European Theories of the Drama: An Anthology of Dramatic Theory and Criticism from Aristotle to the Present Day

By Barrett H. Clark | Go to book overview
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RESTORATION AND EIGHTEENTH CENTURY DRAMATIC CRITICISM

Between the publication of Jonson Discoveries ( 1641) and that of Dryden Essay of Dramatick Poesie ( 1668), there is no outstanding piece of dramatic criticism in English, However, Davenant's efforts to create the opera, his Preface to Gondibert and Hobbes' reply, in 1650, together with the former's Dedication and To the Reader prefixed to his Siege of Rhodes (printed 1663), deserve passing notice as connecting links. Sir Robert Howard's Preface to Four New Playes ( 1665), which called forth Dryden's reply, and Howard further Preface--to The Great Favourite ( 1668) Richard Flecknoe A Short Discourse of the English Stage ( 1664), and the various prefaces, dedications, and prologues, especially of Shadwell The Sullen Lovers ( 1668) and of The Humourists ( 1671), are other signs of the times, and are evidences of interest in dramatic controversies. Thomas Rymer entered the field a few years after Dryden. His Preface to his translation of Rapin Ré- flexions sur la poétique ( 1674) attacked all stragglers from the narrow path prescribed by the rigid nee-classicists; he followed this with a severe criticism of the Elizabethans, in The Tragedies of the Last Age Consider'd, etc. ( 1678), and in 1693 he published his Short View of Tragedy, etc., containing the famous onslaught on Othello. Milton published his short dissertation on tragedy with his Samson Agonistes ( 1671) as a sort of apology. It is based almost entirely upon the Italian Renaissance critics' conception of Aristotle's remarks on tragedy. Other contemporaries of Dryden, who dominated the last years of the century are, among others of less importance: the Duke of Buckingham, whose Essay upon Poetry was published in 1689; Ravenscroft preface to the play Dame Dobson ( 1684); Sedley, whose Bellamira ( 1687) bore a short Preface; Sir Thomas Pope Blount, whose extensive treatise--De Re Poetica--with numerous excerpts from ancient and modern poets, appeared in 1694; and the dramatists, Blackmore--Prefaces to Prince Arthur ( 1695) and King Arthur ( 1697)--and Dilke--Preface to The City Lady ( 1697). Of Dryden's thirty odd prefaces, essays, etc., on the drama, the first, the Epistle Dedicatory to his play The Rival Ladies, was published in 1664. This was followed by the Essay of Dramatick Poesie ( 1668), and the Defence, the same year. Nearly every one of his plays contains a preface, dedication, or separate essay defending his dramatic practice, setting forth some theory, or attacking the practice or theory of others. His last word on the drama is found in the Disoourse on Epick Poetry, prefixed to his translation of the Æneid in 1697, three years before his death. Dryden was a great critic, one of the greatest of all time. "He established (let us hope for all time)," says Saintsbury, "the English fashion of criticizing, as Shakespeare did the English fashion of dramatizing,-- the fashion of aiming at delight, at truth, at justice, at nature, at poetry, and letting the rules take care of themselves." The controversy between the Puritans and the stage assumed its most violent form in the famous Collier dispute, in 1696 Jeremy Collier, a Nonjuring clergyman, published his Short View of the Profaneness and Immorality of the English Stage. This pamphlet was aimed primarily against the dramatists who "profaned" the stage with immoral characters and situations, and who attacked the clergy. While his purpose was primarily a moral one, there is a good deal of literary criticism in his work. There is no doubt that he was a most important factor in changing the tone of the plays of his generation, and stultifying the comedies of the next. The Short View called forth many re

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