- “Too hasty to stay”:Erotic and Political Timing in Marriage à la Mode
The political import of Dryden’s Marriage à la Mode has been infrequently grasped. Critics of the play have understandably fixated on the relationship between its heroic and comic plots, regularly ignoring or misconstruing the dual engagement of those plots with the ongoing conceptual crises that mark the Restoration political milieu.1 Recently, for instance, David B. Haley has noted the “political insouciance” of Dryden’s comedies (this one in particular), suggesting that “audiences would not have taken very seriously their protean heroes and sovereigns” (195).2 Those critics who register the play’s political dimension seem generally to see Dryden as making relatively conservative gestures, like Duane Coltharp, who associates it with a “breezy royalism” (430).3 My own inclination is to concur with Richard Kroll, for whom the text is “a meditation on the conditions and limitations of Stuart power” (Restoration Drama 253). I suggest, more specifically, that Dryden stages this political critique by means of a figural pattern that has gone without sufficient explanation. Throughout Marriage à la Mode, the characters make obsessive reference to issues of time and timing. As they attempt to gain the various objects of their desires in the linked spheres of erotic and political activity, they encounter a set of coordination problems. When one character attains marriageable nobility, another one loses it; when one lover is about to cuckhold another, his wife chooses the same place for her “assignation,” and so forth.
By stressing the fundamental antipathy between time and stable human meanings, Dryden engineers a delicate critique of Stuart ideology, reminding us of the degree to which the institution of the monarchy tends to suppress awareness of the contingent and circumstantial nature of its authority and to foreground instead images of symbolic and atemporal repletion. In this sense, Dryden’s play is engaged in a vital skeptical debate about the relationship between [End Page 1] temporality and human institutions. At the local, historical level, his play considers the Restoration’s inevitable tendency toward a species of historical distortion; Jessica Munns reminds us that the Carolean court favored notions of history that effectively “buried the inconvenient years of commonwealth and Protectorate,” while foregrounding the “dynastic and eternal” (110–111). This is a predictable impulse given that writers on statecraft from antiquity to Pocock have emphasized the anxious relation between institutions and diachronic temporality. As Pocock sees it, early modern political theorists understood the fragility of the state to center on the difficulty of “maintaining a particular existence” within time, understood as “the dimension of instability” (75). J. R. Jones also registers the particular Restoration expression of this dilemma, noting the royalist impulse to expunge the recent past; this is as much as to say that ideology, at such a historical juncture, requires an artificial rearrangement or elision of time—a willed suppression of the contingency that Pocock understands as the hallmark of temporal experience.4
The plot and general structure of the play emphasize the difficulty of constructing the temporal fictions that underlie univocal assertions of meaning. The characters strive for two (constantly analogized) sorts of imagined fulfillment: serene political order and perfect erotic reciprocality.5 Achievement of these goals depends on the extraordinarily difficult task of creating moments of simultaneity. The low plot’s tendency to interrupt assignations and deny sexual satisfaction undercuts the suspensions of time required to establish a modicum of political stability in the high plot; at the same time, the high plot is itself reflexive and overtly reliant on contrivance. The two plots, in this sense, are of course individually and cumulatively dialectical. In both, I argue, interpretive stability can only be achieved by means of a forced temporal hiatus. In this sense, Dryden is out to dramatize the collision between iconic habits of thinking that construe the symbolic as the real by freezing time and glossing over mutability, and (on the other hand) the shifting, locally and temporally variable sorts of meaning that are constitutive of what minimal political order we can attain. The former mode requires, for even temporary sustenance, the repulsion of time. The latter can subsist in a state of temporal...