joseph has given Sharper £100, and works himself up into a fury of vengeance, declaring that if only Sharper were here, he would take his revenge and… at that precise moment Sharper and Bellmour appear onstage and Bluffe performs a comic blustering retreat. Sharper quickly detects how angry they are with him but also what cowards they are – and so takes to kicking Wittoll and beating Bluffe who swears he will have vengeance, but not now, not here, it’s too public and various other excuses.

Sharper and Bellmour exeunt laughing.

Act 3 Scene 2 Silvia’s lodgings

Enter Heartwell, the ageing anti-love exponent, the old bachelor of the title, and Sylvia, Vainlove’s jilted lover. Heartwell has laid on a dance, music and the performance of a song to impress Silvia. He then jangles his purse full of gold coins at her. His wooing of her is done in the higher, more poetic style the play occasionally drops into. Heartwell combines high-flown rhetoric with emotional clumsiness, for example offering to buy Sylvia outright. But when she beings to talk about marriage, he is suddenly very reluctant to marry her – because he thinks marriage is a fool’s estate – suggesting instead that she become his licensed mistress. Which makes Sylvia cry that she doesn’t want to live as a whore and burst into tears.

But when he finally leaves, after grabbing a few kisses, Sylvia turns to the audience and says:

SILVIA:  Ha, ha, ha, an old fox trapped –

Suggesting that everything she said in their scene together, all the sighs and tears, were a ploy, a trap to get him to marry her, to get her hands on his money. (Money is never far from the surface of these plays; they reveal what a major role it plays in human relationships.)

Sylvia’s servant Lucy enters and says she’s contrived a letter to Vainlove as if from Amarinta which will wreck their love.

Act 4 scene 1

Bellmour dressed up as the Puritan Spintext:

BELLMOUR: I wonder why all our young fellows should glory in an opinion of atheism, when they may be so much more conveniently lewd under the coverlet of religion.

Exits. Enter Fondlewife who, in a soliloquy, reveals he is jealous of his beautiful young wife, Laetitia. Then a scene in which he suspects her of adultery and she, in comic asides, reveals she is frightened he knows her true intent i.e. to be unfaithful with Vainlove, whilst to Fondlewife’s face playing the aggrieved wife. They both use baby talk which makes the scene more funny. Finally, she manages, with umpteen kisses, to pack him off on the overnight journey he’s taking on ‘business’.

It is an important fact that Fondlewife has arranged for a chaplain or preacher to be with her and instruct her while he is away. This is the content of the letter she had sent to Vainlove and which he showed Bellmour right at the start of the play i.e. ‘my husband is going away for the night, come in the disguise of a preacher.’

Vainlove and Sharper. They read the letter they’ve been sent, as from Amarinta, but in fact by Lucy. She has done her work well, correctly predicting that by making Amarinta come on strong, puts Vainlove off her:

VAINLOVE: I hate to be crammed. By heaven, there’s not a woman will give a man the pleasure of a chase: my sport is always balked or cut short. I stumble over the game I would pursue. ’Tis dull and unnatural to have a hare run full in the hounds’ mouth, and would distaste the keenest hunter. I would have overtaken, not have met, my game.

So they plan to meet Amarinta at Covent Garden that evening, but Vainlove will now spurn her. (Sharper thinks he’s a fool.)

Act 4 Scene 2

Bellmour, in disguise as Spintext the preacher, is shown into Mrs Fondlewife i.e. Laetitia’s rooms. No sooner has the servant left before he throws off his disguise and reveals himself to Laetitia who feigns shock and surprise, mainly because she was expecting Vainlove. But the scene is devoted to showing Bellmour’s formidable seduction technique as he slowly wins her round and by the end, by pretending to have a fainting fit, he gets her to agree he can lie on her bed to recover, and they exeunt into her bedroom.

Act 4 scene 3 St James’s Park

Setting for the afternoon rambles of the layabout aristocracy. Enter Belinda and Amarinta. It is much more obvious that Belinda is meant to be pretentious and affected and tells Amarinta how she took it upon herself to correct the manners of a country family up in town for the first time.

