3. The Plays
From John Dryden by Bonamy Dobrée (1956)

The heroic drama of the Restoration period is glorious extravaganza written for a special audience: to enjoy it today — and this is true to a lesser extent of the comedies — is perhaps to indulge an acquired vice. Largely outside the tradition of the English theatre, in it the loose Shakespearian method is continually at war with the French neo-classical form, to which the courtiers exiled during the Commonwealth had become accustomed. Emotions, states of mind, which are to the final degree romantic are tailored into, or at least partly wear, severe classical garb. It is, in short, baroque — dynamic, sometimes fantastic ornament being added to a formalized structure. As Dryden himself remarked,

"'tis unjust that they who have not the least notion of heroic writing, should therefore condemn the pleasure which others receive from it, because they cannot comprehend it";

and he was careful to add that he would not "dispute the preference of Tragedy; let every man enjoy his taste." Certainly, to read these plays, or to go to see them, in the expectation of being plunged into the abundant life of the Elizabethan theatre, or to meet the realism of a later period, is to court disappointment. We may even find them grotesque, susceptible to rollicking parody, as Buckingham, Sprat, and others found when they gleefully concocted The Rehearsal. But accept the données of each play, be prepared to enter a world of absolute emotions — the heroism, the ideas of honour and of love, the Romanism and so forth — these dramas can give a piquantly flavoured pleasure, if only, and markedly with Dryden, from the sheer virtuosity of the performance, the flamboyance — that quality which so largely faded from our literature as it grew older. A play was a heroic poem, an epic in little, and its business, Hobbes had asserted, was

'to raise admiration, principally for three virtues, valour, beauty, and love'.

Artificial? Of course, why not? Heroic drama is consciously artificed: and with Dryden you often feel that he is standing aside, with a twinkle in his eye, watching himself perform. Thus however bombastic the sentiments may be, Dryden's handling is firmly secure; he can even produce effects of prettiness, which as he places them are not at all destructive, but, on the contrary charmingly enhancing of the result. Moreover, inserted in the plays are the enormously varied songs, prosodically delightful, ranging from those breathing nostalgia or the futility of human endeavour, to the frankly, and so harmlessly, erotic. From The Indian Emperour (1667) we get:

Ah fading joy, how quickly art thou past!
Yet we thy ruin haste.
As if the cares of human life were few,
We seek out new:
And follow fate, which would too fast pursue ...
Hark, hark, the waters fall, fall, fall,
And with a murmuring sound
Dash, dash upon the ground
To gentle slumbers call.

From Tyrannick Love (1670) the song beginning:

Ah how sweet it is to love!
Ah how gay is young desire!

And from King Arthur (1691), the famous patriotic lyric disguised as a Song of Venus:

Fairest isle, all isles excelling,
Seat of pleasures and of loves;
Venus here will choose her dwelling,
And forsake her Cyprian groves.
Cupid from his favourite nation
Care and envy will remove;
Jealousy, that poisons passion,
And despair, that dies for love ...

which Purcell set to such dulcet, singable melody. With the plays go also the equally varied Prologues and Epilogues, in which Dryden enters into an evidently friendly relation with his audiences, sometimes chaffing them, sometimes scolding, even a little scornfully upbraiding, now and again indulging in acute, pertinent criticism. There is a characteristic captivating vigour about them all, and, with the laughter they provoke, a dominant persuasiveness.

Yet the plays will be widely read only by devotees of the history of drama; not all even of Dryden enthusiasts will tackle them wholesale; for indeed they are not all easy to read, thanks to the sudden reversals of fortune in the tragedies, and the intricacy of the plots in the comedies, which are apt to be bewildering in the study. They would clarify on the stage, certainly, for the playwrights of those days had a lively dramatic sense. Yet even in the reading such a play as The Conquest of Granada in two parts (1670-1671), the high point of the heroic bubbles with special interests. The same will be found with The State of Innocence (1677), the quite individual rendering in rhyme of Paradise Lost; the Shakespeare adaptations; or, to go to the other extreme, the purposefully blunt Mr. Limberham (1678). But there are two tragedies at least, and one comedy, of abundant general appeal, which serve to round off the canon. For all its slightly exotic flavour, its heroic sentiments, its too ingenious plot, Aureng-Zebe (1676), the last of the rhymed plays, is moving and actual, if only for the emotive quality of the speeches, of which the most famous, if not the deepest reaching, is the haunting:

When I consider life, 'tis all a cheat;
Yet, fooled with hope, men favour the deceit;
Trust on, and think tomorrow will repay:
Tomorrow's falser than the former day;
Lies worse; and while it says, we shall be blest
With some new joys, cuts off what we possest.
Strange cozenage! none would live past years again,
Yet all hope pleasure in what yet remain;
And from the dregs of life, think to receive
What the first sprightly running could not give.
I'm tired with waiting for this Chymick gold,
Which fools us young, and beggars us when old. (IV. i.)

There is the mastery of rhyme, never dictating the sense, never interfering with the run of the phrase.

But by now Dryden had satisfied his instinct to conquer the couplet for stage purposes. His prologue declares:

Our author by experience, finds it true,
'Tis much more hard to please himself than you;
And out of no feigned modesty this day,
Damns his laborious trifle of a play;
Not that it's worse than what before he writ,
But now he has another taste of wit;
And, to confess a truth, (though out of time,)
Grows weary of his long-loved mistress, Rhyme.

