Modern Controversy in An Essay of Dramatic Poesy

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      Introduction. The Neo-classicists adopted well-defined jargon while appraising a literary piece. It was Dryden who, by means of the pure language of critical appraisal, raised the status of criticism to the level of an art by itself. Although Dryden’s scope in this essay is rather limited because he has selected the field of ‘Dramatic Poesy’ alone, it should not be forgotten that the greatness of Dryden in criticism is that he consciously affirmed the superiority of the native element in literature. Five critical questions have been taken up for threadbare discussion by Dryden in the Essay. Among these is the issue of the relative merits of the ancients and the moderns.

      Crites in support of the ancients. Crites does not mince words in decrying his contemporary writers who, he says, never rise to the dignity of either the Elizabethan age or of the classical ages of the Greeks and the Romans. He puts forward a set of arguments to prove his contention that the ancients were superior to the modems:

Beginning with Thespis and ending with Aristotle the classical age gave birth to good technique and made it grow and flourish. The writers were encouraged to compete with one another and aspire for literary prizes and honors. Emulation is the spur of wit After all, one cannot deny that sometimes envy, and admiration at other times, can quicken poetic endeavor.

The rules of poetic art and dramatic composition were compiled by Aristotle and given to posterity. Aristotle carefully observed the practice of many of the established Greek writers before him and a few contemporary writers as well before writing Poetics. Horace in his Art of Poetry has supplied the missing links in Aristotle’s work.

The moderns were indebted to the classical writers for the three unities as well as other guidelines in respect of the composition of plays, such as justness and symmetry of plot, embellishments like apt and realistic descriptions, pleasing narratives etc. Surely, then, it was rather pre-sumptuous on the part of the modems to have the confidence to say that their art was better than that of the classical giants.

The ancients did well to formulate and follow the three unities-of time, place and action. The ancients faithfully observed the unity of time. A play could be a real imitation of nature only if the plot or action was confined within the time necessary for staging it, or as near it as possible but never beyond a period of a natural day. The act should be timed in conformity to the illusion of reality as far as practicable.

      The unity of place presupposed that all the actions of the play took place in the same town or region. The distance between the places could otherwise detract from a feeling of naturalness. Painted scenes may only to some extent help the people who witness the show to conceive of different places on the same stage. It was better if the different scenes of the same drama were located so near each other as to be in the same rural or urban surroundings. The French dramatists strictly adhered to this stipulation—what Corneille termed a liaison des scenes (continuity of joining scenes). It was a very convenient arrangement to give effect to this regulation. The stage was constantly provided with a couple of actors so that it never remained empty.

      The unity of action ensured that one principal great act was aimed at, the realization of which was the purpose of the drama. All the other events were subservient to this principal complete action. If the author envisaged two actions of the same or similar importance he would be marring the unity of his literary piece. Under-plots of a subservient nature may be tolerated. Modern English dramatists violated these unities—hence they must be considered inferior to the ancients who were undoubtedly better craftsmen. The modem plays presented a man’s entire life in episodes and located in widely separated places—“in more countries than the map can show us”. The comedies of Aristophanes and Plautus, the tragedies of Euripides, Sophocles, Seneca etc. showed a better style.

      Thus in the view of Crites, the modems were inferior to the classic writers.

      Eugenius’s refutation. The modern drama and dramatists are defended by Eugenius (Charles Sackville, Lord Buckhurst). His arguments are:

The modern writers do admit their indebtedness to the ancients who were venerated for what they were and what they bequeathed to posterity. But this fact does not preclude the modems from taking advantage of what they had received to overcome the ancients in their own domain. The ancient's experience plus the moderns endeavor could not but make the latter superior. The moderns had achieved aims and features which the ancients lacked.

The division of drama into acts are not known to the Greeks. Perhaps at the time of Horace some attempt was made towards such a division. Aristotle’s vague divisions into protasis (Entrance) epitasis (working up of the plot), cotastaris (full growth and counter-turn) and the catastrophe (the unraveling of the plot) could not be considered as division into acts. They had no model for such a classification.

Hackneyed tales formed the themes of ancient Greek dramas. These themes were worn so threadbare by all the epic writers that no novelty remained for the audience to feel entertained. The Romans too did not have any independent course. They closely imitated the Greeks.

There was no proof that the knowledge of the three unities emanated from Greek sources. The unity of place never formed part of their set rules. Aristotle, Horace etc. simply ignored it. It was the French poets who made much ado about it by accepting it as a precept on the stage.

Terence was supposed to have made use of the unity of time to a certain extent although on many occasions he too had ignored it. The plots of the ancient plays were narrow and the dramatis personae very few; so much so that many of the ‘acts’ were no longer than some of the ‘scenes’ in modem drama.

The main purpose of a drama is to delight the audience which it is doubtful if the Greek and Roman tragedies achieved. Poetic justice was conspicuous by its absence in their plays. Prosperous wickedness and unhappy piety was described by them without any compunction. Those who indulged in vicious activities were shown to be rewarded with ultimate success. These constitute the weaknesses of the ancients. Further, among the ancients, “the sock and the buskin were not worn by the same poets” i.e. a poet who wrote tragedies never wrote comedies or vice-versa. Thus they should have perfected the genre even more.

Eugenius does not admit that the ancients were superior to the modems in ‘wit’. According to him ‘wit’ was not the monopoly of either the modems or the ancients.

Absence of the treatment of the gentle qualities of love, sympathy, etc. was a great drawback of the ancient classic writers. Lust, cruelty, revenge, etc. were portrayed by them with great gusto. The softer passions were never described by them. The bloody actions represented by them in full detail could raise horror in the audience but never compassion. The ancients failed to depict the movements of the soul—the true work of at poet.

      Conclusion: Dryden’s view point Crites now brings the discussion to a close though Engenius wants to continue. Crites cannot agree with Eugenius in the view that the moderns were better than the ancients but he concedes that the modems had altered the mode of writing. Changing values and ideals accounted for the difference between the ancients and the modems. The concept of the heroic, for instance, had changed. This was not a question of good or bad, but merely a process of change. If they had written in the modern times, the ancients too might have written in a different vein. Thus Crites suggests that one should not denigrate the ancients but should give them the honor that the moderns themselves might be expecting from posterity. Obviously enough, Dryden’s views are not far to seek—he advocates reverence for the good, whether in the ancients or in the moderns but not a blind adulation of either.

University Questions

Summarise the arguments of Crites on the merits of the ancients and examine how Eugenius argues in favor of the moderns in the Essay of Dramatic Poesy,
Critically evaluate the debate on the relative merits of the ancients and the moderns between Crites and Eugenius. What are Dryden’s views?
Consider Dryden as the writer who first taught us to determine upon principles the merits of a composition.

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