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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

§ 18. Prologues and Epilogues

Reserving, for the moment, a reference to the lyrics in Dryden’s dramas, we must not take leave of these without a word as to his prologues and epilogues. There was no species of composition in which he more conspicuously excelled, or in which those who came after him more decidedly fell short of his excellence; but many circumstances help to account for the signal success with which, in the present instance, he exerted his innate power of “improving” every literary opportunity that came in his way. The age which preceded Dryden’s was, above everything, a pamphleteering age; and his own generation had retained at least a full freedom of unlicensed allusion—whether political or other. When we further remember that the mode of the day was a frankness of tongue in which dukes and duchesses did their utmost to imitate linkmen and orangewomen, it is not difficult to understand why the prologue and epilogue, instead of adhering to their humbler task of commending to attention and favour a particular play, became accepted vehicles of political praise and blame, intermixed with current social satire of all sorts. In the relatively small area of restoration London, of which the court was the acknowledged centre, these sallies were always transparent and always welcome. The licence which the prologues, and, still more, the epilogues, allowed themselves was, consequently, wide, and was duly reprehended by censors of the stage like Jeremy Collier. Their delivery was generally entrusted to stage favourites, who were assured of a hearing and “might say what they liked.” Very frequently, as in the case of many of Dryden’s, these addresses were composed by leading authors for less known writers, or, again, by personages who wished to remain free from direct responsibility. Their importance may, perhaps, have been exaggerated; but, printed as broadsides, they must often have added to the attractions of a performance, and have been carried home as an enduring remembrance. Thus, the composition of them was assiduously cultivated, and remunerated by a handsome fee.

The examples of this kind of composition remaining from Dryden’s hand amount to nearly one hundred. They attest his inventive powers in the way of conception and arrangement—including the variety of “prologues made to be dialogues,” burlesqued in The Rehearsal in the “prodialogue” between Thunder and Lightning; they also attest his power, both of more playful sarcasm (as in his multiform jests against the critics) and of condensed invective or admonition. Among them may be included three prologues spoken on definite political occasions, unconnected with the production of particular stage-plays; one of these, the Prologue to the Duchess [of York] on her return from Scotland (1682), is a charming example of reckless flattery.