Essay on Poetic Theory

An Essay of Dramatic Poesy (1668)

by John Dryden
Crites had no sooner left speaking, but Eugenius who waited with some impatience for it, thus began:

“I have observed in your Speech that the former part of it is convincing as to what the Moderns have profited by the rules of the Ancients, but in the latter you are careful to conceal how much they have excelled them: we own all the helps we have from them, and want neither veneration nor gratitude while we acknowledge that to overcome them we must make use of the advantages we have received from them; but to these assistances we have joined our own industry; for (had we sat down with a dull imitation of them) we might then have lost somewhat of the old perfection, but never acquired any that was new. We draw not therefore after their lines, but those of Nature; and having the life before us, besides the experience of all they knew, it is no wonder if we hit some airs and features which they have missed: I deny not what you urge of Arts and Sciences, that they have flourished in some ages more than others; but your instance in Philosophy makes for me: for if Natural Causes be more known now than in the time of Aristotle, because more studied, it follows that Poesy and other Arts may with the same pains arrive still nearer to perfection, and, that granted, it will rest for you to prove that they wrought more perfect images of human life than we; which, seeing in your Discourse you have avoided to make good, it shall now be my task to show you some part of their defects, and some few Excellencies of the Moderns; and I think there is none among us can imagine I do it enviously, or with purpose to detract from them; for what interest of Fame or Profit can the living lose by the reputation of the dead? on the other side, it is a great truth which Velleius Paterculus affirms. Audita visis libentius laudemus; et præsentia invidia, prœterita admiratione prosequimur; a his nos obrui, illis instrui credimus [we praise what we have heard more readily than what we have seen, and we regard the present with envy and the past with admiration; we feel weighed down by the former, lifted up by the latter]: That praise or censure is certainly the most sincere which unbribed posterity shall give us.

“Be pleased then in the first place to take notice, that the Greek Poesy, which Crites has affirmed to have arrived to perfection in the Reign of the old Comedy, was so far from it, that the distinction of it into Acts was not known to them; or if it were, it is yet so darkly delivered to us that we can not make it out.

“All we know of it is from the singing of their Chorus, and that too is so uncertain that in some of their Plays we have reason to conjecture they sung more than five times: Aristotle indeed divides the integral parts of a Play into four: First, The Protasis or entrance, which gives light only to the Characters of the persons, and proceeds very little into any part of the action: Secondly, The Epitasis, or working up of the Plot where the Play grows warmer: the design or action of it is drawing on, and you see something promising that it will come to pass: Thirdly, the Catastasis, or Counterturn, which destroys that expectation, embroils the action in new difficulties, and leaves you far distant from that hope in which it found you, as you may have observed in a violent stream resisted by a narrow passage; it runs round to an eddy, and carries back the waters with more swiftness than it brought them on: Lastly, the Catastrophe, which the Grecians called lysis, the French le denouement, and we the discovery or unraveling of the Plot: there you see all things settling again upon their first foundations, and the obstacles which hindered the design or action of the Play once removed, it ends with that resemblance of truth and nature, that the audience are satisfied with the conduct of it. Thus this great man delivered to us the image of a Play, and I must confess it is so lively that from thence much light has been derived to the forming it more perfectly into Acts and Scenes; but what Poet first limited to five the number of the Acts I know not; only we see it so firmly established in the time of Horace, that he gives it for a rule in Comedy; Neu brevior quinto, neu sit productior actu [let it be neither shorter nor longer than five acts—ed.]: So that you see the Grecians cannot be said to have consummated this Art; writing rather by Entrances than by Acts, and having rather a general indigested notion of a Play, than knowing how and where to bestow the particular graces of it.

“But since the Spaniards at this day allow but three Acts, which they call Jornadas, to a Play; and the Italians in many of theirs follow them, when I condemn the Ancients, I declare it is not altogether because they have not five Acts to every Play, but because they have not confined themselves to one certain number; ’Tis building an House without a Model: and when the succeeded in such undertakings, they ought to have sacrificed to Fortune, not to the Muses.

“Next, for the Plot, which Aristotle called to mythos and often Tōn pragmatōn synthesis [the ordering of the actions—ed.], and from him the Romans Fabula, it has already been judiciously observed by a late Writer, that in their Tragedies it was only some Tale derived from Thebes or Troy, or at least some thing that happened in those two Ages; which was worn so threadbare by the Pens of all the Epic Poets, and even by Tradition itself of the Talkative Greeklings (as Ben Jonson calls them) that before it came upon the Stage, it was already known to all the Audience: and the people so soon as ever they heard the Name of Oedipus, knew as well as the Poet, that he had killed his Father by mistake, and committed Incest with his Mother, before the Play; that they were now to hear of a great Plague, an Oracle, and the Ghost of Laius: so that they sat with a yawning kind of expectation, till he was to come with his eyes pulled out, and speak a hundred or two of Verses in a Tragic tone, in complaint of his misfortunes. But one Oedipus, Hercules, or Medea, had been tolerable; poor people they scaped not so good cheap: they had still the Chapon Bouillé [boiled capon, a delicacy and a luxury—ed.] set before them, till their appetites were cloyed with the same dish, and the Novelty being gone, the pleasure vanished: so that one main end of Dramatic Poesy in its Definition, which was to cause Delight, as of consequence destroyed.

