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  • A Double Vision of Albion: Allegorical Re-Alignments in the Dryden-Purcell Semi-Opera King Arthur
  • Andrew Pinnock

Dryden’s King Arthur is famously a “problem” (Hume 40–42). Conceived along with the opera, Albion and Albanius, in 1683–4 as a propaganda piece conveying messages consistent with those rammed blatantly home in Albion and Albanius, King Arthur did not reach the stage or appear in print until 1691 (Winn 393–395). By then the political context had changed profoundly. Dryden and Thomas Betterton, the actor-manager overseeing production of King Arthur, needed to persuade naturally suspicious stage licensing officials that out-of-date allegorical machinery had been dismantled and that the show, when eventually it opened, would have no capacity to “offend the present Times” (Dryden 16: 6). We know their persuasive efforts succeeded—licensed performances went ahead—but have only a vague idea what those efforts entailed. Though Dryden described a process of thoroughgoing revision in his preface to King Arthur, that account aimed to influence reader responses to the published text—not the outcome of a licensing application submitted well before copies of the word-book went on sale.1 The assumption that words spoken and sung during King Arthur’s initial run were faithfully relayed to readers of the word-book—that Dryden, given an opportunity to restore passages cut or altered in performance, declined to take advantage of it—does not seem to me to be a safe one. [End Page 55]

When literary evidence is studied alongside musical evidence, and likely licensing conditions are borne in mind, a clearer-than-expected picture of original—unrevised, uncensored—King Arthur starts to emerge. Dryden’s original allegorical intentions can be better understood. So can the process of the allegorical re-engineering with which he was forced to go along. Often the “chase after author-designated allegorical specifics” seems ill advised: critical “debate is more feasible if the ‘meaning’ at issue is understood to reside in the mind of the spectator” (Hume 32). Meanings multiply, elaborate, and reflexively enrich each other as spectator numbers increase: Steven Zwicker’s paper in the present collection starts from this premise and develops it brilliantly. But in the case of King Arthur I think allegorical specifics, authorial intentions part frustrated and part (though rather furtively) fulfilled, continue to matter. Dryden’s allegorical design has been persistently misconstrued. Here, revisiting and extending some of my earlier work on King Arthur (“King Arthur Expos’d”, a 1995 Purcell tercentenary essay), I make further efforts to clarify it.2 Reviewing sources from a new angle, that of the stage censor, I can account for gaps and redundancies much more satisfactorily. Words not by Dryden and music not by Purcell infiltrated King Arthur for reasons I can now explain. With their function revealed, the suggestion that thematic links exist between King Arthur and the 1691 Queen Mary birthday ode, Welcome, welcome glorious morn (Pinnock and Wood 2009) seems more readily believable. For Purcell editors and Purcell performers the implications are serious: new editorial search areas and new performance possibilities emerge. For historians of Restoration literature I hope they are at least interesting.

Political Background

In the 1680s and 1690s England’s civil war was a recent, painful memory, and its re-eruption was a present threat. Views on how best to maintain political order divided along party and religious lines. The causes of the civil war were more complicated than a categorical power struggle between royalists and republicans. From many points of view, the war was a necessary effort to restrain unreasonable—impossible—kingly behaviour. Charles I had alienated everyone except his closest cronies; disaffected aristocrats sided with Parliament against the king. In 1660, eleven years after Charles I’s execution, Charles II was invited back to England and restored to the throne. Oliver Cromwell had died shortly before; other than Charles, a replacement acceptable both to Parliament and to the military could not be identified. Parliamentary conditions attached to the restoration settlement were not very clearly spelled out. Was he king by divine right, as the first-born son of the previous king, or king on parliamentary sufferance? When he died, would the crown...


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