The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VIII. The Age of Dryden.
§ 8. The Wild Gallant and other Comedies: The Spanish Fryar
In the actual year of the restoration, or, at all events, within a few months from that date, Dryden, perhaps stimulated by the use made in the commonwealth period of quasi-dramatic dialogue as a vehicle of political satire or invective, proposed to himself to read a political lesson to the public by means of a historical tragedy, The Duke of Guise, applying the doubtful parallel of the Catholic league to the recent memories of puritan ascendency. But the attempt was not thought successful by judicious advisers, and what had been written of the play was left over to be utilised by the author in the tragedy which, many years later, in 1682, he produced in conjunction with Lee. Thus, the first play by Dryden produced on the stage was The Wild Gallant, first acted in February, 1663. It has no further claim to be singled out among the comedies, at the same time extravagant and coarse, in which the period of dramatic decline abounds; though there are some traces of the witty dialogue, often carried on by a flirting couple, in which Dryden came to excel. The statement in the prologue that the author was “endangered by a Spanish plot” (i.e. a rival “Spanish” play) has been perverted to the direct opposite of its meaning, and the most humorous incident in the piece is conveyed straight from Ben Jonson. The play did not find favour, except, apparently, with lady Castlemaine; and, in the sequel, Dryden only intermittently returned to comedy proper. He wrote of himself, early in his dramatic career, that he was “not so fitted by nature to write comedy” as certain other kinds of drama; “he wanted,” he confesses, “that gaiety of humour which is required to it;” and he also wanted, as he might have added, the facility of invention—whether of situations or of characters—which relieves the productions of a comic dramatist from the sameness which is noticeable in this class of Dryden’s plays. He consoled himself with the notion that “a reputation gained from comedy” was hardly worth the seeking; “for I think it is, in its own nature, inferior to all sorts of dramatic writing.” Thus, he only returned to it from time to time, and wholly eschewed “farce, which consists principally of grimaces,” and from which he naturally shrank, devoid as he may generally be asserted to have been of any inclination to what was grotesque, or even merely odd or quaint. And, in the critical essays and excursuses which illustrated his practice, he discusses the comic drama with comparative rarity.
The Wild Gallant was written in prose, as was Sir Martin Mar-All, or The Feigned Innocence (1667, printed 1668), an adaptation by Dryden, whose name was not attached to it till thirty years later, of the duke of Newcastle’s translation of Molière’s early comedy L’Étourdi, with certain touches suggested by two plays by Quinault. The translation is not close, nor the treatment refined; but the play was very successful. Also in prose is the main portion of The Assignation or Love in a Nunnery (1672, printed 1673), worthless, except where in some blank verse passages it rises to a higher literary level. Marriage-à-la-Mode (produced at the same dates), which, unlike The Assignation, greatly pleased the town, thanks to the admirably drawn coquette Melantha, presents the same mixture of prose and blank verse. Of Dryden’s remaining comedies, Limberham, or The Kind Keeper (acted in 1678), which is entirely in prose, has unmistakable dramatic merits; but it was speedily withdrawn, having been judged a gross libel on a well known public personage, generally supposed to be Lauderdale. Dryden’s last comedy, Amphitryon (produced so late as 1690), for which both Plautus and Molière were put under contribution, is, again, a mixture of prose and blank verse; none of Dryden’s plays more brilliantly attest his literary gift, and none have more of the wantonness to which he afterwards pleaded guilty.
In Dryden’s second acted play, The Rival-Ladies (acted 1664), he had already passed from comedy into tragi-comedy, where his genius was more at home. Its complicated plot (two ladies disguise themselves as pages in order to take service with a gallant whose affections are set on a third) caused it to be supposed, rightly or wrongly, to have a Spanish origin; its dialogue falls into the stagey antithesis which, though it was as old as Shakespeare, The Rehearsal and Butler were to ridicule without mercy. What, however, is most noticeable in this play is the first, though still tentative, use of rime as a proper feature of dramatic verse. This use is defended in a dedication to lord Orrery—the earliest of Dryden’s critical excursions. It should be remembered that, since Fletcher’s short preface to his Faithfull Shepheardesse (printed 1609 or 1610), such discussions of dramatic problems as these had fallen out of use, and that the public was now neither “railed into approbation,” as it had formerly been by Ben Jonson, nor gently led on to acquiescence in the precepts of its critical guides. Following the example of Corneille, Dryden took advantage of the revived interest in the stage to address its patrons, as it were ex cathedra, but without any assumption of academical solemnity or rigour. To the subject of the dramatic use of the heroic couplet which he here broached, he afterwards returned at greater length, both in his Essay of Dramatick Poesie and in his Essay of Heroick Plays; but he did not claim the innovation as primarily his own, and he recalled the fact that the rimed five foot couplet, in a form approaching as near as possible to that which it owed to Waller, had been first applied to its “noblest use” by D’Avenant in the quasi-dramatic Siege of Rhodes (1656, enlarged 1662). Dryden, however, was the first to employ the rimed couplet in the dialogue of an ordinary stage play, though he, too, only introduced the innovation tentatively. Etherege went a step further, and, in The Comical Revenge, or Love in a Tub (acted and printed 1664), put the whole serious part of the play into heroic couplets. Inasmuch, however, as, in the same year 1664, lord Orrery’s Henry V, which is entirely in heroic couplets, was performed, Etherege and he must be left to “divide the crown” of having introduced the innovation with Dryden and D’Avenant. If it could be proved that Orrery’s “first play,” mentioned in king Charles’s letter of 22 February, 1662, was Henry V, there would be no doubt as to Orrery’s priority over Etherege.