“In their Comedies, the Romans generally borrowed their Plots from the Greek Poets; and theirs was commonly a little Girl stolen or wandered from her Parents, brought back unknown to the same City, there got with child by some lewd young fellow; who, by the help of his servant, cheats his father, and when her time comes, to cry Juno Lucina fer opem [Juno, goddess of childbirth, bring help—ed.]; one or other sees a little Box or Cabinet which was carried away with her, and so discovers her to her friends, if some God do not prevent it, by coming down in a Machine, and take the thanks of it to himself.

“By the Plot you may guess much of the Characters of the Persons. An Old Father that would willingly before he dies see his Son well married; his Debauched Son, kind in his Nature to his Wench, but miserably in want of Money, a Servant or Slave, who has so much wit to strike in with him, and help to dupe his Father, a Braggadochio, Captain, a Parasite, and a Lady of Pleasure.

“As for the poor honest Maid, whom all the Story is built upon, and who ought to be one of the principal Actors in the Play, she is commonly a Mute in it: She has the breeding of the Old Elizabeth way, for Maids to be seen and not to be heard; and it is enough you know she is willing to be married, when the Fifth Act requires it.

“These are Plots built after the Italian Mode of Houses, you see through them all at once; the Characters are indeed the Imitations of Nature, but so narrow as if they had imitated only an Eye or an Hand, and did not dare to venture on the lines of a Face, or the Proportion of a Body.

“But in how straight a compass soever they have bounded their Plots and Characters, we will pass in by, if they have regularly pursued them, and perfectly observed those three Unities of Time, Place, and Action: the knowledge of which you say is derived to us from them. But in the first place give me leave to tell you, that the Unity of Place, how ever it might be practiced by them, was never any of their Rules: We neither find it in Aristotle, Horace, of any who have written of it, till in our age the French Poets first made it a Precept of the Stage. The unity of time, even Terence himself (who was the best and the most regular of them) has neglected: His Heautontimoroumenos or Self-Punisher takes up visibly two days; therefore says Scaliger, the two first Acts concluding the first day, were acted over-night; the three last on the ensuing day: and Euripides, in trying himself to one day, has committed an absurdity never to be forgiven him: for in one of his Tragedies he has made Theseus go from Athens to Thebes, which was about forty English miles, under the walls of it to give battle, and appear victorious in the next Act; and yet from the time of his departure to the return of the Nuntius, who gives the relation of his Victory, Æthra and the Chorus have but Verses; that is not for every Mile a Verse.

“The like error is as evident in Terence’s Eunuch, when Laches, the old man, enters in a mistake the house of Thais, where betwixt his Exit and the entrance of Pythias, who comes to give an ample relation of the Garboyles he has raised within, Parmeno who was left upon the Stage, has not above five lines to speak: C’est bien employé un temps si court [It is well to employ such a short time—Corneille, Troisième Discours—ed.], says the French Poet, who furnished me with one of the observations; And almost all their Tragedies will afford us examples of the like nature.

“’Tis true, they have kept the continuity, or as you called it Liaison des Scenes somewhat better: two do not perpetually come in together, talk, and go out together; and other two succeed them, and do the same throughout the Act, which the English call by the name of single Scenes; but the reason is, because they have seldom above two or three Scenes, properly so called, in every act; for it is to be accounted a new Scene, not every time the Stage is empty, but every person who enters, though to others, makes it so: because he introduces a new business: Now the Plots of their Plays being narrow, and the persons few, one of their Acts was written in a less compass than one of our well wrought Scenes, and yet they are often deficient even in this: To go no further than Terence, you find in the Eunuch, Antipho entering single in the midst of the third Act, after Chremes and Pythias were gone off: In the same Play you have likewise Dorias beginning the fourth Act alone; and after she has made a relation of what was done at the Soldier’s entertainment (which by the way was very inartificial to do, because she was presumed to speak directly to the Audience, and to acquaint them with what was necessary to be known, but yet should have been so contrived by the Poet as to have been told by persons of the Drama to one another, and so by them to have come to the knowledge of the people) she quits the Stage, and Phœdria enters next, alone likewise: He also gives you an account of himself, and of his returning from the Country in Monologue, his Adelphi or Brothers, Syrus and Demea enter; after the Scene was broken by the departure of Sostrata, Geta and Cathara; and indeed you can scarce look into any of his Comedies, where you will not presently discover the same interruption.

Originally Published: October 13, 2009

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 John  Dryden


After John Donne and John Milton, John Dryden was the greatest English poet of the seventeenth century. After William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, he was the greatest playwright. And he has no peer as a writer of prose, especially literary criticism, and as a translator. Other figures, such as George Herbert or Andrew Marvell or William Wycherley or William Congreve, may figure more prominently in anthologies and literary . . .

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