IN the history of the drama Dryden occupies a peculiar place. He had no great genius for the theater, and yet he imposed his ideas upon the English play-going world. He was that unusual product, a politician with a poetical mind. For a time he was attached to the Puritans, and wrote an ode on the death of Cromwell; but, on the accession of Charles, he found no difficutly in transferring his muse to the royalist party. Towards the end of his stormy life he became a Roman Catholic. Soon after the accession of William and Mary, the queen, as a mark of honor to the poet, ordered a performance of The Spanish Fryar, one of his best comedies. Among his last writings is rather an apologetic answer to Jeremy Collier's attack upon the stage. He died in May, 1700, and was buried in Westminster Abbey in the grave of Chaucer. He bequeathed his "dramatic laurels" to William Congreve.
Although Dryden began his career as a playwright with the production of two or three comedies, yet it was in heroic drama that he achieved his great popularity. A brother-in-law, Sir Robert Howard, wrote a play called The Indian Queen, which had an absurd plot with a picturesque setting. Dryden assisted in its revision; and its success was such as to encourage him to write a sequel, The Indian Imperor, or the Conquest of Mexico by the Spaniards, which took the stage by storm. Later came The Conquest of Granada, in two parts with five acts each, the scene laid in unknown regions, and the story full of intrigues, battles, bull fights, revenge, ghosts and murders. Three distinct love affairs are threaded together. Another piece of this type, Tyrannick Love, has for its subject the persecution of the Christians by the Emperor Maximin and the sufferings of Saint Catherine.
Dryden tried his hand at opera, one of his efforts being the arrangement of Milton's Paradise Lost for a musical setting. Some of this work was composed by the celebrated Englishman, Henry Purcell. Dryden and Davenant together re-wrote The Tempest, giving Caliban and Ariel each a sister for some unknown reason. Romeo and Juliet, revised by Dryden and his brother-in-law James Howard, had a happy ending, and was performed on alternate nights with the original play. In All for Love, or the World Well Lost, a revision of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, Dryden abandoned the heroic couplet and used blank verse; he also reconstructed the original play in such a way as to make it conform to the three unities. About 1678 he gave up the use of the heroic couplet altogether. His version of Oedipus, in collaboration with Nathaniel Lee, was too ghastly and horrible for stage production, even in those days of strong nerves.
Dryden's influence was greater than would be thought possible from a study of any one of his dramas. As a playwright he did not consider himself wholly a success, and expressed his dislike and contempt of the stage more than once. Of certain of his plays he said, "I knew they were bad enough to please, even when I wrote them." He had no sense of the ridiculous, nor any conception of a natural, sincere portrayal of human nature. Ranting and absurd imagery often lie beside passages of real beauty. Dr. Johnson described his style as a "false magnificence." One comedy, The Spanish Fryar, and one tragedy, All for Love, deserve to be remembered. Far more interesting than the plays, however, are Dryden's discussions of dramatic questions. Like George Bernard Shaw, he had the habit of writing long prefaces and comments as an accompaniment to the text. In these dissertations are to be found many sound principles, including the idea that dramatic rules should be deduced from a study of plays rather than from abstract speculation.