Home  »  Volume VIII: English THE AGE OF DRYDEN  »  § 7. Influence of French Tragicomedy and Romance

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

I. Dryden

§ 7. Influence of French Tragicomedy and Romance

Inasmuch as the primary object of the London stage, when re-established with the monarchy, was to please the king, his court and its surroundings, and, inasmuch as, in that court, many besides the king himself had acquired a personal familiarity with the French stage and its literature which, at all events in his case, dated back to the earlier years of his exile, French influence upon the English drama in the restoration age was, almost as a matter of course, both strong and enduring. But it is equally certain that the basis from which the English drama started on the reopening of the theatres was no other than the old English drama, at the point which it had reached at the time of their closing. Beaumont and Fletcher, and the drama of tragi-comic romance which, through them, had, for a generation before the closing of the theatres, established their supremacy on the English stage, were the favourites there when the theatres reopened; nor had either Jonson or Shakespeare been forgotten, and the former was still, though the flow of humour among his followers had begun to run dry, regarded as the acknowledged master of comedy. The dominant power on the French stage down to about the middle of the fourth decade of the seventeenth century had been that of Hardy, whose most celebrated play, Mariamne, dates from 1610, and whose vogue did not begin to give way till after his death in 1631. Now, Hardy, like the dramatists who gave the tone to English dramatic literature in the generation before the closing of the theatres, kept the French stage popular by means of the mixed species of tragi-comedy, and thus prevented it from falling back on the academical lines of Senecan tragedy represented by Garnier. It is true that he was warming in his bosom the great reformer of both French tragedy and French comedy, who said of himself that, in his earlier plays, he had no guidance “but a little common-sense and the examples supplied to him by Hardy”; but Corneille’s epochal production of Le Cid did not take place till 1636 (Médée appeared only a year earlier); and Le Menteur, which stands in much the same relation to the development of French comedy as that held by Le Cid to the progress of French tragedy, was not produced till 1642. Thus, though Part I of Le Cid was brought out in an English translation (by Joseph Rutter) in 1637 and Part II (in a version in which Richard Sackville, afterwards earl of Dorset, is said to have had a share) in 1640, both being republished in 1650, it seems clear that the main influence exercised by the French upon the English drama was due to Hardy and tragi-comedy, which dominated all the French dramatists—including Rotrou, whose work synchronised with Corneille’s earlier dramatic labours—rather than to Corneille in the maturity of his creative genius. When, however, the perennial conflict was renewed under new conditions and on reasoned principles by Corneille, a loftier and more logical conception of tragedy approved itself to the French critical public; and, perfected in practice by the singularly refined and sensitive genius of Racine, French classical tragedy reached its consummation as a distinct species of dramatic literature. The beginnings of Molière (though more than one of his plays have an earlier date) may, for our present purpose, be placed in 1658, when, both as actor and writer, he first appeared before Louis XIV and his court. It was not long before the English drama, in the hands of Dryden and others, revealed the impression made on it by these new developments, the effects of which, whether direct or indirect, will be summarised in later chapters; but they should not be regarded as what in no sense they were, the starting-points of our post-restoration drama.

Of special importance for the progress of the English drama, both before and after the closing of the theatres, was the influence of prose fiction, operating either directly or through plays for which it had furnished material. The two literatures which here particularly come into question are the Spanish and the French—of popular Italian fiction, the heyday seemed to have passed away, as, in the seventeenth century, artificiality of taste established its sway. Concerning Spanish influence, more will be said below; while it is not unfrequently difficult to substantiate a traditional derivation from a Spanish play, the direct indebtedness of English dramatists to Spanish prose fiction was, beyond doubt, considerable in extent, both before and after the restoration. French prose fiction, on the other hand, in the course of the seventeenth century, passed through an entirely new phase in its history; and, inasmuch as this very directly influenced an English dramatic species with which Dryden was, for a time, identified, reference must be made to it here. With the Astrée of Honoré d’Urfé (1610–2) began a literary movement representing, in the first instance, a reaction towards a refinement of sentiment and expression which had been incompatible with the turbulence of a long epoch of civil war. This movement culminated in the school of romance associated with the name of La Calprenède and, still more largely, with that of Madeleine de Scudéry, the authoress of Le Grand Cyrus. Gomberville and the comtesse de La Fayette belong to the same group, but that lady’s last and most celebrated novel, La Princesse de Clèves, is already differentiated from the creations of Mlle. de Scudéry by being, to some extent, based upon historical fact, towards which, as a writer of memoirs, the authoress had a leaning. The romances of this school invariably turned on the pivot of “heroic” love, or love in more than the usual number of dimensions, and, though dealing with the deepest of human emotions, they never fell out of the tone of elaborate conventional formality. They were, in some instances, translated into English or imitated by English writers, from the commonwealth times onwards, when, no doubt, they had been welcomed, in many quarters, as alternatives to the drab dulness of everyday life; and, after the restoration, as will be seen, they supplied themes to dramatic writers whose object it was to heighten and intensify the characteristics of stage romance. While prose fiction, of this class, continued to attract English readers to within the last quarter of the century, in France, a reaction had already set in towards simplicity, on the one hand, and satire, on the other; but, in these directions, English dramatists were not, at all events at this time, prepared to follow.

It was, then, under these influences, that Dryden gradually settled down to the particular forms of dramatic composition which he chose from time to time, and in no regular succession, to make his own, and which he frequently illustrated by signally suggestive prose commentaries, written with consummate grace and ease in the form of dedications, prefaces or essays, thus bringing his dramatic productions into harmony with rules of good sense and good taste evolved from established theory and, still more largely, from approved practice. Dryden’s plays would often lose much, if not most, of their interest if read without reference to their prefaces and other critical apparatus; neither, however, is it advisable, except in a few special instances, to detach these from the texts which gave rise to them.