A Dialogue on Dramatic Poetry. With the Original Preface
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396 ] A Dialogue on Dramatic Poetry. With the Original Preface1 Preface To compete with the late W. P. Ker and Mr. Nichol Smith and other scholars by attempting a learned introduction to Dryden’s essay would be merely to commit a presumption and a superfluity.2 The following method occurred to me as hitherto untried and as challenging no comparisons. Dryden composed his essay in the form of a dialogue, which might by some stretch of imagination have taken place between cultivated critics of his time. I have therefore composed a dialogue which may, with less stretch of imagination, for my language is less elegant and my periods shorter-breathed, be supposed to have taken place between half a dozen fairly intelligent men of our time. And as the topics discussed by Dryden’s party were issues of his day, so are mine issues of our day. If I cannot add to the knowledge and understanding of Dryden, I can perhaps add to his glory by the contrast. But my purpose is, if possible, to throw the dialogue of Dryden into a rather new light, by the great contrast between the topics, and between the attitudes towards them. For this the centuries are responsible. My dialogue represents the scraps of many actual conversations at divers times and in divers circumstances;andisintendedtocollectsomerepresentativetopicsamongst those which arise in any such conversation to-day. Dryden and his friends could discuss a “dramatic poetry” which actually existed, which was still being written; and their aim was therefore to construct its critical laws. We, on the other hand, are always discussing something which does not exist but which we should like to have brought into existence; so we are not occupied with critical laws; and so we range over a wide field of speculation, asking many questions and answering none. The dialogue is a form even more convenient for my purpose than it was for Dryden’s. Dryden had written great plays; but the contemporary critic has not written a great play, so is in a weak position for laying down the law about plays. If he dogmatised, he would expose himself to the adjuration to go and write the poetic drama of the future instead of talking about it. But the dialogue form enables me to discuss the subject without pretending to come to any conclusion. Furthermore, Dryden’s own opinions issue quite [ 397 A Dialogue on Dramatic Poetry clearly from his dialogue; I have no clear opinions on this subject. Hence I have distributed my own theories quite indiscriminately among the speakers ; and the reader must not try to identify the persons in the dialogue with myself or anyone else. They are not even fictions; they are merely voices; a half-dozen men who may be imagined as sitting in a tavern after lunch, lingeringoverportandconversationatanhourwhentheyshouldallbedoing something else. A Dialogue on Dramatic Poetry E: You were saying, B, that it was all very well for the older dramatic critics – you instanced Aristotle and Corneille and Dryden at random – to discuss the laws of drama as they did; that the problem is altogether different and infinitely more complicated for us. That fits in with a notion of my own, which I will expound in a moment; but first I should like to know what differences you find. B: I need not go into the matter very deeply to persuade you of my contention . Take Aristotle first. He had only one type of drama to consider; he could work entirely within the “categories” of that drama; he did not have to consider or criticize the religious, ethical or artistic prejudices of his race. He did not have to like so many things as we have to like, merely because he did not know so many things. And the less you know and like, the easier to frame aesthetic laws. He did not have to consider either what is universal or what is necessary for the time. Hence he had a better chance of hitting on some of the universals and of knowing what was right for the time. And as for Dryden. I take Dryden because there is an obvious, a too obvious, hiatus between the Tudor-Jacobean drama and that of the Restoration. We know about the closing of the theatres, and so on; and we are apt to magnify the differences and difficulties.3 But the differences between Dryden and Jonson are nothing to the differences between ourselves, who are sitting here to discuss poetic...


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