John Dryden "An Essay of Dramatic Poesy"

Purpose of Thinking

Primarily focusing on drama, the poetry of plays, Dryden ultimately wants to make a case for the achievements of the British in that respect. In somewhat "Platonic" method, he creates a dialogue between poet/critics of the day who have different viewpoints about the strengths and weaknesses of, and influences on, British poesy. The benefit of this is to mount an argument which takes a variety of positions into consideration. Rather than attempting to create a new set of "rules" for drama, comedy, or verse, he chooses instead to review the existing, generally accepted conventions and decide in what respects they are being followed, or whether they should be followed by English writers. Further, through the use of the four-way dialogue, he is able to provide some insight on the prevailing notions of the day. It may be worth noting that the "characters" in this dialogue are associated for the purpose of argument with specific points of view: Crites praises the Greeks and Romans suggesting that they cannot be surpassed; Eugenius recognizes their worth but suggests that they have indeed been exceeded and in many instances are not consistent in their adherence to Aristotle's conventions; Lisideius suggests that the French are superior to the English; and Neander (ostensibly Dryden) counters that, based on their agreed definition of what "a play ought to be," the English are superior.

Question at Issue (problem)

What are the merits and demerits of English writing of the time? What are the influences for English writing? Can the English writing during that time be compared favorably or not to the writers of antiquity? Are French drama and verse superior to English? What is the value of the three unities? Are they consistently applied by the ancients? By the French? By the English? If not, why not? Should these conventions be an over-riding consideration? What is, or is not, the value of rhyme in verse and drama? What is its place if any? What about the place of verse in drama?

Information/Interpretations/Concepts/Crucial Assumptions

The dialogue begins with Crites complaining about two types of "bad" English poets: the first are the poets who "perpetually pay us with clenches upon words and a certain clownish kind of raillery;" (bad metaphysicals?) and the second is he who " affects plainness to cover his want of imagination" (bad Puritans?) He goes on to suggest that no one writing can surpass the ancients or even the previous generation of English writers, to which Eugenius responds that he might be rejecting everything recent just because it is recent. The debate begins in earnest when the four decide that they will "limit their dispute" to a discussion of dramatic poesy and whether the "ancients were superior to the moderns." Additionally, they must decide on a definition of what a play should be. Lisideius offers the agreed upon terms:

just and lively image of human nature, representing its passions and humors, and the changes of fortune to which it is subject, for the delight and instruction of mankind.

Crites develops the main points in defending the ancients and the objections to modern plays. The moderns are still imitating the ancients and using their forms and subjects, relying on Aristotle and Horace, adding nothing new and yet not following their good advice closely enough, especially with respect to the unities of time, place and action. While the unity of time suggests that all the action should be portrayed within a single day, English plays attempt to use long periods of time, sometimes years. In terms of place, the setting should be the same from beginning to end with the scenes marked by the entrances and exits of the persons having business within each. The English, on the other hand, try to have all kinds of places, even far off countries, shown within a single play. The third unity, that of action, requires that the play "aim at one great and complete action", but the English have all kinds of sub-plots which destroy the unity of the action. In anticipating the objection that the ancients' language is not as vital as the moderns, Crites say that we have to remember that we are probably missing a lot of subtleties because the languages are dead and the customs far removed from this time. Crites uses Ben Jonson (Father Ben) as the example of the best in English drama, saying that he followed the ancients "in all things" and offered nothing really new in terms of "serious thoughts".

Eugenius responds that though "the moderns have profited by the rules of the ancients" they have "excelled them." He points first to some discrepancies in the applications of the unities, mentioning that there seem to be four parts in Aristotle's method: the entrance, the intensifying of the plot, the counter-turn, and the catastrophe. But he points out that somewhere along the line, and by way of Horace, plays developed five acts (the Spanish only 3). As far as the action. Eugenius contends that they are transparent, everybody already knows what will happen; that the Romans borrowed from the Greeks; and that the deus ex machina convention is a weak escape. As far as the unity of place, he suggests that the ancients weren't the ones to insist on it so much as the French, and that that insistence has caused some artificial entrances and exits of characters. The unity of time is often ignored in both. As to the liveliness of language, Eugenius counters Crites by suggesting that even if we don't know all the contexts, good writing is always good, wit is always discernible, if done well. He goes on to say also that while the ancients portrayed many emotions and action, they neglected love, "which is the most frequent of all passions" and known to everyone. He mentions Shakespeare and Fletcher as offering "excellent scenes of passion."

