Theater 32.2 (2002) 76-77
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Dryden and Pithiness
A Look into The Cambridge Companion to English Restoration Theatre Raises the Question: What Are Friends For?
The Cambridge Companion to English Restoration Theatre edited by Deborah Payne Fisk 2000: Cambridge University Press
It's alternately comforting and creepy to know that we are never or at least never need be—in anything we do—alone. From the Cliffs Notes on Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain to Garrison Keillor's public-radio cute guide to life on the prairies to the oceans of hand-holding how-tos in the For Dummies series, God bless companionship; nothing need seem strange to us anymore. We have traveling companions and longtime companions, and, too, we have Cambridge companions. And I guess the success or failure of such camaraderie has much to do with what you're looking for in the relationship.
Now I like variety of conversation, ready wit, ironic detachment, political attachments, and a forgiving nature. This is probably why heretofore I've found English Restoration theater such good company. Its appeal for theater makers and scholars alike is clear, and the fact that there is in it still much undiscovered country (from whose bourne Aphra Behn is only lately returned) makes it more attractive still. This book's editor, Deborah Payne Fisk, in her persuasive preface cites the vitality of the plays with constant and recent restagings, the significance of women's contributions to the work (as actors and authors), and the volatile and fascinating relation between politics and art in the era as the catalysts that called this volume into being.
What follows, however, is a little disappointing. Although there are thorough, useful bibliographies and a good chronology, the essayists seem unable to communicate an appreciation of these plays as plays—as opportunities for actors, directors, designers, and dramaturgs to breathe themselves on. (The exception to this is the essay by my colleague Joseph Roach titled "The Performance.") Plays, unlike most other art forms, are vital things patiently awaiting reanimation. Too often here the plays are treated merely as disquisitions or cultural artifacts to be dusted off and tortured under a microscope of scholarly exegesis.
However much Fisk and company assure us that "restoration theater need no longer apologize for its considerable claims on our attention," the cumulative effect of these essays is a kind of protesting too much—a bullying and elbowing out a place in the canon based almost exclusively on the drama's connection to [End Page 76] and subversion of prevalent political forces. That connection is very interesting and difficult to overstate, but these playwrights were at once artists and professionals who often wrote, as a Henry Fielding character so baldly put it, "to amuse the town and bring full houses." So did Shakespeare; so did Molière. It is the fact that they did so with wit and vitality and extraordinary elegance of expression and situation that separates them from other boulevard playwrights in their era and ours. Anyone who has worked in the theater knows just what an act of virtuosity great playwriting is, and it should be celebrated as such—especially when the target audience is, as it is here, students.
The book has an extremely tight critical palate. Its citations of plays and commentaries, indeed, the same passages in those texts, come up an astonishing number of times—so much so that students may be led to underestimate the variety of the era and overestimate modern critical consensus. On the other hand, if John Dryden's Conquest of Granada, Nathaniel Lee's Lucius Junius Brutus, and Thomas Shadwell's The Lancaster Witches don't enter the repertory of college theater troupes, it won't be the Cambridge Companion's fault. And truly, the regeneration of interest in these and other neglected texts is one of the volume's clear victories. If only that interest could have been dramaturgically as well as academically evoked.
With friends like The Cambridge Companion to English Restoration...