Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith
CHARLES LAMB did a world of mischief when he put before his most famous essay the title On the Artificial Comedy of the Last Century. Sitting at this performance of the greatest prose comedy in the English language, I could not, for the life of me, see anything artificial in the personages beyond their inessentials--dress, speech, and polite notions. Manners change, but not the man who wears them. If Lady Wishfort is artificial, then so, too, is Falstaff. I see equally little reason why Congreve's hot- handed widow should be so superfluous to demand the time of day, except for the causes assigned to that other gormandiser. Wishfort is all appetite, and as real as any canvas of old Hogarth or modern page of Zola. One of her kind attends dinner parties to this day, less her candour and wit.
Millamant, too, could go into any novel of Meredith, mutatis mutandis, and having regard to the topics which a more generous age has conceded to the sex. Wit of Millamant's order is imperishable, for the simple reason that her creator gave her a mind. Lamb's celebrated excuse for compunctionless laughter is that these creatures never were. The truth is that they are, and always will be. 'The effect of Congreve's plays,' says Hazlitt, 'is prodigious on the well-informed spectator.' It is easy to pronounce as artificial a world of which you are ignorant; in the Hebrides Our Betters would doubtless be clubbed fantastic. There are more Wishforts and Millamants about town to-day than there are Hedda Gablers.