Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
The Comedy of the Restoration
By Sir Walter Scott (17711832)
From Life of Dryden
ANOTHER remarkable feature in the comedies which succeeded the Restoration, is the structure of their plot, which was not, like that of the tragedies, formed upon the Parisian model. The English audience had not patience for the regular comedy of their neighbours, depending upon delicate turns of expression, and nicer delineation of character. The Spanish comedy, with its bustle, machinery, disguise, and complicated intrigue, was much more agreeable to their taste. This preference did not arise entirely from what the French term the phlegm of our national character, which cannot be affected but by powerful stimulants. It is indeed certain, that an Englishman expects his eye, as well as his ear, to be diverted by theatrical exhibition; but the thirst of novelty was another and separate reason, which affected the style of the revived drama. The number of new plays represented every season was incredible; and the authors were compelled to have recourse to that mode of composition which was most easily executed. Laboured accuracy of expression, and fine traits of character, joined to an arrangement of action, which should be at once pleasing, interesting, and probable, requires sedulous study, deep reflection, and long and repeated correction and revision. But these were not to be expected from a playwright, by whom three dramas were to be produced in one season; and, in their place were substituted adventures, surprises, rencontres, mistakes, disguises, and escapes, all easily accomplished by the intervention of sliding panels, closets, veils, masques, large cloaks, and dark lanterns. If the dramatist was at a loss for employing these convenient implements, the fifteen hundred plays of Lope de Vega were at hand for his instruction; presenting that rapid succession of events, and those sudden changes in the situation of the personages, which, according to the noble biographer of the Spanish dramatist, are the charms by which he interests us so forcibly in his plots. These Spanish plays had already been resorted to by the authors of the earlier part of the century. But under the auspices of Charles II., who must often have witnessed the originals while abroad, and in some instances by his express command, translations were executed of the best and most lively Spanish comedies.
The favourite comedies, therefore, after the Restoration were such as depended rather upon the intricacy, than the probability of the plot; rather upon the vivacity and liveliness, than on the natural expression of the dialogue; and, finally, rather upon extravagant and grotesque conception of character, than upon its being pointedly delineated, and accurately supported through the representation. These particulars, in which the comedies of Charles the Seconds reign differ from the example set by Shakespeare, Massinger, and Beaumont and Fletcher, seem to have been derived from the Spanish model. But the taste of the age was too cultivated to follow the stage of Madrid in introducing, or, to speak more accurately, in reviving the character of the gracioso or clown upon that of London. Something of foreign manners may be traced in the licence assumed by valets and domestics in the English comedy; a freedom which at no time made a part of our national manners, though something like it may still be traced upon the continent. These seem to be the leading characteristics of the comedies of Charles the Seconds reign; in which the rules of the ancients were totally disregarded. It were to be wished that the authors could have been exculpated from a heavier chargethat of assisting to corrupt the nation, by nourishing and fermenting evil passions, as well as by indulging and pandering to their vices.
The theatres, after the Restoration, were limited to two in number; a restriction perhaps necessary, as the exclusive patent expresses it, in regard of the extraordinary licentiousness then used in dramatic representation; but for which no very good reason can be shown, when they are at least harmless, if not laudable places of amusement. One of these privileged theatres was placed under the direction of Sir William Davenant, whose sufferings in the royal cause merited a provision, and whose taste and talents had been directed towards the drama even during its proscription. He is said to have introduced moveable scenes upon the English stage; and, without entering into the dispute of how closely this is to be interpreted, we are certain that he added much to its splendour and decoration. His set of performers, which contained the famous Betterton, and others of great merit, was called the Dukes company. The other licensed theatre was placed under the direction of Thomas Killigrew, much famed by tradition for his colloquial wit, but the merit of whose good things evaporated as soon as he attempted to interweave them with comedy. His performers formed what was entitled the Kings company. With this last theatre Dryden particularly connected himself, by a contract to be hereafter mentioned. None of his earlier plays were acted by the Dukes company, unless those in which he had received assistance from others, whom he might think as well entitled as himself to prescribe the place of representation.
Such was the state of the English drama when Dryden became a candidate for theatrical laurels. So early as the year of the Restoration, he had meditated a tragedy upon the fate of the Duke of Guise; but this, he has informed us, was suppressed by the advice of some friends who told him that it was an excellent subject, but not so artificially managed as to render it fit for the stage. It were to be wished these scenes had been preserved, since it may be that the very want of artifice alleged by the critics of the day, would have recommended them to our more simple taste. We might at least have learned from them, whether Dryden, in his first essay, leant to the heroic, or to the ancient English tragedy. But the scene of Guises return to Paris is the only part of the original sketch which Dryden thought fit to interweave with the play, as acted in 1682; and as that scene is rendered literally from Davila, upon the principle that, in so remarkable an action, the poet was not at liberty to change the words actually used by the persons interested, we only learn from it, that the piece was composed in blank verse, not rhyme.