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CHAPTER IV.

DRYDEN AND THE RESTORATION DRAMA.

DRYDEN occupies an unique position as by far the most important representative of a department of literature for which, on his own showing, he had little natural qualification, and in which he had little ambition to excel. Only one of his numerous plays, he tells us, was written to please himself. But he wanted reputation, money, and Court favour, and these inducements directed him to the most popular and lucrative department of the Muses' province. Here, as elsewhere, his progress was slow. His first play, The Wild Gallant (1663), has come down to us in an amended version; in its original forn it is pronounced by Pepys 'as poor a thing as I ever saw in my life.' Dryden might long have remained an unsuccessful dramatist but for the invention of rhyming tragedy, which, though in itself an objectionable form, suited his talent to perfection. The management of the heroic couplet was and always continued the strongest of all his strong points, and his genius for rhetoric was stimulated to the utmost by the facilities afforded by this sonorous form of metre. Hence The Indian Emperor (1665) was a great success, and determined the main course of Dryden's dramatic activity for some years. It necessarily brought him nearer to the French drama, and gave a French character to the drama of the day, not really in harmony with the taste of the

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English public, and from which Dryden ultimately freed himself. The opinion of the day was prepared to go in the direction of classicism as far as Jonson, but not as far as Corneille. The French traveller Sorbière having in 1663 censured the irregularity of the English stage, was answered by Sprat, who asserts the superiority of his countrymen, and points out the fundamental difference in the taste of the two nations. The French,' he says, 'for the most part take only one or two great men, and chiefly insist upon some one remarkable accident of their story; to this end they admit no more persons than will serve to adorn that: and they manage all in rhyme, with long speeches, almost in the way of dialogues, in making high ideas of honour, and in speaking noble things. The English on their side make their chief plot to consist in a greater variety of actions, and, besides the main design, add many little contrivances. By this means their scenes are shorter, their stage fuller, many more persons of different humours are introduced. And in carrying on of this they generally do only confine themselves to blank verse.' Sprat then proceeds to point out the advantages of the English method; and it is evident that neither he nor the public imagined themselves to be on the eve of such serious modifications of the national drama as actually took place modifications to be chiefly attributed to the taste of the Court, and the more easily effected from the paucity of theatres.

The inferiority of the Restoration drama to the Elizabethan is one of the commonplaces of criticism, perhaps even one of its platitudes, and cannot be admitted without some qualification. Yet, as the broad general statement of a fact, it is undeniable, and the fact is a proof that the elements which preserve a play as literature for posterity are not those which fit it for the contemporary stage. In every play of serious purpose there is, or should be, an earthly part and a spiritual, dramatic craftsmanship and poetical inspiration. In the former particular the Restoration dramatists compare not unfavourably with their predecessors, always excepting Shakespeare; they fail not as dramatists, but as poets. The whole Elizabethan drama is steeped in an atmosphere of poetry. To say nothing of its chief representatives, take up such satires as The Return from Parnassus, or such merely occasional pieces as the academical play on Timon which preceded Shakespeare's, and you will not doubt that you are reading the work of a poet. Read through, on the other hand, the best plays of the representative dramatists of the Restoration, and you will generally find the poetical element concentrated in a few brilliant passages. In the Elizabethan age, it is evident,

. men lived at such a height of heroic and romantic sentiment that the purveyors of public entertainment could not but be poets. In the Restoration era, on the other hand, men habitually lived, breathed, and wrote prose; and when the dramatist would be a poet, he had to set himself to the task. To convince ourselves that the distinction between poetry and prose is not artificial, as Carlyle seemed to think, but essential, we have only to consider the widely different influence of Elizabethan and Restoration drama upon the after world. Both, excepting the works of Shakespeare, are virtually dead as acted drama. But in losing the stage the Restoration drama has lost everything, while the Elizabethan is yet a living and working force. It powerfully co-operated in the splendid revival of English poetry at the end of last century; it is at this moment an inspirer and a nurse of young genius. It is inconceivable that the Restoration drama as a whole should inspire anyone, or that it should count for anything as a factor in future developments of literature. One is a perennial plant, which may die down

die down to the root in ungenial seasons, but will assuredly put forth new flowers; the other is a fossil, curious and in some measure beautiful, but devoid of vital force. And for this, the merely intellectual merits of both being so considerable, no reason can be given but that one is on the whole poetical, and therefore living, the other on the whole prosaic, and therefore inert. Hence we may prophesy of the success of the endeavour of Ibsen, and other men of distinguished talent, to produce dramas conceived in an entirely realistic spirit, and entirely devoted to the problems of modern society. Such competitions will be valuable pièces justificatives for the intellectual history of the nineteenth century, but they will be extinct as literary forces long ere the end of the twentieth.

This, nevertheless, is to be said for the Restoration dramatists, that their art is not an imitation of an extinct form of the drama, but is at least something new, really expressive of the sentiments of their generation. The imitation of Shakespeare could only have produced gross unreality, which must have degenerated still further into mere inanity. The playwrights did what the contemporary painters should have done, they fell back, in a measure, upon realism when high imagination was no longer possible. If they had gone further in this direction their works would have possessed more intrinsic merit, and have claimed a more important place in the history of culture. Their tragedies would not so often have been rendered unnatural by the employment of rhyme, and their comedies would have exhibited the manners and the morals of the English nation, and not merely of the playgoing part of it. It cannot be believed that the comedy of that age affords anything like so faithful a picture of the seventeenth century as Fielding's novels do of the eighteenth. The realistic tendency was chiefly conspicuous in the closer approach to the language of common life, and in the more logical character even of appeals to emotion. The extravagant transports of heroes and heroines only betray that true imagination had grown cold; but the manly nervous sense and the almost forensic reasoning so often found in their company show that a new stratum had really been touched.

Another consideration should not be overlooked in the comparison between the Elizabethan and the Restoration drama, that the debasement of the latter is exaggerated from the seeming abruptness of the metamorphosis undergone by the former. Passing from the stage of Shakespeare to the stage of Dryden, we appear to have suddenly entered a new world. The representatives of the drama seem instantaneously transformed by some Circean potion into beings of a lower type.

We do not immediately remember that the gradual development which would have interpreted the apparent prodigy was rudely interrupted by the Civil War and the Commonwealth. If the interval between Shirley and Dryden had been continuously occupied by popular dramatists, we should have observed the change slowly coming on, and have watched the older form shading off into the newer by gradations not more violent than those by which the latter subsequently passed into the drama of the eighteenth century. As it is, the poets of Charles II.'s time seem the authors of a revolution of which they were merely the instruments. The younger portion of their audiences, on whose suffrages they had mainly to rely, had scarcely so much as seen a play. The spells of authority and tradition were broken, or at least so grievously impaired as to be unable to withstand the seduction of French example. Honest Samuel Pepys would not have so easily pronounced the Midsummer Night's Dream'a mean thing' if the romantic drama had not been absolutely extinct for him. And, taking a broad

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