- How Many Political Arguments Can Dance on the Head of a Pin?
I want to begin these remarks about King Arthur by noting two recent interpretations of the opera that stand at opposite ends of the interpretive scale: Mark Morris’s 2006 production, and Vinton Dearing’s edition for the California Dryden.1 Morris treats Dryden’s script in a rather cavalier manner, lifting the music and lyrics out of the opera and leaving wholly behind Dryden’s play; in his hands King Arthur becomes a vaudeville routine—a series of numbers loosely bound together by recurring characters and, of course, by Purcell’s wonderful music. At the other extreme we have Dearing’s careful commentary in sixty pages of close packed notes that explicate less than half the number of words in the opera itself. If Morris does not take Dryden’s play quite seriously enough, perhaps Dearing takes Dryden’s play too seriously. Morris eliminates the contradictions and incoherence of King Arthur by erasing the play altogether. Dearing, instead of eliding the problems, highlights, niggles, and corrects, as if Dryden were trying to get the history right but was either too forgetful or negligent to bother with the details.
Dearing asks, for example: do the Saxons flee the battlefield (I.i.10–14), or do they rout the Britains (I.i. 31–39. 314, n.10–14)? Is Conon blaspheming because he imagines Arthur “as a Forgiving God,” or has Dryden simply forgotten that Conon is a Christian (315, n. 64)? Does Dryden mix Roman and German religious practices out of ignorance or negligence (318, n. 23–24)? Are Philadel’s repeated sex changes a kind of primal shape shifting, or does Dryden simply fail to keep track of his pronouns (318, n. 24–25; 322, n. 64–123; 325, n. 11)? Is black the softest color as Matilda declares (II.i.28), or has she forgotten that “Dryden had written the opposite in Don Sebastian” (323, n. 28–29)? When Emmeline says, on the curing of her blindness, “The sun? ‘tis sure a God,” has Dryden forgotten that “Emmeline’s father is a Christian or, when [End Page 103] making him so, did he forget this passage, or suppose that a Christian maiden might adopt pagan language as appropriate to her feelings” (327, n. 99)? Nor are we at an end of Dryden’s negligence: he forgot too that Emmeline imagines trumpets in more than one way (327, n. 153–154); and he read his Geoffrey of Monmouth in so great a hurry that he imagines Geoffrey sanctions the suggestion that Arthur is a descendant of Aeneas (336, n. 30). Dearing notes other problems, but perhaps these are enough to suggest that the editor has somehow picked up the opera from the wrong end, that a catalogue of inconsistencies might be appropriate to history masquerading as opera, but King Arthur is something else. Dryden knew very well the difference between history and myth; he had written in the Preface to Absalom and Achitophel: “Were I the Inventour, who am only the Historian, I shoud certainly conclude the Piece, with the Reconcilement of Absalom to David” (2: 4). Never mind that Dryden did quite a bit of inventing in that poem; in the Dedication to King Arthur Dryden makes no claims on behalf of history. He invokes, rather, “that Fairy kind of writing, which depends only upon the Force of Imagination” (16: 7), a style and attendant subject that form the grounds of pleasing his most discerning patroness, the Duchess of Monmouth, who had twenty-five years earlier allowed her name to be associated with theatrical invention in Dryden’s dedication to her of The Indian Emperor, a mythic history as remote from the archive as Dryden’s Arthurian legend.
Would the inconsistencies and incongruities of King Arthur have been of concern to Dryden? Is the opera in need either of major surgery or of minor patching and correction? Perhaps Morris and Dearing are equally if rather differently mistaken, but we need to allow that both the choreographer and the scholar are responding to a set of problems at the center of King Arthur. What...