The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VIII. The Age of Dryden.
§ 16. His Later Plays: Don Sebastian and Cleomenes
After the close of king James II’s reign, however, two plays were produced by Dryden, which may be regarded as a worthy consummation of his dramatic development. Yet Don Sebastian (acted 1690) is incorrectly regarded as marking his emancipation from the traditions either of tragi-comedy or of the heroic play, though it is blank verse which, in this piece, alternates with prose. On the contrary, the serious action of Don Sebastian is a romantic fiction—an attempt to account by a love-story, ending with a most astonishing recognition, both for the well known disappearance of Don Sebastian in the battle of Alcazar and for the rumour that he lived for some time afterwards as an anchorite. The comic action of the mufti is repulsive, though noticeable as illustrating Dryden’s animus against all kinds of clergy. The only real attempt at drawing character is to be found in the figure of Dorax, particularly in a scene which has met with universal praise.
Although the tragedy Cleomenes, the Spartan Hero (acted 1692) is not usually deemed equal to its predecessor, it is finely conceived, and, on the whole, finely carried out on the lines of French classical tragedy, without any comic or other adventitious admixture. The character of the hero (performed by Betterton), though probably modelled on Hengo in Fletcher’s Bonduca, is drawn with vivacity, and, in the earlier part of the rather long-drawn-out catastrophe, with pathos. Plutarch’s abundant material is supplemented from other sources; and, though, viewing Dryden’s dramatic work as a whole, it is impossible to regret that he should not earlier have engaged in a whole-hearted imitation of French tragedy, his one complete attempt in that direction must be pronounced a noble play. With it, our survey of his career as a dramatist may fitly end; for it is unnecessary to do more than refer to the Secular Masque written by him, together with a prologue and epilogue, to grace the revival, for his own benefit, of Fletcher’s Pilgrim, which actually took place in June, 1700, little more than a fortnight after the beneficiary’s death. The tone of gentle pessimism audible in the masque recurs in the epilogue, where, without the acrimony with which he had assailed “Quack Maurus” (Sir Richard Blackmore) in the prologue, he defends himself against the censures preferred against the contemporary drama in Jeremy Collier’s Short View of the Immorality and Profanity of the English Stage (1698). Dryden’s defence—truthful so far as it goes (which is not very far)—is the evil influence of ways of thought and life brought over by a “banished court”; a far nobler attitude than this of uneasy apology was the open avowal of shame made by him many years earlier in the ode To the Pious Memory of Mrs. Anne Killigrew (1686).