Negotiating Cultural Prerogatives in Dryden's 'Secret Love' and 'Sir Martin Mar-All.' (John Dryden)

Article excerpt

Those who cheered Charles II when he entered London on 29 May 1660 recognized and celebrated the return of order to England in the restoration of the monarchy, repressing, for the moment, not only the roles they had played during the civil wars and the Interregnum, but also the dramatic uncertainties of restoring their cultural personae and privileges. London had sided with Parliament during the wars, its merchants had financed the New Model Army, and Charles I had been executed, yet upon Charles II's return these facts were largely ignored. For a brief period, subjects and playgoers who dreamed of reviving the past prior to the recent political troubles might do so at the theater, projecting the past onto present revivals of Elizabethan, Jacobean, and Caroline drama even as king and Parliament were negotiating new political, social, and economic relations. It was not long, however, before the national euphoria that had greeted the promise of a restored social and political order became, in J. R. Jones's words, a "prolonged malaise" (1) as Charles' subjects recognized a lack of ideological stability and solidarity among the ruling elite.(1) Ronald Hutton notes that few regimes "have fallen in the estimation of their subjects as dramatically as the restored monarchy" (185).

Although the newly restored (1660) public theaters returned to the past via revivals of British pre-Commonwealth plays, gradually the King's Company and the Duke's Company responded to a demand for new and revised plays and dramatic forms, particularly after the theaters reopened in October 1666 after being closed by the plague in June 1665. With the enthusiastic reception of new plays and such new theatrical practices as the use of women actors, the culture's recent transformations and preoccupations soon acquired symbolic forms. By the mid-1660s, when Dryden was working on Secret Love and Sir Martin Mar-all, Charles' subjects--particularly the theatergoing elite--were anxiously distinguishing their identities, places, and prerogatives within a restored monarchy whose rhetoric and political actions promoted images of national unity that were increasingly subject to question. For such playgoers, the theatrical representation of contemporary life invited the recognition of various and often conflicted cultural identities and, also, their repression. The theater provided a threshold experience for its participants, who shared a liminal, performance space where heightened and shifting relations between audience and characters and between self and others were reestablished and renegotiated.

Among the most popular plays of this period, Dryden's Secret Love (1667) and Sir Martin Mar-all (1667) represent and respond to contemporary concerns over the nation's and its subjects' material well-being and cultural coherence. Yet these plays have received only brief glances from perspectives that redefine interrelations among literature, culture, and gender. Following the critical lead of Louis Montrose and others, I hope to demonstrate that Dryden's drama is not only "socially produced but also that it is socially productive--that it is the product of work and that it performs work in the process of being written, enacted, or read" (Montrose 23). I shall explore, in detail for the sophisticated Secret Love and more briefly for the broader humor of Sir Martin Mar-all, how in the tragicomic and comic forms of these plays Dryden juxtaposes and thereby critiques the relative powers of rank, merit, and gender in Restoration society. Dryden suggests how social and political prerogatives and decorums may be represented and preserved by serio-comic forms that disguise ideological purposes and defuse ideological conflicts, even as identities, values, and relations that exceed decorum thereby become not only exposed to closer scrutiny, but also made symbolically available for the audience. Though Richard E. Brown reports that Dryden "never indicates that his tragicomedies are written to express some view of human experience for which the genre is peculiarly fitted" (76), Dryden's plays present not only the drawbacks and difficulties of unifying and resolving contradictory plots and values, but their ideological usefulness as well. …