They put on masks as Sir Joseph Wittoll and the boasting soldier Captain Bluffe approach and there is some comic banter before the ladies spy Vainlove approaching, and tell the two buffoons to bugger off, although Sir Joseph realises Amarinta is heiress to a vast fortune and tells us in an aside he’d like to marry her.

The point of the scene is for Amarinta and Vainlove to be left alone, so he can act cold and in a roundabout way berate her for the letter she sent him. But since she didn’t send him the letter, she has no idea what is going on and quickly becomes angry, storming off.

Act 4 scene 4 Fondlewife’s house

Bellmour and Laetitia have had sex and emerge from the bedroom to hear Fondlewife’s voice coming up the stairs. Bellmour gathers up the preacher costume and Laetitia bundles him into the bedroom before opening the door to Fondlewife and Sir Joseph.

In this farcical scene, Fondlewife announces that he needs to go into the bedroom to collect the papers he forgot to take for his ‘business’ and Laetitia desperately tries to think up pretexts to stop him, at one point bundling into Sir John when Fondlewife’s back is turned and claiming the old bodger tried to molest her; which Fondlewife believes and pushes Sir John out the door with vivid Biblical imprecations.

But Fondlewife is still determined to enter the bedroom (where Bellmour is hiding) and so Laetitia suddenly has a brainwave and tells her husband the preacher came round and was giving her lessons in piety but had an attack of stomach ache and is lying on the bed. Fondlewife buys this, tiptoes into the bedroom, sees the form of Bellmour on the bed, gets his papers and tiptoes out, telling Laetitia they must get the maid to look after the poor preacher when… he sees the book. A book on the floor. The book Bellmour brought with him. And is it a book of devotion and piety? No. Fondlewife picks it up and realises that it is a French novel, The Innocent Adultery! No priest would carry this. Bellmour is busted!

Angrily, Fondlewife calls for the unknown man to come out of the bedroom, while Laetitia pleads she has no idea who he is or what he was doing there, wretched please which Fondlewife now brusquely dismisses.

But this scene turns into a further demonstration of Bellmour’s mastery as he manages to outface the situation. He comes out of the bedroom and confronts Fondlewife, declaring he is a whoremaster who pinched Spintext’s costume, then pretended to have colic in order to lie on her bed and was about to call her in when Fondlewife appeared – so he never got as far as seducing Laetitia.

Bellmour exudes confidence. Laetitia talks babytalk to Fondlewife. The latter softens. She faints. He believes her. Thus gullible husbands.

Act 5 scene 1 The street

Bellmour meets up with Setter and tells him the disguise worked a treat. Then they both see Heartwell arriving at Silvia’s house. Setter exits and Bellmour chats up Lucy, Silvia’s maid, with a kiss (seems like she’s one his many conquests) and some money, and asks her to keep up the pretence that he is a preacher, so he can marry the silly couple.

Enter Vainlove, Sharper and Setter. Setter tells them that the letter which upset Vainlove, the letter pretending to come from Amarinta, was in fact concocted by vengeful Silvia. This clears the way for Vainlove to be back in love with Amarinta!

The final scenes get confusing. Bellmour in the guise of the preacher falsely marries Heartwell and Silvia, then takes her aside, reveals his true identity and promises he will find her a better husband. He pops back into the street and tells Setter and Sharper to keep their eyes peeled for a replacement husband then exits. At this point Sir John and Captain Bluffe come along.

Setter and Sharper then have a whole series of machinations, some of which happen in whispers, or offstage, in some of which they pretend information to dupe Sir John and the Captain, and also Heartwell who Sharper appears to torment by dragging him towards his own house, promising him a fine young wench who’s up for a shag… until Heartwell realises it’s the wife he’s just married that Sharper is talking about. I got lost in the maze. I read this passage a couple of times and still didn’t understand the ins and outs. Partly because they don’t clearly state what they’re planning to do, they disappear into corners to mutter with the people they’re gulling…the schemes they’re cooking up only become clear as they emerge in the final scene.

