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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VIII. The Age of Dryden.

I. Dryden

§ 11. The Satire of The Rehearsal

The latter (1670–6) was, no doubt, partly due to the appearance of The Rehearsal (1670). Although that celebrated burlesque cannot be said to have killed heroic plays, there can be no doubt that, notwithstanding the brilliant features which some of these plays displayed, the elements of vitality were wanting in the species. The list of plays which, as written partly or wholly in the rimed couplet, have any claim at all to be reckoned as heroic, is small in itself, and, if reduced by certain obvious omissions, contains, with the exception of Dryden’s, few works of even secondary significance. In a word, Dryden completely dominates the English heroic play.

Like The Indian Emperor, Tyrannick Love treats with much freedom a theme out of the common track—in this case, the persecution of the Christians by Maximin and the martyrdom of St. Catharine. The argument of Aureng-Zebe deals, again quite freely, with a notability of the writer’s day, though largely following the course of Racine’s Mithridate, and borrowing the matter of one scene from Le Grand Cyrus. On the other hand, the most important and the most typical of Dryden’s heroic plays, The Conquest of Granada, is essentially based on Madeleine de Scudéry’s Almahide, while one of its episodes is taken from her Le Grand Cyrus and another from her Ibrahim. But the important point is that these subjects, as treated in the plays in question, all resemble one another in their substance, and, more or less, in its adjuncts. The plays are all of them “heroic” plays and the metre which they employ is called the “heroic” couplet, because they follow and imitate the example of “heroic” romance, as set forth by Ariosto himself. Their themes, like those of heroic poetry and fiction in general, are the “emprises” and conflicts of absorbing human passions—love, jealousy and honour—all raised to a transnormal height and expressed with a transnormal intensity. Their men and women are, if the term may be thus applied, “supermen” and “superwomen,” and their master passions are superlove and superhonour. From these out-of-the-way premisses flow a number of out-of-the-way results. The actions must be suited to the motives; their conditions must be unexpected changes and chances and tumultuous backgrounds, their complications must be insoluble except by violent means, and deaths as numerous as leaves in Vallombrosa. Furthermore, the personages of these dramas must conduct themselves in a manner wholly unlike the usages obtaining in the daily round of life; it must be a manner appropriate to spheres into which the imagination alone can transplant us—ancient Rome, Jerusalem, or Troy, or, still better, because still less familiar, Mexico or the east Indies. Finally, the verse, as well as the words, must be suited to the action, and the “heroic” couplet must serve the purpose of a sort of “cothurnated,” which is interpreted “stilted,” speech.

It was inevitable that a succession of plays of this type should soon pall upon the spectator, because of the sameness of their method (one of Dryden’s most persistent assailants, Martin Clifford, accused him of “stealing from himself”), unless each new production sought to force the pace, and to outvie its predecessors. The interest in the action, cut adrift, as it was, from probability and from the sympathy which probability begets, had to be sustained by all sorts of adventitious expedients—supernatural apparitions and magic processes, with fantastic songs, serenades and dances. But, notwithstanding the resources of Dryden’s rhetorical genius, and the wonderful mental buoyancy with which he carried out any task undertaken by him, the species was doomed to self-exhaustion, nor can its master long have deceived himself on this head.