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the double dealer

29 january 2023

The Double Dealer is a simpler, more focused play than Congreve's first hit The Old Bachelor (both premiered in 1693). If there are still too many couples preying on one another, The Double Dealer at least assembles them in the tight compass of a single house and features a somewhat more pared-down, briefer main action. And Congreve's wondrous dialogue and comically fertile scenes of misapprehension are even better in this, his second play.

Let's see, plot: here, Mellefont is our relatively well-intentioned rake-about-town, ready to settle down with Cynthia, daughter of the foolish Lord Plyant. Mellefont has various less-moral friends, including Brisk and Careless; and a completely duplicitous friend in Maskwell. These names should be clues, but alas, nobody in the play seems to pick up on them. Careless wants to seduce Lady Plyant, who keeps her husband in perpetual sexual frustration; Brisk has his eye on Lady Froth; Lady Touchwood, wife to Mellefont's uncle, has shifted her eye to Mellefont from Maskwell, who now trains his on the heiress Cynthia. I'm sure this is all easy to follow. Lord Touchwood, for his part, complains of wanting "a clue to guide me through the various mazes" of what's going on in his own house (Act Five, Scene One; p.202).

As in The Old Bachelor, the best scenes in The Double Dealer feature characters talking at outrageous cross purposes. I especially like Act Two, Scene One, where Cynthia's stepmother Lady Plyant, with the intention of getting Mellefont to seduce her, expresses her indignation that Mellefont is trying to seduce her – to Mellefont, who hasn't the remotest notion of seducing her. This business is a feast for actors and audience alike. Exchanges between Lord and Lady Plyant are equally terrific, as she explains how she keeps him swaddled up at night because he is too energetic in bed, but occasionally allows one of his hands free to roam.

Congreve, William. The Double Dealer. 1693. In The Way of the World and other plays. Edited by Eric S. Rump. London: Penguin, 2006. 119-207.