Lisideius' discussion of the French follows. He declares them the best of all Europe because of their adherence to the unities, and the most important point here is that they maintain the unity of action by not adding confusing sub-plots. Here he begins the discussion of the English tragi-comedy, which he calls "absurd". He commends the French as well for basing their tragedies on "some known history," that in this way fiction is combined with reality so that some truth can be revealed. He compares Shakespeare's history plays, saying that "they are rather so many chronicles of kings," years of history packed into a 2 1/2 hour play so that the point is lost. He reports that the French do several things much better than the English. First, they keep the plot to one action which they then develop fully where the English add all kinds of actions that don't always follow from the main one. The French also focus on one main character and all the characters have some connection with him and have a purpose that advances the plot. Additionally, the French use narration (reporting by the characters) to describe things that happen, like battles and deaths, that Lisideius says are ridiculous when shown on stage. "The representation" of incidents that cannot be portrayed as realistic, possible, or believable anyway, are better omitted. This goes, I think, to the issue of decorumsince he says "some parts of the action are more fit to be represented, some to be related." Further, he says the French never end their plays with "conversions" or "changes of will" without setting up the proper justification for it. The English, by contrast, show their characters having changes of heart that are over-reactions to circumstances and therefore not believable. Also, in the French plays, the characters never come in or leave a scene without the proper justifications being supplied. Finally, he compliments the "beauty of their rhyme" suggesting that it would help English poetry, though he doesn't think there's anyone capable of doing it properly.

Neander has the last word, suggesting that based on the definition of a play, the English are best at "the lively imitation of nature" (human nature), conceding that while French poesy is beautiful, it is beautiful like a "statue". He even says that the newer French writers are imitating the English. One fault he finds in their plots is that the regularity, which has been complimented as uncluttered, also make the plays too much alike. He defends the English invention of tragi-comedy by suggesting that the use of mirth with tragedy provides "contraries" that "set each other off" and give the audience relief from the heaviness of straight tragedy. He suggest that the use of sub-plots, if they are well-ordered, make the plays interesting and help the main action. Further, he suggests that English plays are more entertaining and instructive because they offer an element of surprise that the ancients and the French do not. As far as decorum, things the French choose not to portray on-stage, he brings up the idea of the suspension of disbelief. The audience knows that none of it is real, why should they think scenes of death or battles any less "real" than the rest? I think here he credits the English audience with a certain robustness in suggesting that they want their battles and "other objects of horror." Ultimately, in discussing the English habit of breaking the rules, he suggests that it maybe there are simply too many rules and often that following them creates more absurdities than they prevent.

In the last of the essay, a discussion of the proper use of rhyme and verse ensues, mostly between Crites, who wants to eliminate the use of rhyme, which he sees as sounding artificial, and Neander, who says if you want to eliminate rhyme on that basis, why not verse on the same grounds. Neander suggests that comedy should not be rhymed but that the heroic tragedy should be. To Crites' charge that it is too much invention, Neander says that if a writer must choose every word, that is artificial. If properly done, the additional artifices of verse and rhyme are no less contrived, but can add to the effect of the play.

Implications/Consequences/Points of View

That Dryden concerns himself with the influence of the French is no surprise. Charles II, installed as King after the fall of the commonwealth under Cromwell, returned from exile in France, and court society during his reign adopted much of French fashion and taste. Corneille, especially in his heroic tragedies, was a favorite, and in this genre, Dryden would never surpass him. His concerns expressed in the essay about the Roman and Greek influences naturally follow because of Corneille's adherence, and that of the French writers in general, to the conventions of unity and considerations of decorum. Dryden's strength in writing for the stage would be in the comedies which reflected the changing social milieu. As far as discussion of the influences in English plays, he focuses on Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, the Homer and Virgil of English play-writing, respectively. Shakespeare he admits can be inconsistent, sometimes flat and bombastic, yet Dryden says he had "the largest and most comprehensive soul." Jonson, on the other hand, he calls the "most learned and judicious writer which any theatre ever had." Jonson could use all the conventions as well as the ancients of the French. Dryden, commenting on the two together notes that he "admires" Jonson but he "loves" Shakespeare.

But for the British loyal to the king, and Dryden was, the restoration was also time of renewed nationalism, and Dryden seems, at least in this essay, to be interested in defending British sensibilities. Dryden was also very concerned in his art with the events of the day. Even this piece of criticism begins at the moment of the second British victory over the Dutch. Some of Dryden's best works are his later ones, particularly Absolom and Achitophel prompted by the Popish plot, and are inspired by specific political and social issues of the day. In that respect, as well as stylistically in the use of heroic couplet, they contrast works of broader scope such as Paradise Lost published in 1666 by John Milton, who Dryden would compare to Homer and Virgil in his 1688 "Epigram on Milton." (By contrast to Dryden, Milton seems clearly from a different era). Dryden's real strengths were translations, the later satires, and the solidifying of a base for continuing British criticism.

Although he was Poet Laureate during the reigns of Charles II and James, he was relieved of the honor with the ascension of William and Mary, remained loyal to James, and converted to Catholicism. His (1700) "Secular Masque," written for the turn of the century, registers a disenchantment with the entire age. It is interesting, in light of what he says in "An Essay..." to look at a play like Congrieve's (1700) "The Way of the World" which is marked by the shift from verse to prose, the more natural reflection of conversation that Dryden seems to suggest as a possibility for comedy.

Additional Information: Parry, Graham. The Seventeenth Century: The Intellectual and Cultural Context of English Literature 1603-1700. New York: Longman, 1989. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 5th ed.

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