Dryden the Dramatist
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[ 275 Dryden the Dramatist1 It is not such an easy matter to explain the utility to English letters and civilisation of Dryden’s dramatic work, as it is to persuade of the importance of his poetry. Here are, in the edition of 1735 which I have, six volumes of miscellaneous plays, the chief product of twenty years of his life: it would be in a modern edition one fairly stout volume.2 The point is: are we to consider these plays as merely the by-product or waste-product of a man of genius, or as the brilliant effort to establish an impossible cause, or have they, perhaps, any important relation to the development of English literature ? Would Dryden be as important as he is, would he have accomplished just as much as he did, if he had never written these plays at all; plays, one or two of which a small number of people to-day have had the opportunity of seeing on the stage, and three or four of which a rather larger number of people have read? We begin, all of us, with every prejudice against Dryden’s “heroic drama.”3 There is one great play in blank verse, All for Love, and the difficulty about that is that Shakespeare’s play on the same subject, Antony and Cleopatra, is very much greater – though not necessarily a much finer play. There are several fine plays in rhymed couplets, of which there is none better than The Conquest of Granada, and the trouble with them is that they are not in blank verse.4 It is extraordinarily difficult not to apply to these plays irrelevant standards of criticism, and standards, moreover, which are not exactly of play-writing or even of verse-making. We have always at the back of our minds a comparison which is not in kind. Most of us preferthereading,notonlyofShakespeare,butofseveralotherElizabethan dramatists to that of Dryden. And in our reading of Elizabethan plays, we are inclined to confer upon them the dramatic virtues of the most actable (on the modern stage) of Shakespeare’s plays, because they have some of the reading virtues of these and the rest of Shakespeare’s plays. I shall not venture here to investigate the nature of the dramatic in poetic drama, as distinguishable from the poetic in poetic drama; only to point out that the problem is much more of a tangle than it looks. For instance, there is that which expressed in word and action is effective on the stage without our having read the text before: that might be called the theatrically dramatic; and there Essays, Reviews, and Commentaries: 1931 276 ] is also the “poetically dramatic,” that which, when we read it, we recognize to have dramatic value, but which would not have dramatic value for us upon the stage unless we had already the perception of it from reading. Theatrically dramatic value in verse exists when the speech has its equivalent in, or can be projected by, the action and gesture and expression5† of the actor; poetic dramatic value is something dramatic in essence which can only be expressed by the word and by the reception of the word. Shakespeare, of course, made the utmost use of each value; and therefore confuses us in our attempt to estimate between the minor Elizabethans and Dryden; for neither they nor Dryden had such vast resources. But to make my point a little clearer I will take parallel passages from Antony and Cleopatra and from All for Love. In the former play, when the soldiers burst in after Cleopatra’s death Charmian is made to say It is well done, and fitting for a princess Descended of so many royal kings. Ah, soldier! (dies).6 Dryden’s Charmion says: Yes, ’tis well done, and like a Queen, the last Of her great race. I follow her. (Sinks down and dies).7 Now, if you take these two passages by themselves, you cannot say that the two lines of Dryden are either less poetic than Shakespeare’s, or less dramatic ; a great actress could make just as much, I believe, of those of Dryden as of those of Shakespeare. But consider Shakespeare’s remarkable addition to the original text of North, the two plain words, ah, soldier.8 You cannot say that there is anything peculiarly poetic about these two words, and if you isolate the dramatic from the poetic, you cannot say that there is anything peculiarly dramatic...