Essay on Poetic Theory

An Essay of Dramatic Poesy (1668)

by John Dryden
“I have observed that in all our Tragedies, the Audience cannot forbear laughing when the Actors are to die; ’tis the most Comic part of the whole Play. All passions may be lively represented on the Stage, if to the well-writing of them the Actor supplies a good commanded voice, and limbs that move easily and without stiffness; but there are many actions which can never be imitated to a just height: dying especially is a thing which none but a Roman Gladiator could naturally perform upon the Stage when he did not imitate or represent, but naturally do it; and therefore it is better to omit the representation of it.

“The words of a good Writer which describe it lively, will make a deeper impression of belief in us than all the Actor can persuade us to, when he seems to fall dead before us; as a Poet in the description of a beautiful Garden, or a Meadow, will please our imagination more than the place itself can please our sight. When we see death represented we are convinced it is but Fiction; but when we hear it related, our eyes (the strongest witnesses) are wanting, which might have undeceived us; and we are all willing to favor the sleight when the Poet does not too grossly impose upon us. They therefore who imagine these relations would make no concernment in the Audience, are deceived, by confounding them with the other, which are of things antecedent to the Play; those are made often in cold blood (as I may say) to the audience; but these are warmed with our concernments, which are before awakened in the Play. What the Philosophers say of motion, that when it is once begun it continues of it self, and will do so to Eternity without some stop put to it, is clearly true on this occasion; the soul being already moved with the Characters and Fortunes of those imaginary persons, continues going of its own accord, and we are no more weary to hear what becomes of them when they are not on the Stage, then we are to listen to the news of an absent Mistress. But it is objected, That if one part of the Play may be related, then why not all? I answer, Some parts of the action are more fit to be represented, some to be related. Corneille says judiciously, that the Poet is not obliged to expose to view all particular actions which conduce to the principal: he ought to select such of them to be seen which will appear with the greatest beauty; either by the magnificence of the show, or the vehemence of passions which they produce, or some other charm which they have in them, and let the rest arrive to the audience by narration. ’Tis a great mistake in us to believe the French present no part of the action upon the Stage: every alteration or crossing of a design, every new sprung passion, and turn of it, is a part of the action, and much the noblest, except we conceive nothing to be action till they come to blows; as if the painting of the Heroes mind were not more properly the Poets work than the strength of his body. Nor does this any thing contradict the opinion of Horace, where he tells us,

Segnius irritant animos demissa per aurem

Quam quæ sunt oculis subjecta fidelibus

[Matters transmitted through the ear stir the spirit

less forcibly than those set before the trustworthy eyes]

—For he says immediately after,

Non tamen intus
Digna geri promes in scenam, multaque tolles
Ex oculis, quæ mox narret facundia præsens.

[You shall not bring on the stage
Things that should be accomplished offstage; you shall
    remove from my sight

Things that resourceful eloquence will effectively narrate]

Among which many he recounts some.

Nec pueros coram populo Medea trucidet,

Aut in avem Progne mutetur, Cadmus in anguem, etc.

[Medea should not butcher her children in public,
Nor Procne be changed into a bird, Cadmus into a snake, etc.]

“That is, those actions which by reason of their cruelty will cause aversion in us, or by reason of their impossibility unbelief, ought either wholly to be avoided by a Poet, or only delivered by narration. To which, we may have leave to add such as to avoid tumult, (as was before hinted) or to reduce the Plot into a more reasonable compass of time, or for defect of Beauty in them, are rather to be related than presented to the eye. Examples of all these kinds are frequent, not only among all the Ancients, but in the best received of our English Poets. We find Ben Jonson using them in his Magnetic Lady, where one comes out from Dinner, and relates the quarrels and disorders of it to save the undecent appearing of them on the Stage, and to abbreviate the Story: and this in express imitation of Terence, who had done the same before him in his Eunuch, where Pythias makes the like relation of what had happened within at the Soldier’s entertainment. The relations likewise of Sejanus’s death, and the prodigies before it are remarkable, the one of which was hid from sight to avoid the horror and tumult of the representation; the other to shun the introducing of things impossible to be believed. In that excellent Play The King and No King, Fletcher goes yet farther; for the whole unraveling of the Plot is done by narration in the fifth Act, after the manner of the Ancients; and it moves great concernment in the Audience, though it be only a relation of what was done many years before the Play. I could multiply other instances, but these are sufficient to prove that there is no error in choosing a subject which requires this sort of narrations; in the ill managing of them, there may.

“But I find I have been too long in this discourse since the French have many other excellencies not common to use, as that you never see any of their Plays end with a conversion, or simple change of will, which is the ordinary way our Poets use to end theirs. It shows little art in the conclusion of a Dramatick Poem, when they who have hindered the felicity during the four Acts, desist from it in the fifth without some powerful cause to take them off; and though I deny not but such reasons may be found, yet it is a path that is cautiously to be trod, and the Poet is to be sure he convinces the Audience that the motive is strong enough. As for example, the conversion of the Usurer in The Scornful Lady, seems to me a little forced; for being an Usurer, which implies a lover of Money to the highest degree of covetousness, (and such the Poet has represented him) the account he gives for the sudden change is, that he has been duped by the wild young fellow, which in reason might render him more wary another time, and make him punish himself with harder fare and courser clothes to get it up again: but that he should look upon it as a judgment, and so repent, we may expect to hear of in a Sermon, but I should never endure it in a Play.

