- Restoration Drama and “the Circle of Commerce”: Tragicomedy, Politics, and Trade in the Seventeenth Century
The late Richard Kroll’s ambitious study will be of great interest to scholars of Renaissance and Restoration drama. It is an explicitly seventeenth-century study, and a theoretical introduction explains its methodology. Kroll’s approach to the period is based on an opposition of two modes of reading and writing he terms “lyrical” and “rhetorical,” and it will be familiar to those who know his earlier book The Material Word: Literate Culture in Restoration and Early Eighteenth Century Culture (Johns Hopkins UP, 1991). As in the earlier book, here too Kroll argues that a kind of cultural dominant that he terms “rhetorical” (or at other times “dramatistic” or more simply “neoclassical”) structured works of the period, making them self-conscious aesthetic forms that convey self-conscious and mediated political ideologies. Rhetorical works, for example Dryden’s Essay of Dramatic Poesy, or Hobbes’s Leviathan, are dialogic and digressive; they unfold themselves in a spatial imagery of wandering and contemplation; they are resolutely perspectival and eclectic in method; and, finally, in their very form as well as their content they oppose intellectual and political dogmatism. (All this is opposed to what Kroll calls the Romantic or “lyric” mode: cultural works based on doctrines of expressive genius, immediacy, self-evidence, and transcendence.) Whether works of the period ought to be bifurcated this way is subject to debate, but regardless Kroll is an observant and innovative reader, able to make canonical and non-canonical works appear in a new light—something I found particularly impressive about both The Material Word and this new book.
The first part of the book, “The Conditions of Restoration Drama,” is dedicated to showing why Beaumont and Fletcher’s drama was so important during the interregnum and the Restoration. Two chapters examine first the nature and legacy of the Fletcherian mode, and second the fully rhetorical ethos in which later works such as Dryden’s were constituted. Kroll argues that Fletcherian tragicomedy was used as a heuristic device throughout the seventeenth century. As an internally conflicted genre, tragicomedy was self-consciously artificial and reflexive, and its internal tensions forced audiences to think through fundamental cultural issues such as the nature of political legitimacy or the value of different types of credit and exchange. In Kroll’s eyes, a culture functions not unlike a collection of monads in which all parts reflect [End Page 53] to various degrees common features of a fundamental ideology. In this argument, the rhetorical mode so evident in some literary works, based in self-reflexive contingency, parallels new arguments in economic and medical theory. Kroll argues, for example, that “the imaginative transformation of physiology that occurred after [Harvey’s 1628] De Motu Cordis, in which the entire body participates in a single circulatory mechanism, and the new result of the three Dutch Wars, whose consequences in favor of English seaborne trade become increasingly clear after the mid 1670s, move in similar directions which are visible in the dramas of that decade” (261). Different discourses in a society are so many illustrative analogies for one another. Similarly, seventeenth-century tragicomedy for Kroll is shot through with the tensions of many other realms of culture and infrastructure. For example, tragicomedy was a means of analyzing overtly on stage the nature of genre and of politics, but it also worked to anatomize “a series of related imponderables which accompanied the massive growth of trade during the period” (5). This last suggestion, that many well-known Restoration plays are also sophisticated explorations of economic policies and problems, is among the most challenging and original theses of the book, but also most in need of further development, as I will explain below.
The middle third of the book, its second part, is dedicated to William Davenant and, to a lesser extent, his sometime collaborators Inigo Jones and John Webb. It is the strongest part of the work, and will surely make a lasting contribution to...