Dramatic Poesy by Dryden

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The Ancients versus Modern Playwrights: |

Dryden in his essay, An Essay on Dramatic Poesy, vindicated the Moderns. The case for the ‘Ancients’ is presented by Crites. In the controversy Dryden takes no extreme position and is sensible enough to give the Ancients their respect. Through his wit and shrewd analysis, he removes the difficulty which had confused the issue. He makes us see the achievement of the Ancients and the gratitude of the Moderns to them. Thus, he presents the comparative merits and demerits of each in a clearer way.

Crites Favours the Ancients:

(i) The superiority of the Ancients is established by the very fact that the Moderns simply imitate them, and build on the foundations laid by them. The Ancients are the acknowledged models of the Moderns.

(ii) The Ancients had a special genius for drama, and in their particular branch of poetry they could reach perfection. Just as they excel them in drama.

(iii) Thirdly, in ancient Greece and Rome poetry was more honoured than any other branch of knowledge. Poets were encouraged to excel in this field through frequent competitions, judges were appointed and the dramatists were rewarded according to their merits. But in modern times there is no such spirit of healthy rivalry and competition. Poets are neither suitably honoured nor are they rewarded.

(iv) The Ancient drama is superior because the Ancients closely observed Nature and faithfully represented her in their work. The Moderns do not observe and study Nature carefully and so they distort and disfigure her in their plays.

(v) The rules of Dramatic Composition which the Moderns now follow have come down to them from the Ancients.

(vi) Crites makes special mention of the Unities, of Time, Place, and Action. The Ancients followed these rules and the effect is satisfying and pleasing. While the unity of time suggests that all the action should be portrayed within a single day, the English plays attempt to use long periods of time, sometimes years. In terms of place, the setting should be the same from beginning to end with the scenes marked by the entrances and exits of the persons having business within each. The English, on the other hand, try to have all kinds of places, even far off countries, shown within a single play. The third unity, that of action, requires that the play "aim at one great and complete action", but the English have all kinds of sub-plots which destroy the unity of the action.

(vii) The Ancients could organize their plays well. We are unable to appreciate the art and beauty of their language, only because many of their customs, stories, etc. are not known to us. There is much that is highly proper and elegant in their language but we fail to appreciate it because their language is dead, and remains only in books.

Eugenius’ Case for the Moderns:

Eugenius then replies to Crites and speaks in favour of the Moderns.

In the very beginning, he acknowledges that the Moderns have learnt much from the Ancients. But he adds that by their own labour the Moderns have added to what they have gained from them, with the result that they now excel them in many ways. The Moderns have not blindly imitated them. Had they done so, they would have lost the old perfection, and would not achieve any new excellences. Eugenius proceeds to bring out some defects of the Ancients, and some excellences of the Moderns.

(i) The Moderns have perfected the division of plays and divided their plays not only into Acts but also into scenes. The Spaniards and the Italians have some excellent plays to their credit, and they divided them into three Acts and not into five. They wrote without any definite plan and when they could write a good play their success was more a matter of chance and good fortune than of ability. In the characterization they no doubt, imitate nature, but their imitation is only narrow and partial – as if they imitated only an eye or a hand and did not dare to...
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