The following article is reprinted from A History of English Literature. William Vaughn Moody and Robert Morss Lovett. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1902.
When the theatres were closed in 1642, the succession of great Jacobean dramatists had nearly come to an end, Shirley alone being alive. However, the drama retained its hold on the masses; even under Cromwell, the playwright Davenant obtained permission to give a play with a musical accompaniment, The Siege of Rhodes (1656). To this opera Dryden attributed the beginning of the dominant fashion of the time in tragedy, the heroic play, to which type many of Dryden's own dramas belong. To the most famous of them, The Conquest of Granada, he prefixed the essay, "Of Heroic Plays," in which he cites also the example of Ariosto, with his stories of love and valor, as contributing to his conception. The heroic play, though by no means an imitation of French tragedy, owed something to the example of Corneille, especially its heightening of characters to heroic proportions, and probably also its use of rhyme. Dryden defended the use of rhyme, in the dedication to one of his early plays, on the ground that "it bounds and circumscribes the fancy. For imagination in a poet is a faculty so wild and lawless, that like an high ranging spaniel it must have clogs tiet to it lest it outrun the judgment." This philosophy, so typical of the time, did not prevent Dryden from pushing his characters into unnatural extravagance of passion; a fault which, as it appears in The Indian Queen (1664), The Indian Emperor (1665), and The Conquest of Granada (1670), was caricatured in The Rehearsal (1671), a famous mock heroic drama by the Duke of Buckingham and others.
In the last of his heroic plays, Aurengzebe (1675), Dryden confesses in the prologue that he "grows weary of his long-loved mistress, Rhyme." Accordingly his next play, All for Love (1678), a rehandling of the story of Antony and Cleopatra, he wrote in blank verse. This play is commonly regarded as his dramatic masterpiece. In addition to his tragedies, Dryden wrote a number of comedies in prose and tragicomedies in a mixture of prose and verse, most of which are too broad for modern reading.
A writer who on two occasions surpassed Dryden, Thomas Otway (1651-1685), was an unsuccessful actor who turned to writing plays. His Don Carlos (1675), written in rhymed couplets, won for him his first success. When Dryden abandoned rhyme, the world of playwrights changed with him; and Otway's second important play, The Orphan (1680), was in blank verse. The situation, turning upon the love of two brothers for Monimia, the orphan ward of their father, is one which Ford might have created. In working it out, Otway is relentless; he has evolved from it one of the cruelest of English tragedies. In his power of deepening the horror by a lighter, simpler touch, pitiful as a strain of music, he reminds us again of the later Elizabethans, especially of Webster. Even more successful than The Orphan was Venice Preserved (1682), in which, as in The Orphan, Otway caught something of the greatness of handling characteristic of an earlier time. His plays have the genuine passion which Dryden lacked, and they are not marred by the distortions of human life and character that abound both in Dryden and in the Jacobean dramatists.
Except for the plays mentioned, the tragedy of the Restoration has, in the main, only a literary interest, as a survival of the great dramatic period, and as an illustration of foreign influences. The Restoration comedy, however, is a genuine reflection of the temper, if not of the actual life, of the upper classes of the nation; and as such it has a sociological as well as a literary interest. As practised by Shakespeare, English comedy had been romantic in spirit. However seriously it had been concerned with the essentials of human nature, it had had comparatively little to do with the circumstances of actual human life. In Ben Jonson and Middleton, and especially in the latest of the Jacobeans, Shirley, we find more realistic treatment of the setting, the social surroundings, of the play. Following their lead, and stimulated by the example of Molière, the comedians of the Restoration devoted themselves specifically to picturing the external details of life, the fashions of the time, its manners, its speech, its interestes. For scene they turned to the most interesting places they knew, the drawing-rooms, the coffee-houses, the streets and gardens of London. Their characters were chiefly people of fashion, and their plots, for the most part, were love intrigues, often borrowed from the French, both developed with clever dialogue. In tendency these plays are, almost without exception, immoral. They represent the reaction of the playgoing public against Puritanism. They are antisocial, in that they represent social institutions, particularly marriage, in an obnoxious or ridiculous light; but they are not romantic or revolutionary. There is in them never an honest protest against institutions, never a genuine note of revolt. Conventions are accepted to be played with and attacked, merely by way of giving opportunity for clever, corrupt talk, or point to an intrigue.
The first of this school of comedians was Sir George Etherege (1635-1691), an Englishman who had been educated at Paris, and who there had seen the comedies of Molière. Etherege was followed by _William Wycherley_ (1640-1715), whose best plays are The Country Wife (1673) and The Plain Dealer (1674). Both are borrowed in outline from Molière, but their moral atmosphere is that of the corrupt court of Charles II, where Wycherley was a favorite. William Congreve (1670-1729) was a far more brilliant playwright. His masterpieces, Love for Love (1695) and The Way of the World (1700), carry the interest of dialogue, of the verbal fence between character and character, to its extreme development.
It has been pointed out that one effect of the age that succeeded the Restoration was to organize society, to restrain the license of the individual. The antisocial influence of the plays of the time was clearly perceived, and protest was not lacking. It took time for the protest to gather force, in face of the spirit of wild reaction against all that savored of Puritanism; but in 1698 a clergyman, Jeremy Collier, published his Short View of the Profaneness and Immorality of the English Stage, and Dryden, who was one of the dramatists particularly attacked, admitted the justice of the rebuke. Its immediate effect was not sufficient to do away with the coarseness of Restoration comedy, which appears to the full in Sir John Vanbrugh (1666-1726); but an improvement is noticeable in the works of George Farquhar (1678-1707), the last of the school; and in Steele's plays the drama is in full alliance with the forces which were making for morality and decent living.
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