Native Elements in An Essay of Dramatic Poesy

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      Introduction. After the discussion between Crites and Eugenius on the comparative merits of the ancients and the moderns the discussion turns to the relative merits of the French and the English dramatists. The debate is now mainly conducted by Lisideius and Neander.

      Lisideius on the superiority of the French. Lisideius speaks firmly in support of the art and technique of the French drmatists. In eulogizing the French excellence, Lisideius indirectly offers a criticism of English drama. He puts forward several reasons in support of his views. He begins by admitting that English drama had been superior to the French plays in the beginning of the seventeenth century. However, political troubles in England had interrupted the smooth progress of drama. As a result, the French drama had, specially under the guiding influence of Richelieu and Corneille, prospered to reach a reformed glory.

      Unities adhered to. One of the major reasons for the superiority of French drama, according to Lisideius, is the strict observance of the rules laid down by the ancients. The unities are observed to perfection by the French. The action of any of their plays is often confined to twelve hours—not even twenty-four—thus adhering to the unity of time. The French observe the unity of place by limiting their action to the very spot where it began. As for the unity of action, they do not burden their plays with under-plots to divert attention from the major action.

      Tragi-comedy avoided. The French sensibly keep away from such absurd forms as invented by the English, namely, the tragi-comedy. The French offer variety, but not in such an absurd fashion as “to run through all the fits of Bedlam”, in the course of two and a half hours. The end of tragedy is to beget admiration, compassion or concernment, and mirth is out of place in such a context, avers Lisideius.

      Truth combined with fiction. The French tragedies have plots based on known history interwoven with probable fiction. They thus surpass even the ancient tragedies which were based on fictitious legends. By combining truth and fiction the French are able to arouse concernment By contrast, Shakespeare’s historical plays are mere chronicles covering the business of some forty years, all crammed into a representation of two and a half hours. This is not offering a just representation of nature but drawing nature in miniature.

      No multiplicity of plot. The French are able to represent one passion well and fully as they do not cumber themselves with too much plot The English, on the other hand, multiply adventures and have many plays instead of one. Furthermore, following one argument, the French have more leisure to dwell on a subject.

      Characters. Lisideius answers the criticism that the French playwrights make one character dominate a play by saying that this is only an imitation of real life. Furthermore, the French never render any of the characters redundant; each character has a role to play.

      No undue violence on stage. The French avoid representation of duels, cruelty and death on the stage. The English, on the other hand, indulge in plenty of tumult and violence on stage. There could be nothing more absurd than a duel with swords clearly understood to be blunt or a death scene of a man who certainly is not dead.

      Narrative skill. The French have a narrative skill better than the English. Suitable management of the plot renders unnecessary the narration of events antecedent to the play. Narration is used for events happening off-stage, and in this process they avoid the depiction of violence and tumult and death scenes. Narration is also used to reduce the plot to a more reasonable length.

      Ending appropriate. French plays do not end with sudden changes or conversions as do English plays. The sense of probability is not strained by the French. The actions of the characters have enough motivation to carry conviction. The usurer’s repentance in The Scornful Lady, on the other hand, is not convincing.

      Thus, concludes Lisideius, the French compared to the English are superior contrivers, better ‘plotters’, and more intelligent painters of human character. Moreover, the French commendably use rhymed verse in tragedies.

      Neander vindicates the English. Neander, who is after all Dryden, takes up the cudgels on behalf of the native tradition. He puts forward arguments to prove that the English dramatists are superior to the French. While conceding that the French plays are more regular and follow the rules strictly as compared to English plays, neither the virtues of the French nor the faults of the English are enough to place the French above the English. The beauties of French poetry, says Neander, may be of a high order, but they are the beauties of a statue and not of a man of flesh and blood - “not being animated with the soul of poesy which is imitation of humor and passions”. Neander admits that the French dramatists have skill at “contrivance” of plots, but these plots are much too alike and lacking in variety to please.

      In defense of tragi-comedy. Neander vigorously speaks in favor of the English tragi-comedy. He says that it is a form unknown to the ancients or the moderns of any other nation, and it is a pleasant way of writing. He disapproves of the rigid separation of tragic and comic elements and points out that a scene of mirth interspersed amidst the serious provides relief from the tenseness. He avers that the juxtaposition of contraries heightens both elements, and that compassion and mirth do not destroy each other as they are co-existent in nature itself. What is more, Neander points out, Moliere and some other French dramatists too have mixed tragic and comic elements in the English manner.

