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REPRESENTATIVE ENGLISH DRAMAS

FROM DRYDEN TO SHERIDAN

JOHN DRYDEN

THE CONQUEST OF GRANADA

John DRYDEN was born of good, vigorous Puritan stock on August 9, 1631, at Aldwinkle in Northamptonshire. The rigorous drill of Busby, and much reading in the Latin and Greek poets at Trinity College, Cambridge, made up his academic education till 1654, when he received his bachelor's degree. His poetic genius was slow in developing, as the notorious verses on the death of Lord Hastings abundantly testify, and it was not till the death of Cromwell in 1658 that he did anything with much promise of eminence in verse. This production was the Heroic Stanzas, followed two years later by Astrea Redux, which welcomed the restored Charles. Dryden, as Professor Root points out, is not to be charged with mere time-serving, since he but joined in the universal welcome to a king who seemed to assure stability of government when a collapse was threatened by the weak rule of Richard Cromwell. Dryden was throughout in strong sympathy with autocracy.

In 1663 began his active connection with the stage that lasted more or less constantly for thirty-one years and that witnessed the composition of twentyeight plays. He wrote comedies that pandered all too successfully to the corrupt taste of the Restoration Court, such as The Wild Gallant and The Rival Ladies (1663), Marriage à la Mode (1672), and The Spanish Friar (1681); heroic plays, which are the most striking examples of the peculiar product of this age, such as Tyrannic Love (1669), The Conquest of Granada : (1670-2), and Aurengzebe (1675); adaptations of foreign plays, such as Sir Martin Mar-all (1667) from Molière, and of native plays, such as The Tempest with D'Avenant (1667), All for Love (1677-8), and Troilus and Cressida (1679) from Shakspere; a “tagging” of Milton's Paradise Lost in The State of Innocence (1674); a dignified tragedy in Don Sebastian (1690); and a bitter invective with the purely political purpose of stirring up English wrath against the Dutch in Amboyna (1673). After writing his earlier plays in the heroic couplet he discarded in All for Love his “long-loved mistress Rhyme " for blank verse. It was a long and arduous service for a man not particularly gifted as a dramatist, but it gave him a mastery of verse and of terse expression, as one can see by comparing his early work in Annus Mirabilis (1667) with the splendid satires of the '80's.

In 1670 Dryden attained the height of his popularity when he was appointed historiographer royal and poet laureate, and he expresses his supreme self

satisfaction in the Epilogue to the Second Part of The Conquest of Granada. Punishment quickly followed in the Duke of Buckingham's Rehearsal (1671), in which he is mercilessly caricatured as the silly, conceited, and immoral “Mr. Bayes” and his heroic plays are made the butt of enduring wit. His political affiliations led to his entering the controversy with Shaftesbury and the Whigs and to his writing the most brilliant poetry of his career, Absalom and Achitophel (1681), The Medal and Mac Flecknoe (1682), the last being directed particularly against the unfortunate poet Shadwell for his share in the controversy. Dryden's interest in the cause of law and order, which seemed then most assured by the Anglican Church, occasioned Religio Laici (1682), in which he conceived of the Church as a via media between the foreign tyranny of Papistry on the one hand, and the seditious anarchy of the Fanatics on the other” (Root). When James II ascended the throne, Dryden embraced the Roman Catholic faith and championed it in The Hind and the Panther (1687). The Church was to him a political institution and he now saw in it the most effective agency for enforcing obedience to government. His purely religious convictions were wholly negligible.

Dryden's prose work consists chiefly of essays in the form of prefaces to his plays and poems, and it covers the entire period of his authorship. Pre-eminent are the Essay of Dramatic Poesy (1668), An Essay of Heroic Plays (1672), and A Discourse Concerning the Original and Progress of Satire (1693). Not without justice has he been called the first writer of modern prose.

With the Revolution in 1688 Dryden lost all his offices so that he had to depend upon authorship for his living. He translated Juvenal and Persius (1693) and Vergil (1697); he composed Alexander's Feast (1697) and wrote his Fables (1700). He died on May 1, 1700, and was buried in Westminster Abbey.

“The two parts of The Conquest of Granada are written with a seeming determination to glut the public with dramatick wonders; to exhibit in its highest elevation a theatrical meteor of incredible love and impossible valor, and to leave no room for a wilder flight to the extravagance of posterity. All the rays of romantick heat, whether amorous or warlike, glow in Almanzor by a kind of concentration. He is above all laws; he is exempt from all restraints; he ranges the world at will, and governs wherever he appears. He fights without enquiring the cause, and loves in spite of the obligations of justice, of rejection by his mistress, and of prohibition from the dead. Yet the scenes are, for the most part, delightful; they exhibit a kind of illustrious depravity, and majestick madness: such as, if it is sometimes despised, is often reverenced, and in which the ridiculous is mingled with the astonishing."

Dr. Johnson's judgment of The Conquest of Granada (1672), thus delivered about a hundred years after the production of the play, does not differ essentially from that of the present. The heroic play was at best a short-lived species of drama, and the contemporary Rehearsal had already in burlesque pretty well taken its measure. The wonder to us at first glance is that such a fantasia of extravagant emotions should ever have been applauded by admiring audiences and been written by such a genius as Dryden. The explanation is to be found partly in social conditions. The patrons of the Restoration theatre were the dwellers in the Court and its purlieus. Charles had come into his own and proceeded to enjoy it. After twenty years of Puritan rule England by royal example was to be merry once more. Naturally, there was a mighty swing of the pendulum from the repression of all worldly pleasures, as shown in the closing of the theatres in 1642, to the uncontrolled license that marked their opening in 1660|| The actresses were for the first time regularly established on the English stage, and a vivacious beauty was sure of preferment as a royal or at least a noble mistress. The dialogue of comedy and the prologue and epilogue of tragedy and heroic play'carried suggestiveness to a limit unparalleled in our stage history. Yet in so doing they did not surpass the actual conduct of the patrons of the theatres.

Now, as if to form a proper artistic contrast, the heroic drama represented usually, in the rôles of Nell Gwyn and her like, persons of extraordinary virtue successfully undergoing temptations that would corrupt an anchorite. It exalted pure love and marital fidelity to a degree unattempted yet in prose or rime. Sensual love is

a monster of so frightful mien

As, to be hated, needs but to be seen. 2

3 Lyndaraxa is as abhorrent an instance of selfish infidelity as Almahide is a glorious example of unselfish devotion to duty. Death is as nothing when it comes between the pure love of Ozmyn and Benzayda. Hard-hearted parents relent before the pleadings of innocent affection. Such exalted virtue formed no part of the daily life or experience of those who applauded it on the stage. It has, moreover, a falsetto note which betrays it; the lovers protest too much; devotion unto death is largely a matter of words. It was part of the insincerity of the age that demanded that the protestations of virtuous love should be loud if not deep. An audience that laughs at immorality is the readiest to applaud virtue provided it is sufficiently declamatory.

There was a similar extravagance in sentiment. England put on gay colors on the death of Oliver. Gallantry, the fine flower of courtly life, attains a rank growth while homely love withers. The sprightly cavalier flourished on and off the boards, and he held amorous discourse and correspondence with some matchless Orinda. But there was no real chivalry back of the dainty speeches; it was merely a pretty game to play out of a book in which the participants strove to outdo each other in clever repartee.

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