THE lesser tragic writers of this period, uninspired as most of their work seems when judged on its own merits, fall inevitably to a still lower level by comparison with the amazing literary powers of their great leader, Dryden. They have all his faults and only a small and occasional admixture of his strength and resource. In tragedy, as in other departments of literature, the genius of Dryden overtops, on a general estimate, the productions of his lesser contemporaries, and how closely his lead in the drama was followed may be correctly estimated from the fact that, in 1678, on his abandoning the use of rimed verse in the drama, his followers also dropped this impossible form, wisely reflecting, no doubt, that when Dryden was not satisfied as to its success, they might be sure of its failure. The productions of the lesser tragedians, however, in which a desire to catch the humour of the public and to flatter the mood of the hour is the most frequently recurring characteristic, remain most valuable as helping to furnish a clear idea of the state of the drama and the prevailing standard of taste.
The drama on the re-opening of the theatres was subjected to a flood of new influences. Paramount among these was the influence of the court, to which dramatists and actors alike hastened to pay the homage of servile flattery. This lack of independence on the part of the dramatists of the day, coupled with the general relaxation of morals consequent on the restoration, account, in a large measure, for the degradation into which tragedy in England sank. While comedy retained, in its brightest manifestations at all events, some redeeming wit and humour, tragedy fell to a level of dulness and lubricity never surpassed before or since. It should not be overlooked that, in this period attendance at the theatre became a constant social habit, and the theatre itself a great social force; and in this way alone can be explained the success on the stage of much portentous rubbish. People went to the theatre not because they were interested in the drama but because, to the exclusion of almost all other interests, they were interested in one another. This is strikingly brought out by Crowne in the epilogue to Sir Courtly Nice, where he says of the audience: | |They came not to see plays, but act their own, | | | | | |And had throng’d audiences when we had none. | | | |
It must also be remembered that this was an age which bred a succession of great actors and actresses, who occupied an unprecedentedly large share of the public attention. As Colley Cibber said, speaking of Lee’s Alexander the Great: |When these flowing Numbers came from the Mouth of a Betterton the Multitude no more desired Sense to them than our musical | |Connoisseurs think it essential in the celebrate Airs of an Italian Opera. 1 |
The same must have been even more true of such a women as Mrs. Barry. Lee, Crowne and a host of others were perfectly capable of writing plays, with a French polish, to suit these new conditions; but they are unreadable to-day. The crowd of lesser restoration dramatists perfectly understood what would be effective on the stage, and for the rest they relied on incredible bombast and threadbare stage devices. It has been seen how, notwithstanding all the changes which had taken place in the literary and social conditions of the times, and in those of the performance of plays, the theatres were reopened in 1660 with favourite old plays; but now, side by side with the surviving traditions, new influences were at work. 2 Among these influences, the operatic element, which owed its first introduction to D’Avenant, became specially powerful in tragedy, and helped to bring...