- The Works of William Congreve ed. by D. F. McKenzie
Almost every reader of this journal will be familiar with the work of Donald McKenzie (1931–99). His many achievements include groundbreaking work on the sociology of texts which constitutes one of the major advances in bibliographical theory over recent decades. What may be less well known is the fact that he devoted much of the later years of his life to the task of establishing the first full critical edition of the entire corpus of writing by William Congreve. Most of this undertaking had been completed at the time of his death, but a good deal remained for his widow to complete. This labour has now been so well performed by Christine Ferdinand that it is impossible to spot any of the joins in this outstanding piece of scholarship.
The uncovenanted benefit we now have is an edition that rivals anything McKenzie ever did, as a remarkable example of the application of scholarly bibliography to an important editorial undertaking. As one would expect, the Works of Congreve rests on a comprehensive analysis of the early printings and a rigorous sifting of historical data to establish a text. It also displays immense learning, with a huge range of sources employed to provide the fullest and most illuminating commentary that the work of any Restoration writer (not even excepting Dryden) has yet received. More than that, McKenzie has supplied in his textual introduction a perfect template for any future edition in this area. In respect of the plays especially his meticulous attention to the dramatic context, together with his knowledge of play house practice and contemporary theatrical idiom, enables him to make informed judgments on numerous issues, such as the author’s preference for ‘neoclassical’ scene divisions marked off by entrances or exits (‘For Congreve, plays are about people in conversation, not places in motion’). Even the placing of speech prefixes mid-line find an explanation, and it is one guided by McKenzie’s total inwardness with the playwright’s intentions and deep sympathy with his goals as a writer. Congreve possessed, we are reminded, extensive experience of rehearsal and production techniques. By comparison with previous editions of the collected works, it is as though we have moved in a single bound from Shakespearean editing as it was a hundred years ago to its modern equivalent. As well as the plays Congreve’s prose, including Incognita, and his under-valued miscellaneous poems receive proper editorial attention as never before. [End Page 353]
McKenzie has chosen for his copy text the first collected edition issued by Jacob Tonson senior in 1710: this too was in three volumes, although the distribution of items is necessarily different in the 2011 version. He offers a wholly convincing defence of this choice, in preference to the early quartos in which the plays originally appeared, and to the Works in two volumes of 1719–20. Such a decision has to be made in the absence of surviving manuscripts for any of the key texts, but the editor enlists a battery of evidence to support his view. However this is an ‘inescapably eclectic’ and, in the best sense, a critical edition since McKenzie has equipped himself to take an informed position on every kind of alternative reading, whether a major verbal crux or the placing of the slightest accidental. A particularly interesting discussion centres on the omission of coarser language from the later editions in response to the criticism of Jeremy Collier and other puritanical critics. Variants are deliberately removed to a separate listing to produce a clean and readable text. In the case of the plays, the commentary is augmented by a comprehensive account of the early stage history, a discussion of other printings outside those sanctioned by the author, and an unprecedented degree of attention to the music supplied by Henry Purcell and others. This concern is seen in the coverage of the...