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Meanings ofAll for Love, 1677-1813 Tanya Caldwell The ongoing emphasis in literary studies on the work of literature as cultural artifact, or as one in a number of"texts,"literary and otherwise , that derive meaning only from their interdependence, has had surprisingly little impact on Restoration and eighteenth-century theater studies, particularly the discussion of plays themselves. Since the playwright's script is but one factor in any performance, concern for intertextuality should lead to exploration of the mutability of any durable play's meaning,especially in a theaterworld that constantlyevolves, as this one did. Yet, whether located in aesthetics, in political or social issues, or even in the circumstances or personalities around which a play is written, the meaning or significance assigned to that play is almost invariably a fixed one. This critical tendency neglects two remarkable features ofdrama in the so-called long eighteenth century: the extent to which audiences dictated the content and mood ofplays, and the extent to which audiences, theaters, and new plays differed from each other. In prologue after prologue as well as in critical commentaries, playwrights and theater connoisseurs lament that the tastes of audiences—on which a play's success depended—debase the fare proffered. Such objections (and the sheer number of them) point to the subordination of the playwright's aesthetic concerns to audience expectations about a play.1 This raises interesting questions about those plays that had any longevity during this period but that do not have a readily apprehensible universalityofthe kind generally attributed to, say, Shakespearian drama. If, as they did, audience demands kept pace with the rapidly changing political and cultural milieus and theater personnel and atmospheres,then in order to appeal to these ever-changing demands the durable plays of this period must be endowed with qualities that are incompatible with the fixed meanings sought for them. 183 184Comparative Drama An outstanding example ofa play with a critical history as remarkable as its endurance on the eighteenth-century stage is one that in fact kept a Shakespearian play from the boards throughout the entire period. John Dryden's AU for Love (also known in its own time as Antony and Cleopatra) replaced Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra until 1813.2 HowardWeinbrot long ago showed the futility oflooking to Shakespeare for the key to AU for Love, leaving critics still pondering the reason for the endurance of this starkly neoclassical play—one formal to a degree that even Dryden himselfexpressed nervousness about.3 The critical dilemma has been confounded bythe doggedlytraditional approach,however : attention has focused not on those qualities that allowed it to survive chameleon stages and fickle audiences from the Restoration to the Regency, but on uncovering a particular moral, aesthetic, historical, or political meaning.4 The red herring was perhaps thrown out by Dryden himself: the "excellency of the Moral" promised in the preface (10). Pursuit ofthis moral,or atleastofsomepinpointable meaningthat makes sense ofit, has led to titles like"The Significance ofAU for Love" (1970) and to assurances that "the value system of the play" lies in a circumscribedhistorical context (2000).5Theresultofsuch searches for a single encompassing meaning is that the only consistency amongst the criticism ofAU forLove is, as Harry Solomon notes, its inconsistency.6 The play's elusiveness is itself, however, the key toits durability. In light ofits stage history,AUforLoveclearlyhas an openness and flexibilitythat , even as theyhave remained resistant to critical analysis, allowed the play to adapt to quite different theaters and audience needs. It was able to please audiences of the 1670s and 1680s who were directed in their responses by Charles II,his libertine courtiers,and the political and philosophical issues that riveted the Restoration. In the first part ofthe eighteenth century, it was equally able to attract more finicky audiences who loved to sympathize with characters and weep over heroines in distress , and who were profoundly interested in women's issues. The play also drew audiences to the cavernous Regency theaters, where the preferred fare was spectacle and the sense of intimacy between audience and actors that the earlier period had enjoyed was lost due to the physical nature ofthe playhouses. For each ofthese eras ofproduction AUfor Love...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 183-211
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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