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  • The Intermedial Dramaturgy of Dramatick Opera: Understanding Genre through Performance
  • Amanda Eubanks Winkler

The Restoration genre of dramatick opera has provoked discomfort, both among modern scholars and its own creators. This notoriously slippery genre combined speech, song, dance, instrumental music, and lavish special effects and was known by various terms on title pages of the period, including “tragedy,” “opera,” “dramatick opera,” and, in the pejorative early eighteenth-century writings of Roger North, “ambigue entertainments” or “semi-operas,” terms that foreground the genre’s hybridity and its supposed deficiency.1 The notion that there was (and is) something ill-defined about dramatick opera has informed discussions of the genre both then and now. Many scholars have probed the definitional challenge, and some have attempted to draw clear parameters around dramatick opera. Richard Luckett has observed that dramatick opera was actually Bettertonian opera, as the genre flourished after the actor/impresario, Thomas Betterton returned from a 1671 trip to France, brimming with ideas about how to deploy spectacle at the new Dorset Garden Theatre.2 Judith Milhous’s classic study of what she calls “multimedia spectaculars” (her term for dramatick opera) seems to initially resist clear-cut edges, as she notes that “the difference [between the dramaturgy of plays of the period and dramatick opera] is often one of degree rather than kind,” although she eventually draws a line of demarcation, stating that dramatick opera presented a special set of technical demands because of its heavy reliance on machines.3 Andrew Walkling’s forthcoming study on dramatick opera is even more insistent on boundaries; he creates a new generic distinction, the “spectacle-tragedy,” to describe plays that possess the same components as dramatick opera, but to a lesser degree.4 With regard to definitional issues, I tend to agree with Robert Hume (and the Restoration-era Dorset Garden theater prompter John Downes): opera was defined by the inclusion of music and spectacle, and there were no [End Page 13] clear rules about what constituted a threshold for the genre. The Restoration Macbeth was called an opera. So was the Restoration Tempest. And so was Thomas Shadwell’s comedic The Lancashire Witches (1681).5 We should be as capacious in our definition of dramatick opera, then, as theater practitioners were in the late seventeenth century. In addition, as James Winn has persuasively shown, a common set of musical-dramatic-scenic conventions threads through English opera, heroic drama, and, eventually, early Italian operas crafted for English audiences, such as G.F. Handel’s Rinaldo (1711).6 To put it bluntly, dramatick opera was part of a larger, particularly English baroque aesthetic, a point to which I will return below.

The other supposed problem with dramatick opera is a dramaturgical one, and this issue has been broadly discussed both in the Restoration era and among scholars and stage directors today. As Brian Corman recently observed in this journal, “By the time serious histories were being written, what was called Italian opera . . . was the established norm, and other forms [such as dramatick opera] were measured against it, rarely to their advantage.”7 There is a widespread notion that dramatick opera’s constituent parts—spectacle, music, dance, and text—do not fully cohere. One might be forgiven for conceiving of dramatick opera in such a way, for writers of the time, most notably John Dryden, critiqued the genre even as they participated in its creation. Dryden derided the supposed primacy of sound and spectacle over poetry and drama, echoing a debate that, in the English context, stretches back to Ben Jonson’s arguments against Inigo Jones’s courtly masque aesthetic.8 Indeed, the presumption that dramatick opera is static, incomprehensible, or deficient has shaped many a modern staging, or, in some cases, has caused directors to declare that such works are unstageable for modern audiences without significant adaptation and intervention.9 In the essay that follows I argue that thinking of dramatick opera as an intermedial rather than a multimedia genre provides a more productive, less pejorative way of understanding its baroque dramaturgy and, furthermore, reorients our modern critical discourse around dramatick opera to offer modern directors insight into ways of successfully staging these works today. The...