Character Areas Tour
William Congreve (1670-1729) was a close personal friend of Sir Richard Temple, 1st Viscount Cobham. Together with Addison and Steele, Vanbrugh, Bridgeman, the Duke of Marlborough, and others, Congreve and Lord Cobham were members of the Kit-Cat Club--a group of influential Whigs dedicated to ensuring a Protestant succession to the throne. (The Club takes its name from Christopher Cat, the keeper of the Cat and Fiddle--the pastry shop and tavern where the group often met to discuss politics, news, and literature during the first three decades of the 18th century.)
Congreve is best known as the most polished playwright of the Restoration period. Though he published only four comedies and one tragedy, he was both a popular and critical success. His most famous play, The Way of the World (1700), has an intricate plot and sparkling dialogue, and like Congreve's other comedies and many of the other plays of the period it focuses on the struggle for power and sex while it criticizes the institution of arranged marriages. Though its hero and heroine succeed in marrying for both love and money, they are more than consumate manipulators. Their true success is based on mutual respect and an equality between partners surprising for the time.
Congreve's Monument was designed by William Kent in 1736, and at that time it was on the south bank of what was then known as the Upper River and what is now the eastern extension of the Octagon Lake. Atop a slender pyramid sits a carved stone monkey peering at himself in a mirror. The visual metaphor suggests that Congreve's plays showed his audience what monkeys they had made of themselves. Supporting this interpretation is an inscription carved in Latin that states: comedy is the imitation of life and the mirror of society. On the north side of the pyramid shown in the photograph is a large urn in bas-relief, decorated with three faces below which are carved a sword and shield, a quiver of arrows, and a reed flute. The following epitaph appears on the south side of the monument:
Acri, faceto, expolito,
Urbanis, candidis, facillimis,
Qualecunque desiderii sui
Solamen simul ac
To the sprightly, entertaining, elegant
Ronald Paulson, in his book Emblem and Expression: Meaning in English Art of the 18th Century, points out that the pyramid serves at least two emblematic functions. First, like the former garden monument to Vanbrugh, also a pyramid, it has funereal implications. "According to iconographical commentators," Paulson says, "it represents the shape of fire. Both flame and pyramid have a wide base, signifying matter or man's earthy mould, but taper to an apex that points to heaven and the immortality of the soul." Second, while the shape of the monument suggests human aspirations, its being topped by a monkey provides a visual ironic statement that parallels the many verbal ironies in Congreve's plays.
Congreve was a frequent visitor at Stowe, and he knew the gardens well. His poem Of Improving the Present Time (1728), addressed to Viscount Cobham, suggests how much the gardens meant to them both. The full text of the poem may be seen by following this link.