In the penultimate passage, Bellmour and Belinda, Vainlove and Amarinta, are invited to Heartwell’s house. Somehow Sharper has got Silvia out of the house and conspired to convince Heartwell that his wife of half an hour is already off whoring. The four leads tease Heartwell about his stupidity in marrying and his cuckolded state: Belinda in particular emerges as sharp tongued and witty.

As Eric Rump points out in his introduction to the Penguin edition, this tormenting of Heartwell amounts to bullying and triggers him to give a speech which echoes Shylock’s in The Merchant of Venice:

HEARTWELL: How have I deserved this of you? any of ye?  Sir, have I impaired the honour of your house, promised your sister marriage, and whored her?  Wherein have I injured you?  Did I bring a physician to your father when he lay expiring, and endeavour to prolong his life, and you one and twenty?  Madam, have I had an opportunity with you and baulked it?  Did you ever offer me the favour that I refused it?

At moments like this does the comedy topple into something much more serious, into something momentarily closer to tragedy? Is it that much more serious precisely because it emerges from comedy, rather than one of the era’s over-wrought tragedies?

Eric Rump points out that the role of Heartwell – the Old Bachelor of the title – was taken by Thomas Betterton, the ‘Laurence Olivier of his day’, who also played tragic leads and so would have given the role more depth and seriousness than a purely comic actor. However you judge the effect, it is extremely impressive of Congreve to have touched this deeper nerve when he was barely into his twenties.

Anyway, our boys and girls goad Heartwell into declaring he will do anything to be rid of his married state, which is what they’re conspiring for all along – and we, the audience, know that he is not in fact married at all, since the ceremony was carried out by Bellmour in disguise.

On the last three pages the elaborate scam is revealed. Sharper and Settle have married Sir John and Captain Bluffe to two women they thought were Amarinta and Belinda – except they aren’t. The real Amarinta and Belinda now take their masks off to reveal themselves – to the two braggart soldiers’ shock and surprise – and when they turn to the women they have married – they reveal themselves as Silvia and Lucy.

SIR JOHN: Pray, madam, who are you?  For I find you and I are like to be better acquainted.
SILVIA: The worst of me is, that I am your wife—

So Lucy is married to Captain Bluffe – who announces he will no more to the wars – Silvia is married to the insufferable Sir John, but does at least acquire a title. And Heartwell breathes a huge sigh of relief to realise he isn’t married after all.

And Bellmour – with the abrupt reversal in attitude for which these plays are notorious – declares he is happy to acquire the fetters of marriage with acid-tongued Belinda. It only remains for Vainlove to marry Amarinta and all the loose ends are tied up but Bellmour notices Vainlove, given his contrary psychology, showing signs of reluctance to marry her and so announces that he and Belinda will get married first the next morning, to set an example to Vainlove and Araminta.

Then there’s the traditional music and dancing.


Animal imagery

There’s a lot of animal imagery. Vainlove is referred to as an ass, Bellmour an ape and a wolf in sheep’s clothing, Heartwell an old fox, Sir John a lion, women as hares to be hunted or partridges to be covered, cuckolded men are like stags with horns. The references add colourful imagery to the endless truisms about love and marriage and adultery.

Maybe they link to Belinda’s comment about ‘filthy, awkward, two-legged creature man’, but I don’t see that there’s anything very deep going on here. All the Restoration comedies are based on a worldview which sees human beings as amoral animals devoted to quenching animal drives, lust being topmost, but also drunkenness and gluttony, and using their God-given minds not to seek a devout and spiritual life, but to concoct fantastically complicated schemes for their own debauchery.

SIR JOSEPH: Nay, Gad, I’ll pick up; I’m resolved to make a night on’t… Adslidikins, bully, we’ll wallow in wine and women. Why, this same Madeira wine has made me as light as a grasshopper.