So in his next great venture, All for Love (1678), in which he handled the story of Anthony and Cleopatra in his own original way — you feel he is wholly involved: confessedly it was the one play he wrote to please himself — in his style he 'professed to imitate the divine Shakespeare', that is, he 'disencumbered himself from rhyme'. The result is the best dramatic blank verse since Shakespeare, at once concise and rich, flexible, capable of grandeur and also of lightness. It can achieve:

How I loved
Witness, ye days and nights, and all your hours,
That danced away with down upon your feet ...

equally with:

O horror, horror!
Egypt has been; our latest hour is come:
The queen of nations from her ancient seat,
is sunk for ever in the dark abyss:
Time has unrolled her glories to the last,
And how closed up the volume.

and the monosyllabic simplicity of:

Farewell! Ever my leader, even in death!
My queen and thou have got the start of me,
And I'm the lag of honour.

In this proud and lovely masterpiece, this sombre tragedy as it has been called, we are held and swayed by the interplay of the emotions, of all the characters, as well as of the chief ones, though more especially by the revulsions of feeling in Antony. At first plunged in the depths of despair till roused by the goading urgency of Ventidius (in a scene Dryden thought the best he had written), he is later torn between his pride, his passion for Cleopatra, his sense of duty towards Octavia; and the conduct of the play builds it up into an integrated whole, fused together by Antony's inner conflicts, the unities being 'more exactly preserved, than, perhaps, the English theatre requires'. The accents are always human, free of rant, with a minimum of high-flying imagery. Take, for example, the beautifully moulded speech of Cleopatra struggling to maintain her hold of Antony:

How shall I plead my cause, when you, my judge,
Already have condemned me? Shall I bring
The love you bore me for my advocate?
That now is turned against me, that destroys me;
For love, once past, is at the best forgotten,
But oftner sours to hate: 'twill please my lord
To ruin me, and therefore I'll be guilty.
But, could I once have thought it would have pleased you,
That you would pry, with narrow searching eyes
Into my faults, severe to my destruction:
And watching all advantages with care
That serve to make me wretched? Speak, my lord,
For I end here. Though I deserve this usage,
Was it like you to give it?

Nor is the play lacking those sententiae, the great commonplaces, without which no seventeenth-century play was complete, though as the century progressed they became less and less Senecan. No one would claim that Dryden's phrases, however memorable, compare with the tremendous platitudes that Shakespeare well-nigh sears us with: nevertheless they are a measure. In this play we have the once well-known 'Men are but children of a larger growth . . .' or:

O that I less could fear to lose this being,
which, like a snow-ball, in my coward hand,
The more 'tis grasped, the faster melts away.
Poor reason! what a wretched aid art thou!
For still, in spite of thee,
These two long lovers, soul and body, dread
Their final separation.

The play, to be sure, has echoes — but they are only echoes — from Shakespeare and Daniel, especially where Plutarch is invoked: but it exists in its own full-blooded right as an individual contribution to the corpus of English tragedy, and is still, from time to time, acted.

So is the most lively of his comedies, the yet sparkling Marriage-à-la-Mode (1673) embodying the quintessence of Restoration comedy, the sex-antagonism so delicately handled by Congreve. Many of the Court and its hangers-on at that period were engaged in the desperate attempt to rationalize love, trying to conduct their lives on the assumption that sexual attraction was easily separable from affection, that jealousy was ridiculous, and that a husband was, almost by definition, a fool whose obvious destiny was to be cuckolded. A large part of the game of Restoration comedy was to show how disastrous, how contrary to common sense, the assumptions were; for this comedy was in the main classical 'critical' comedy intent upon 'curing excess'. Far from being 'artificial' as it is commonly dubbed, it was very nakedly down to earth, and had a direct bearing upon how life was lived. Dryden states the theme at once with the song:

Why should a foolish Marriage Vow,
Which long ago was made,
oblige us to each other now,
When Passion is decayed?
We loved, and we loved, as long as we could,
Till our love was loved out in us both;
But our Marriage is dead, when the Pleasure is fled:
'Twas Pleasure first made it an Oath.
If I have Pleasures for a Friend,
And farther Love in store,
What wrong has he whose joys did end,
And who could give no more?
'Tis a Madness that he
Should be jealous of me,
Or that I should bar him of another:
For all we can gain,
Is to give ourselves Pain,
When neither can hinder the other.

The play is conducted with a romping gaiety throughout, till, schooled by bitter stark experience, the would-be erring couples agree to give over their frolics, and make a 'firm league not to invade each other's property'. The epilogue, full of delicious mockery, drives the point home. And parallel with the brisk comedy there runs a modulated, almost serene heroic pastoral play, which, a little sadly treats of the theme of constancy on another level. This different tinge of feeling gives an added depth to the pure critical comedy, the two plays not jarring with each other, but making an emotionally coherent whole.

Dryden did not altogether abandon playwriting till 1694; but there was a large gap, which he did not regret. He never felt himself very fitted for the theatre, least of all for comedy, on account, he said, of the 'sullenness' of his temper; indeed most of his comedies tend to become uproarious farces of incident. As for his tragedies, at one moment he carelessly cast off the remark, 'they were bad enough to please'. Yet in some ways his later work, in which he very considerably modified the heroic strain, is preferable to his earlier. In the comedies there is his version of Amphytrion (1690), in opera King Arthur (1691), and in tragedy, as opposed to heroic drama, the moving, and often tense Don Sebastian (1690) and Cleomenes (1692). And whatever he did, the vigour is always there, the amplitude of mind, and the confident versification.

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