*An Essay of Dramatic Poesy, by John Dryden
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An Essay of Dramatic Poesy
by John Dryden, 1667–68
When John Dryden (1631–1700) published the Essay of Dramatic Poesy late in 1667 or early in 1668, he was already actively engaged in writing for the London stage. He had written, collaborated on, or adapted some seven plays in various genres, including comedy, tragicomedy, and heroic. Inevitably, he had become embroiled in the controversies that arose after the Restoration. Playwrights and critics were beginning to assess their theatrical inheritance and to evaluate precisely what sort of drama gave best expression to the new age’s sense of its own modernity.
The Essay was written while Dryden was out of London in flight from the plague.
Between June 1665 and December 1666, he was staying at Charlton in Wiltshire, the country estate of his father-in-law, the Earl of Berkshire; this period also saw the composition of the heroically patriotic Annus Mirabilis, the most substantial of Dryden’s early attempts to mythologize the Stuart monarchy. Both works have in common the contemporary drama of the sea battles against the Dutch, providing an epic canvas and subject for the poem, and a backdrop and extended metaphor of international conflict for the essay.
Precedent for such a confrontational setting had already been established by some unflattering remarks made upon the English stage by the French commentator Samuel Sorbière in his Relation d’un voyage en Angleterre (1664; Account of a voyage in England). Foreign slanders provoke indignant counterblasts, and, in the following year, Thomas Sprat, the historian of the Royal Society, published his Observations on M. de Sorbière’s Voyage into England. At about the same time, Dryden was involved in a debate on the question of rhyme with his brother-in-law and collaborator, Sir Robert Howard (soon to become the Crites of the Essay). In the dedication to The Rival Ladies (1664), Dryden had argued in favor of rhymed drama, to which Howard replied in the preface of his Four New Plays (1665), rejecting the device on the grounds of its “unnaturalness.” Here were all the ingredients for civil and international “war,” and, in part at least, the writing of the Essay can be seen as an episode in a landscape of critical skirmishes.
Unlike the greater part of Dryden’s criticism, which is found in prefaces, prologues, and dedications, the Essay is distinguished by its formally articulated speeches, and by the poise with which conflicting critical positions are offered for the reader’s consideration. We are witness to a sophisticated débat between four Restoration gentlemen as they float down the Thames on a barge, the better to catch the sound of “distant Thunder” as the English and Dutch navies “disputed the command of the greater half of the Globe.” As his combatants dispute the relative merits of Ancient and Modern drama, of English and French theatrical practice, Dryden conjures up echoes of the Platonic dialogue, although his dramatic reconstructions lack Plato’s purposeful drive toward a conclusion. He is at pains to avoid the dogmatism which bedeviled much previous 17th-century criticism. If Dryden has an agenda, it is perhaps no more specific than, as T.S.Eliot suggested in The Use of Poetry and the Use of Critidsm (1933), “the necessity of affirming the native element in literature.” As a working dramatist, Dryden has his preferences, but resists that submission to the Rules most often identified with French theorists. Thus, his advocacy of rhyme, echoed in the Essay by Neander, would, in his later career, be revised. In fact, the Essay remains speculative in its presentation of antithetical ideas, and is best characterized by Dryden’s own explanation in his Defence of An Essay of Dramatic Poesy (1688), “My whole discourse was sceptical… You see it is a dialogue sustained by persons of several opinions, all of them left doubtful, to be determined by the readers in general.”
The four occupants of Dryden’s Platonic barge are usually identified with
contemporary figures. The three “persons [of] Wit and Quality” are Sir Robert Howard (Crites), Charles Sackville, Lord Buckhurst (Eugenius), and Sir Charles Sedley (Lisideius), and it seems reasonable to assume that the fourth character, Neander, is Dryden himself, the names being almost anagrammatic. Their opening exchanges display the currency of ironic repartee familiar from Restoration comedy, as fears are voiced that an English victory will be heralded by a plethora of outlandish celebrations from those ever-eager “leveller[s] in poetry.” These tart remarks, carrying more than a hint of cultural elitism, lead into a serious discussion of drama.
Lisideius proposes a definition for a play which all accept, although the precise meaning of “A just and lively Image of Human Nature” will be differently interpreted according to each speaker’s idea of how it is that Art should imitate Nature. The Essay is then given over to a series of set speeches in which the companions put forward what they consider to be the best examples of dramatic representation. Crites launches the debate with his advocacy of the Ancients: the radically classical viewpoint. It is true that he states a preference for the plays of “the last age” (Elizabethan and Jacobean) over the present; his central contention, however, is that in classical drama we find the eternal verities, which have never received more powerful expression. The current age has discovered its own genius in scientific progress, but in the theater its best hope is to conform to the rules provided by its predecessors. He cites the application of the pseudo-
Aristotelian “Unities” as an example of how far short of the classical model the Moderns have fallen.