      In defense of variety of plot and characters. The French dramatists may concentrate on one design which is pushed forward by all the actors and contributed to by every scene. However, Neander prefers the variety of English plays to the barrenness of the French plays. The under-plots and by-conccmments of the English plays do not destroy the unity of action, because they move with the main plot. But these under-plots, if well ordered, provide a pleasing variety.

      Neander goes on to rebut Lisideius’s contention that the preoccupation with a single theme gives the French an advantage in the expression of passion. The French verse, on the other hand, is cold and their plays full of tiresomely long declamations. Long speeches may suit the genius of the French, but they do not suit the English temperament which is more sullen. The English go to the theatre for entertainment. Short replies and speeches, indeed, are more likely to move the passions, while wit and repartee are the chief graces of comedy. Neander opines that in the “chase of wit”, the English have surpassed the French.

      Neander then justifies variety of characters as depicted in English plays. He cannot quite understand the French predilection for a single towering personality in a play. He finds the presence of other “shining characters” of “a second magnitude” a pleasing feature of English plays; for the more characters in a play, the greater the variety; and variety, if it does not turn into confusion, is bound to please the audience. What is imperative is that the parts are managed so regularly that “the beauty of the whole be kept entire”. Neander cites Beaumont and Fletcher’s The Raid’s Tragedy and Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist and The Silent Woman as examples of well-ordered management of variety.

      In defense of violent action on stage. Neander goes on to take up Lisideius’s injunctions on the depiction of too much action on stage. Neander (and here Dryden shows acute judgment as well as his native impulse) points out that the differences in temperament should be taken into account while deciding on the advisability of allowing too much action on the stage. The English somehow enjoy combats and horrific scenes on stage and Neander sees no reason why popular expectation is to be thwarted in the interests of rules alien to the native temperament He admits that utterly incredible action must be avoided; however, he points out, if the audience can imagine an actor to be a king, they can also imagine three soldiers and a drum to represent an army. Here Dryden is hinting at the issue of suspension of disbelief. Neander agrees with Lisideius only on the issue of not representing death on stage. Ben Jonson too had avoided the representation of death on stage in most of his plays. According to Neander, a mean or middle path should be followed by dramatists, eschewing both too much and too little action.

      In defense of violating the unities. Neander goes on to defend the violation of the unities by the English dramatists. The French, he points out, may observe the unities rigidity, but this servile observance has led to “death of plot and narrowness of imagination”. The English plays have variety and are more quick and full of spirit than the French plays. It may also be noted that the French dramatist Corneille himself admitted the cramping effect of the unities. Neander emphatically states that the English owe nothing to the French but have merely developed the features already present in the native tradition—variety and greatness of characters derived from Shakespeare and Fletcher, the copiousness and will-knit nature of intrigues from Ben Jonson, and use of verse from many an earlier play.

      In any case, says Neander, the English have many regular plays which also exhibit variety of plot and character. And in the irregular plays of Shakespeare and Fletcher, there is a fancy and spirit in the writing unmatched by any French play. Then Neander gives the noteworthy comparative study of Shakespeare, Beaumont and Fletcher, and Ben Jonson.

      Conclusion. Neander’s defense of the English stage brings out Dryden’s catholicity and objectivity of critical method. He does not have a blind reverence for the ancients or for the French. As T.S. Eliot says, “at the right moment he became conscious of the necessity of affirming the native element in literature”. Dryden shows that the French neoclassical rules need not be the ultimate standard, that there are possible alternatives equally valid. In critical method, he introduces the comparative technique of evaluating literature.

University Questions

“In an age of transition and much confusion, Dryden set criticism on new and fruitful lines, pointing other standards and methods than those commended by the French Neo-classical School.” Discuss with reference to An Essay of Dramatic Poesy.
How is “Dryden’s consciousness of the native elements in literature” expressed and affirmed in An Essay of Dramatic Poesy?
Analyze the arguments put forward by Lisideius and Neander on the respective merits of the French and the English dramatists in An Essay of Dramatic Poesy. How does Dryden’s vindication of the English affect his critical principles?
Examine the claims made by Lisideius for the superiority of the French over the English drama. How does Neander counter the arguments with his claim of the superiority of the English dramatists?

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