A CRITICAL STUDY OF THE HEROIC ENGLISH DRAMA

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INTRODUCTION

The Restoration period was not just an era of comic extravaganza on evil manners; there was equally an effort to produce drama of serious note. John Dryden (1631 – 1700), Thomas Otway (1652 – 1685), Nathaniel Lee (1653 – 1692), Nicholas Rowe (1674 – 1718), Roger Boyle (1621 – 1679), and Elkanah Settle (1648 – 1724), among others, made giant stride to create tragic drama in the likeness of the French neoclassical tragedy, but the drama that emerged was distinctly English because as MacGowan and Melnitz (1955) observed, it merely stepped “up earlier tendencies” in English drama by being panoramic and deeply steeped in violence. This unit examines heroic drama which is the counterpart of the Restoration comedy.

Heroic Drama

Although the taste of the English audience of the Restoration age inclined itself more to comedy, serious attempts were made by some playwrights of the time to write tragic plays. It is this second genre of the Restoration drama that is referred to as heroic drama. In some quarters, it is also known as heroic tragedy or heroic romance. The heroic drama represents an attempt by writers inclined to classicism, to give the English theatre a school of classic drama after the tradition of the plays written by the French Pierre Cornielle and Jean Racine.

In fact, the heroic drama seeks to evoke the spirit of the French neoclassicism on the English stage. In order to gain the attention of the audience already taken by the spirit of comedy of humours and evil manners, the playwrights of the heroic drama created plays that present “blown – up characters who spouted high – flown rhetoric, indulged in extravagant sentiments, and were generally torn between love and honour” (Vargas 1960, 134).

In distinguishing the Restoration comedy from the Heroic drama, Downer (1950) states that:

The serious counterpart of the Restoration comedy is so utterly different that it is difficult to believe they were intended for the same theatre and audiences. Instead of the amiable man – about – town – with an epigram upon his lips and several hundred more about his sleeve, with little money, no heart, and a large trope of creditors, with a wandering eye and a horror of permanent entanglements, the hero becomes a superman – of – the – world, richly robed in fantastic colours and materials, with a mass of ostrich plumes sprouting from his helm, and endless tirades of moral tags, vaunts, taunts and epithets spouting from his lungs. The actors, the same audience, each apparently accepting and believing in a totally different concept of virtue, a totally different set of ethical values.

The hero is more than man in grandeur and has capacity for incredible action. He is eccentric and possesses an unimaginable vocal ability. Like the hero, the heroine is highly idealised. She has a copious ability to endure anguish of the soul. She is ready to die than to betray her virtue.

Her earth – born passion may step up but her notion of love outside of marriage is platonic, such that heightens piety.

Although the heroic drama was patterned after the French Neo-classical plays, it is important to note that:

English neo-classicism was always more liberal than the version that prevailed on the continent. Unity of action was interpreted to permit a number of related sub-plots and the unity of place was thought to have been adequately observed if the characters could move easily between the various locales without violating, the 24 – hour time limit (Brockett and Hildy 1999, 237).

It is necessary to state that in spite of the French model and critical authority, the heroic drama retains that true – born English nature as the playwrights of the genre filled their plays with ample activities and violence. John Dryden the most significant literary figure of the period states in his essay Defence of Dramatic Poesie that “my chief endeavours are to delight the age in which I live” and in order to realise this he declares his willingness “to break the rule for the pleasure of variety”. The implication is that the English neoclassicists were never encumbered by the French neoclassical ideals.

The heroic drama is extremely moralising. This is because, as Dryden posits in the same essay, a play ought to be, “A justly and lively image of human nature representing its humours and passions, and the changes in fortunes to which it is subject, for the delight and instruction of mankind”.

Heroic drama is written in rhyming couplets. Its sensational actions are played out in exotic setting; because the heroic drama was a “diet of undiluted rant and heroic endeavour… a style trod too closely on the heels of bathos”, it became “a fair game for the satirist (Vargas 1960). Critics like George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham saw nothing subtle about the genre. Grandiloquent dialogue and over – blown and idealised characters became obvious targets for witty deflation.

