Academic journal article Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research

Dryden and Purcell's King Arthur: A Production History

Academic journal article Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research

Dryden and Purcell's King Arthur: A Production History

Article excerpt

In addition to many celebrated literary figures, the late 17th century in England produced the first great English composer, Henry Purcell (1659-1695). Though he wrote many brilliant songs and choral works, Purcell is probably best known as the father of English opera. Yet Purcell wrote no actual operas apart from Dido and Aeneas, a court entertainment so short and so small-scale in its cast and orchestration that it was performed at a girls' school in Chelsea soon after its premiere. Purcell's large-scale contributions to the theatre were, rather, in the form known as the "semi-opera." The semi-opera is not really an opera in any traditional sense; whereas an opera is a dramatic work where the characters express themselves in song, Purcell's semi-operas, such as Dioclesian (1690), The Fairy Queen (1692) and King Arthur (1691) are spoken dramas where none of the main characters sing, and all the music is given to secondary characters or allegorical figures. Semi-operas are, in fact, merely plays with incidental music; no matter how much music there is (and Purcell's semi-operas frequently have over an hour and a half worth of music, with a large orchestra and chorus) the music is almost never central to the story and never central to the characters.

The hybrid nature of the semi-opera has made Purcell's contributions to the form extremely difficult to revive, even though they contain some of Purcell's best music and Purcell worked on them with some of the best writers of the era, including John Dryden. Yet at least one semi-opera, King Arthur, written by Dryden1 and billed as a "dramatick opera" upon its premiere at Dorset Garden Theatre in 16912 (with a cast that included Thomas Betterton in the title role and Anne Bracegirdle in the female lead), enjoyed considerable popularity and frequent revivals in the decades following its composition, and since the 20th century it has been performed and recorded more often than any other work in its genre. This essay will accordingly focus on the production history of this most famous of Purcell semi-operas, with a view to demonstrating that although it is Purcell's music that provides the work's distinction, it is the contribution of Dryden that has kept King Arthur more viable and stageworthy than any other semi-opera.3

As with most of Purcell's theatrical works, the composer was brought in to adapt a previously-produced play: Dryden had written most of it in 1684, under the title Albion and Albanius, as an entertainment for Charles II. (Music was written for it by Louis Grabu, whose score is not lost but definitely forgotten.4) The plot, to the limited extent that the play has one, has very little to do with Arthurian legends. It concerns the battle of the Britons (led by Arthur) with the Saxons (led by King Oswald). Villainy is represented by the evil Saxon wizard Osmond and his Caliban-esque spirit Grimbald, while the love interest is provided by Emmeline, Arthur's beloved, who is lusted after by Oswald and Osmond and who, on top of this, is blind until the middle of the third act. Arthur faces various traps set by Osmond, survives them all with the help of Merlin and the good spirit Philidel (who is one of only two characters to participate in both the spoken and musical sequences, the other being Philidel's opposite number, Grimbald), and ends the play triumphant and reunited with Emmeline.

There are six extended musical sequences, the longest being a masque at the end of the piece, watched by the victorious Arthur and the defeated Oswald, portraying the future glory of England and the merging of Britons and Saxons into one great people. Three other musical sequences in King Arthur actually dared to break with the conventions of semi-opera by having direct relevance to the dramatic action, rather than occurring as masques or diversions. Most memorably, during the act two choral sequence "Hither This Way," Arthur and his men are faced with the choice of two paths to take in their pursuit of Oswald; Grimbald, supported by a chorus of evil spirits, attempts to lead the Britons in the wrong direction, while the good spirit Philidel, along with his chorus, warns them to "trust not the malicious fiend. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.