Eugenius, in response, attempts to turn Crites’ points against him. Progress in science has been matched by progress in the arts. The Moderns have improved upon the older dramatists’ hackneyed exploitation of myth; furthermore, they are more precise observers of the “Unities,” which, as he accurately observes, are mostly the product of continental criticism. Perhaps most importantly of all, the modern theater has corrected the moral laxity of the Ancients, whose plays too often condoned a “Prosperous Wickedness, and an Unhappy Piety.”
The second topic of debate is introduced by Lisideius. He accepts the success of the earlier English stage, but relocates modern classicism in France. The French are strict observers of the “Unities”; they have rejected that peculiar English hybrid, the tragicomedy; they have modernized and simplified their plots to give them a familiar credibility; and they have engaged in a more searching exploration of human passion.
Narration has, to an extent, replaced action, so that the performances are no longer embarrassed by inept death scenes and acts of violence. Out of such classical spareness, claims Lisideius, emerges a new verisimilitude.
It is left to Neander to reply, and to summarize, one suspects, on Dryden’s behalf. He acknowledges the superior “decorum” of French drama, but then qualifies his approval by allowing French plays only the lifeless beauty of a statue. And, with a sly glance at the Unity of Place, he describes the scenery moving around two motionless characters as they endlessly declaim. Conversely, the English stage is more vital, more exciting. Subplots and tragicomedy lend variety and contrast, dramatic dialogue is better suited to passion, and even violent action is justified by deference to popular appeal. Neander is realigning the original definition of a play by shifting the focus from “just” to “lively,” from an exact versimilitude to a more dynamic likeness to life.
The Essay has apparently sustained Dryden’s claim that it is a skeptical discourse.
Three versions of classicism have held the stage, but Neander’s deferential conclusions have persuasively illuminated Dryden’s true ambition: a vindication of English drama. It is one which will pay sufficient respect to the rules, but which will be generous enough to accommodate the wilder genius of a Shakespeare who “when he describes any thing, you more than see it, you feel it too.”
Of Dramatic Poesy: An Essay, 1667 or 1668; revised edition, 1684; as An Essay of Dramatic Poesy, edited by Thomas Arnold, 1889, P.D.Arundell, 1929, George Watson, 1962., and John L. Mahoney, 1965
Aden, John M., “Dryden, Corneille, and the Essay of Dramatic Poesy,” Review of English Studies 6 (1955):147–56
Aden, John M., The Critical Opinions of John Dryden: A Dictionary, Nashville, Tennessee: Vanderbilt University Press, 1963
Archer, S., “The Persons in An Essay of Dramatic Poesy,” Papers on Language and Literature 2 (1966):305–14
Atkins, J.W.H., English Literary Criticism: 17th and 18th Centuries, London: Methuen, 1951
Davie, D., “Dramatic Poetry: Dryden’s Conversation Piece,” Cambridge Journal 5 (1952):553–61
Hume, R.D., Dryden’s Criticism, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1970
Huntley, Frank L., “On the Persons of Dryden’s Essay of Dramatic Poesy,” Modern Language Notes 63 (1948):88–95
Huntley, Frank L., On Dryden’s “Essay of Dramatic Poesy”, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1951
Jensen, H.James, A Glossary of John Dryden’s Critical Terms, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1969
LeClercq, R.V., “Corneille and An Essay of Dramatic Poesy,” Comparative Literature 22 (1970):319–27
LeClercq, R.V., “The Academic Nature of the Whole Discourse of An Essay of Dramatic Poesy,” Papers on Language and Literature 8 (1972):27–38
Mace, D.T., “Dryden’s Dialogue on Drama,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institute 25 (1962):87–112
Reverand, C.D., “Dryden’s ‘Essay of Dramatic Poesie’: The Poet and the World of Affairs,” Studies in English Literature 22 (1982):375–93
Thale, Mary, “Dryden’s Dramatic Criticism: Polestar of the Ancients,” Comparative Literature 18 (1966):36–54
Williamson, G., “The Occasion of An Essay of Dramatic Poesy,” Modern Philology 44 (1946):1–9
Wimsatt, W.K., and Cleanth Brooks, Literary Criticism: A Short History, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978 (original edition, 1957)
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