“I pass by this; neither will I insist upon the care they take, that no person after his first entrance shall ever appear, but the business which brings him upon the Stage shall be evident: which, if observed, must needs render all the events in the Play more natural; for there you see the probability of every accident, in the cause that produced it; and that which appears chance in the Play, will seem so reasonable to you, that you will there find it almost necessary; so that in the exits of their Actors you have a clear account of their purpose and design in the next entrance: (though, if the Scene be well wrought, the event will commonly deceive you) for there is nothing so absurd, says Corneille, as for an Actor to leave the Stage, only because he has no more to say.

“I should now speak of the beauty of their Rhyme, and the just reason I have to prefer that way of writing in the Tragedies before ours in Blank verse; but because it is partly received by us, and therefore not altogether peculiar to them, I will say no more of it in relation to their Plays. For our own I doubt not but it will exceedingly beautify them, and I can see but one reason why it should not generally obtain, that is, because our Poets write so ill in it. This indeed may prove a more prevailing argument than all others which are used to destroy it, and therefore I am only troubled when great and judicious Poets, and those who acknowledged such, have writ or spoke against it; as for others they are to be answered by that one sentence of an ancient Author, Sed ut primo ad consequendos eos quos priores ducimus accendimur, ita ubi autpræteriri, aut æquari eos posse desperavimus, studium cum spe senescit: quod, scilicet, assequi non potest, sequi desinit; præteritoque, eo in quo eminere no possumus, aliquid in quo nitamur conquirimus [But as we are stimulated to follow those whom we consider foremost, so, when we despair of surpassing or even equaling them, our zeal wanes with our hope; indeed, because it cannot excel, it ceases to follow. When that in which we cannot excel is in the past, we look for something worthy of striving after—ed.].”

Lisideius concluded in this manner; and Neander after a little pause thus answered him.

“I shall grant Lisideius, without much dispute, a great part of what he has urged against us, for I acknowledge the French contrive their Plots more regularly, observe the Laws of Comedy, and decorum of the Stage (to speak generally) with more exactness than the English. Farther I deny not but he has taxed us justly in some irregularities of ours which he has mentioned; yet, after all, I am of opinion that neither our faults nor their virtues are considerable enough to place them above us.

“For the lively imitation of Nature being in the definition of a Play, those which best fulfill that law ought to be esteemed superior to the others. ’Tis true, those beauties of the French-poesy are such as will raise perfection higher where it is, but are not sufficient to give it where it is not: they are indeed the Beauties of a Statue, but not of a Man, because not animated with the Soul of Poesy, which is imitation of humor and passions: and this Lisideius himself, or any other, however biased to their Party, cannot but acknowledge, if he will either compare the humors of our Comedies, or the Characters of our serious Plays with theirs. He that will look upon theirs which have been written till these last ten years or thereabouts, will find it an hard matter to pick out two or three passable humors amongst them. Corneille himself, their Arch-Poet, what has he produced except The Liar, and you know how it was cried up in France; but when it came upon the English Stage, though well translated, and that part of Dorant acted to so much advantage by Mr. Hart, as I am confident it never received in its own Country, the most favourable to it would not put in competition with many of Fletcher’s or Ben Jonson’s. In the rest of Corneille’s Comedies you have little humor; he tells you himself his way is first to show two Lovers in good intelligence with each other; in the working up of the Play to embroil them by some mistake, and in the latter end to clear it up.

“But of late years de Molière, the younger Corneille, Quinault, and some others, have been imitating of afar off the quick turns and graces of the English Stage. They have mixed their serious Plays with mirth, like our Tragicomedies since the death of Cardinal Richelieu, which Lisideius and many others not observing, have commended that in them for a virtue which they themselves no longer practice. Most of their new Plays are like some of ours, derived from the Spanish Novels. There is scarce one of them without a veil, and a trusty Diego, who drolls much after the rate of The Adventures. But their humors, if I may grace them with that name, are so thin sown that never above one of them come up in any Play: I dare take upon me to find more variety of them in some one Play of Ben Jonson’s than in all theirs together: as he who has seen The Alchemist, The Silent Woman, or Bartholomew Fair, cannot but acknowledge with me.

Originally Published: October 13, 2009
«12345678910

Poetry is looking for thought-provoking responses to work published in the magazine, as well as letters that raise new questions about the state of contemporary poetry. To send us your letter, please fill out all the fields below.

If we choose to use your letter, we will notify you by phone. If you have not heard from us within two weeks of sending your letter, you may assume we will not be using it. All letters may be edited for length and clarity, and may appear online, in print, or both.

Please do NOT send poetry submissions to this account. See Submission Guidelines for further information and policies regarding poetry submissions.

   Cancel

* All fields are required

Related

Audio
 John  Dryden

Biography

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 . . .

Continue reading this biography

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

This poem has learning resources.

This poem is good for children.

This poem has related video.

This poem has related audio.