- “Confronting Art with Art”: The Dryden-Purcell Collaboration in King Arthur
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For those of us who love it, the recent explosion of interest in King Arthur is cause for celebration. At the same time, however, it is important to remember what we do not know about this work. We do not possess a manuscript of Dryden’s libretto as originally scripted in 1684, so that we cannot know how far to credit his claim that political considerations obliged him to “take away so many Beauties from the Writing, that it is now no more what it was formerly, than the present Ship of the Royal Sovereign, after so often taking down, and altering, is the Vessel it was at the first Building” (Works 16: 6).1 Nor do we possess a reliable source for Purcell’s music. Modern editors, as Curtis Price has acknowledged, face “a confused assortment of more than sixty manuscripts and miscellaneous publications, none of which includes the complete music” (297). In addition to the daunting editorial problems posed by this scrappy collection of sources, the absence of an authoritative score means that when Dryden’s text prints an italicized song for which we have no music, we cannot know whether Purcell wrote music that we have sadly lost, or simply chose not to set the lines in question.
We also know very little about the collaboration between poet and composer. It may be pleasant to imagine Dryden visiting Purcell in order to hear him play the music he was composing, and to wonder whether their discussions of the music were friendly or contentious, but there is no hard evidence that such meetings actually took place. Thomas Betterton, who was managing the theatre at this time, and who had vast experience with operatic productions, may simply have handed Purcell the script and asked him to provide music by a certain date, and Dryden may not have heard the music before the [End Page 33] production went into rehearsal. Price has alleged that “Purcell and Dryden apparently waged a ... battle over the lyrics in King Arthur, a dispute that the composer seems to have won handily,” but that is his inference from Dryden’s preface (296). Like the offstage battle in the opera, the struggle between poet and composer—if indeed there was a struggle—is invisible to us. We have only the mangled corpse of the surviving music from which to guess whether there was either a friendly collaboration or a stubborn competition. In this essay, I offer some inferences and hypotheses about the collaboration, based on the past experiences of both men, some relevant though ambiguous remarks by Dryden in various works, and finally the evidence of the opera itself.
For most of his dramatic career, Dryden wrote plays with specific actors in mind, and he was usually familiar with the capacities of the scene-painters and composers with whom he worked. When the Catalan composer Luis Grabu came back to England from Paris in 1683 to work on the operatic project of which the original King Arthur was part, he was not an unknown quantity to Dryden: Grabu had composed the music for the version of Oedipus on which Dryden collaborated with Nathaniel Lee in 1678, and while that music is lost, we may be certain that Dryden had this earlier experience in mind when he wrote lyrics in the expectation that Grabu would set them. The lines that the Cold Genius sings when summoned by Cupid, for example, bear a close resemblance to the lines the ghost of Laius speaks when summoned from Hades in one of the musical scenes from Oedipus.
Ghost of Laius. Why hast thou drawn me from my pains below, To suffer worse above? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . For pity send me back, where I may hide, In willing night, this Ignominious head.[Oedipus, III, i, 345–46; 348–49]
Genius. What Power art thou, who from below,Hast made me Rise, unwillingly and slow . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . I can scarcely move, or draw my Breath...