Quite often, reading these plays, you can sympathise with Bishop Collier and his characterisation of the plays as deliberately encouraging lust, avarice, greed, gluttony, jealousy, anger and sometimes violence.

VAINLOVE: Why did you not find me out, to tell me this before, sot?
SETTER: Sir, I was pimping for Mr. Bellmour.
SHARP: You were well employed.

More noticeable is Congreve’s way with extended metaphors, or with a metaphor which allows him to bring in colourful imagery. Thus at the very opening Bellmour has a little speech which in four clauses contains four images from the game of bowls:

BELLMOUR: Business is the rub of life, perverts our aim, casts off the bias, and leaves us wide and short of the intended mark.

This is so contrived I wonder if the actor paused and waited for a ripple of applause from the audience at the author’s cleverness.

At the start of Act Five, Bellmour bumps into Setter who asks him how things went in the plot to have sex with Laetitia, and both of them jokily use an extended naval metaphor to describe the result:

SETTER: Joy of your return, sir. Have you made a good voyage? or have you brought your own lading back?
BELLMOUR: No, I have brought nothing but ballast back – made a delicious voyage, Setter; and might have rode at anchor in the port till this time, but the enemy surprised us – I would unrig.

So Bellmour has unloaded his cargo.

Misandry

Woke modern critics attack the Restoration comedies for their misogyny e.g. Sharper describing Araminta as:

a delicious melon, pure and consenting ripe, and only waits thy cutting up.

But it seems to me that all the characters, regardless of gender, age or class, manipulate and denigrate each other on the basis of an utterly heartless and cynical worldview. And for every dismissive generalisation the men make about women, the women make one about men, and the aristocrats make about their servants, and the servants make about their stupid masters.

  • BELINDA:  Oh, you have raved, talked idly, and all in commendation of that filthy, awkward, two-legged creature man.
  • LUCY: Man was by nature woman’s cully made:
  • HEARTWELL: Lying, child, is indeed the art of love, and men are generally masters in it
  • ARAMINTA to VAINLOVE: Thou hadst all the treachery and malice of thy sex

The plays may contain umpteen libels against women, but the biggest indictment is how the men talk and behave and Belinda has a vivid little speech about how, in the end, disappointing men are, after all the impressive wooing, once you actually marry them.

BELINDA:Thou art so troublesome a lover, there’s hopes thou’lt make a more than ordinary quiet husband.
BELLMOUR: Is that a maxim among ye?
BELINDA: Yes: you fluttering men of the mode have made marriage a mere French dish… You are so curious in the preparation, that is, your courtship, one would think you meant a noble entertainment – but when we come to feed, ’tis all froth, and poor, but in show.  Nay, often, only remains, which have been I know not how many times warmed for other company, and at last served up cold to the wife.

The exhausted libertine

I think it’s Dorimant in The Man of Mode that critics point out sounds tired – or is it Belvile in The Rover? The point is that many of the plays start with the leading male character sounding exhausted.

Now, the critics I read appear to take this at face value as an indictment of the libertine lifestyle as a whole, as if the plays are observational documentaries. But something in Bellmour’s final words in this play made me realise there’s a simpler and less moralising interpretation.

Structurally, all the plays end with the lead characters marrying and many critics have pointed out the complete lack of psychological verisimilitude involved in witty, cynical characters who’ve spent four acts slagging off marriage as an institution for stubborn fools – suddenly decide marriage is a wonderful state and enter into it with boundless enthusiasm.

Seen from this perspective, the trope of the tired libertine makes more sense. It stands to reason that, in preparation for this last act about-face, hints should be dropped right from the start that the lead libertine is actually quite tired of his life of endless seduction and is, in fact, teetering on the brink of abandoning it.

And therefore that the male lead’s expression of these thoughts and feelings have little or no moral or psychological content, but are a structural necessity of the form, as formulaic as most other aspects of the plays.

In fact, almost all these Restoration comedies can be reinterpreted as the final acts in the libertine’s long career. They’re all plays about Life Changes and Conversions.


Related links

Reviews of other Restoration plays

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