Written in the winter of 2012 for a reading of Congreve’s Love for Love, directed by Jenny Lord. Love for Love is a terrific example of an ensemble play written for a strong repertory company – loosely plotted, but with an exceptionally well-parceled series of roles for actors. The structure is almost operatic – every actor gets their star turn. -DL
Although most drama students—and longtime STC subscribers—probably know William Congreve as the author of The Way of the World (1700), it was an earlier play, 1695’s Love for Love, that was Congreve’s greatest popular success in his own lifetime. According to Colley Cibber, the play ran for an unprecedented 13 days and remained in the repertory for the rest of the season, unheard of in the Restoration era, when theatrical novelty dominated from week to week.
Love for Love was a special commission. Congreve wrote the play for the opening of leading actor-manager Thomas Betterton’s new playhouse in a converted tennis court at Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Betterton’s company, pilfered from London’s Theatre Royal, featured the most famous names in the English-speaking theatre world. Betterton himself, still a matinee idol at 60 years of age, played Valentine; the famous beauty Anne Bracegirdle played Angelica; Elizabeth Barry (star of Thomas Otway’s middle-class tragedies) played the key role of Mrs. Frail; the more overtly comic roles were handled by Betterton’s expert clowns, such as the “spindle-shanked, splay-footed” Samuel Sandford (Foresight) and Thomas Doggett (Ben), who wintered on the seaside to master the role’s salty seadog locutions. The play is a triumph of ensemble comic characterization. No one figure dominates the play; everyone gets a star turn. Major actors have continued to be attracted to the play for its roles: Dame Edith Evans, Sir John Gielgud, and Sir Laurence Olivier all produced definitive 20th-century versions of Angelica, Valentine, and Tattle, respectively.
The play focuses on a paradox that pops up often in English comedies (and one can picture Wilde and Shaw taking notes while reading): the need to construct a social character. Valentine, our hero, loves the beautiful and wealthy Angelica, but he has squandered his fortunes and is in danger of being disinherited. In order to win back his name and his love, Valentine constructs a series of theatrical alter egos: he pretends to be sick, he pretends to be mad, he pretends to be anything other than who and what he is. Angelica, of course, only wants Valentine to prove himself to be in earnest, to offer love for love, instead of any other commodity. In other words, the true obstacle, in a brilliant playwriting turn from Congreve, is all internal.
If identity is the theme of Love for Love, the play points toward sex and society as the battlefields on which identity is forged. Congreve designs the play as a dance of male and female partners. As Valentine and Angelica wind their way toward each other, they are foiled by a menagerie of social types, both male and female. Congreve is unerringly acute and sympathetic in his depiction of women: he gives us a sexual naïf (Ms. Prue), a predator (Mrs. Frail), a frustrated wife (Mrs. Foresight), and an old crone (the Nurse). On the male side of the cast, Ben, Tattle, Sir Sampson, and Old Foresight fulfill identical functions. Part of the fun of the play is in seeing Congreve elegantly pair and dissolve disparate types. It also allows him to give the comedy a melancholic air, as we witness moments of predation and betrayal that produce true pathos. As Samuel Johnson wrote, Congreve’s “personages are a kind of intellectual gladiators; every sentence is to ward or strike … His comedies have the operation of tragedies: they surprise rather than divert and raise admiration as often as merriment.”