I began by remarking on the notion that no important critic or historian has suggested that the period of time spanning the end of the seventeenth century and the beginning of the eighteenth centuries might be called the “Age of Congreve.” This is hardly surprising. This is a period dominated by John Locke in philosophy and Isaac Newton in the sciences. In literary studies, writers such as John Dryden, Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Swift, Joseph Addison, and Alexander Pope were in many ways more formidable. Congreve was essentially a dramatist, and a dramatist who had the misfortune to have been writing at a time that was notably condemned for its immorality by the critics of the periods that followed. The authors of the Tatler and Spectator, Sir Richard Steele and Joseph Addison, those arbiters of taste for the early eighteenth century, demonstrated the ethical unworthiness of the comedies of the previous fifty years, and while they spared Congreve, his works were clearly implicated. Later in the century, although Samuel Johnson's condemnation was intended mainly for the writers of the period of Charles II, his remarks in his “Prologue … Opening of the Theatre in Drury Lane 1747” would have been aimed at Congreve and his contemporaries as well:
Themselves they studied, as they felt, they writ,
Intrigue was Plot, Obscenity was Wit.
Vice always found a sympathetick Friend;
They pleas’d their Age, and did not aim to mend.
Once “Shame” and “Virtue” triumphed over the immorality of the period, the playwrights of this period could not find an audience, though they “proudly hop’d to pimp in future Days.” In order to fully recover from what essentially a period of censorship in English drama, Congreve would have had to have been an even stronger, and more popular, writer than he was. Oscar Wilde brought witty comedy back to the English stage in the 1890s, but to some extent many producers have probably felt that audiences might prefer a slightly dated Wilde to an inevitably more dated Congreve.
If, then, Congreve has struggled somewhat on the stage, how has he done on the page, to use the usual dichotomy? Here again, Congreve has not done as well as might be expected.