In fact, The Rehearsal (1671) by the Duke of Buckingham was a burlesque on the heroic drama, a stinging satire against its theme and fantastic worlds. However, modern critics have departed from the notion of the heroic drama being an escapist drama. They have tried to point out the political tendencies of the plays. Apart from the popular theme of love versus honour, issues of gender, colonialism, and political philosophy have been isolated as themes of heroic drama.

Biography of John Dryden

John Dryden, critic, poet, playwright, translator, and historiographer, was the most remarkable literary figure of the Restoration period and the most notable author of heroic drama. He was born on August 9, 1631 at Aldwincle, Thrapston, Northampton shire. The eldest son of the fourteen children of Eramus Dryden and Mary Pickering, John had puritan grandparents who supported the puritan cause.

He received his early education in Northampton shire before proceeding to Westminster School in 1644. According to wikipedia:

As a humanist school, Westminster maintained a curriculum which trained pupils in the art of rhetoric and the presentation of arguments for both sides of a given issue. This is a skill which would remain with Dryden and influence his later writing and thinking as much of it displays these dialectical patterns. The Westminster curriculum also included weekly translation assignments which developed Dryden’s capacity for assimilation. This was also to be exhibited in his later works. His years at Westminster were not uneventful, and his first published poem, and eulogy with a strong royalist feeling on the death of his schoolmate Henry, Lord Hastings from small pox alludes to the execution of King Charles I.

In 1654, Dryden obtained his B.A. at Trinity College, Cambridge, and graduating top in his class. On graduation, he took up appointment with Cromwell’s secretary of state. This job was facilitated by his maternal cousin, the Lord Chamberlain, Sir Gilbert Pickering. Together with other puritan poets Milton and Marvell, Dryden produced a eulogy during the funeral of Cromwell on November 23, 1658.

In 1660, Dryden celebrated the Restoration of the monarchy and the return of Charles II with Astraea Redux, an authentic royalist panegyric. In this poem, the Commonwealth era was described as a period of anarchy while King Charles is seen as the bringer of peace and order. It is, therefore, worthy to note that Dryden’s first poems were written upon occasions of national importance.

Following the reopening of the theatre, Dryden soon launched himself as an important playwright and critic having transferred his allegiance to King Charles. His first play The Wild Gallant was written in 1663 the year he married Lady Elizabeth who bore three sons for him. From 1668, he was a resident playwright for the King’s Company of which he later became a shareholder. Dryden wrote comedies but he excelled in heroic drama of which The Conquest of Granda is deemed to be an exciting example.

When the plague forced the theatres in London to be closed in 1665, Dryden turned his attention to poetry and dramatic criticism. In the latter, he defended his theatrical practice. His essays are works of great and independent mind who feels strongly about his own ideas and they demonstrate the incredible breadth of his reading. His essays include: Essay on Dramatic Poesie” (1668), “Preface Evening Love” (1671), “Of Heroick Plays” (1672), “Preface to Troilus and Cresida” (1679), “Preface to by Sylvae” (1685), “A Discourse Concerning the Original and Progress of Satire” (1693), etc.

In 1668, he was appointed both poet laureate and city historiographer, but the two public offices were taken away from him in 1688 when King James was deposed and he refused to swear an oath of allegiance to the new king. From this time on, Dryden decided to live by the proceeds of his pen. He was busy writing poems and translating classical authors of note, including Ovid, Horace, Juvenal, Lucretius, Homer, Virgil etc. The publication of his translation of virgil was of national importance and the work fetched him a whooping sum of £1, 400.

Dryden was a revered author. His works were widely read and quoted. He influenced many of the eighteenth century English poets including Alexander Pope, Walter Scott, George Crabbe, etc. Samuel Johnson noted that he refined the English language, improved the sentiments and tuned the numbers of English poetry.

On 1st May, 1700, Dryden was called home by his maker; but before his death, certain rivals had earlier made attempt to kill him. He was originally buried at St. Anne’s cemetery, but after 10 days, his body was exhumed and reburied at Westminster. His death and burial inspired many eulogies.

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