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Honor is in everyone's mouth but it thrives only on the stage, and there only in the breast of the artificially virtuous heroine. Even Almanzor, the beau ideal of the heroic, naïvely asks, when in a more than questionable situation his honor is appealed to, “What is honor but a love well hid?" Valor is matched only by love in its extravagance. Almanzor, when not checked by the exigencies of Dryden's plot, is literally as terrible as an army with banners. And as if to abate any astonishment which we might feel in the presence of such a hero, Dryden in his dedication of this play to the Duke of York makes clear who his living models were. He says:
“I have always observed in your Royal Highness an extreme concernment for the honor of your country; 'tis a passion common to you with a brother, the most excellent of kings; and in your two persons are eminent the characters which Homer has given us of heroic virtue: the commanding part in Agamemnon, and the executive in Achilles."
It was a splendidly mendacious tribute to Charles and the Duke!
But this drama was not merely the offspring of the time. It had its origins in the romantic plays of Beaumont and Fletcher, and its later development was affected by the extravagant French romances which were translated into English and imitated. D'Avenant, especially in his Love and Honour and The Siege of Rhodes, is the link connecting the romantic and the heroic plays. The hero has greatly advanced beyond his romantic prototype and the heroine has attained far more independence of character. The rival has become more important, since he must advance with the hero whose foil he is. The influence of the French romances is chiefly shown in the heightened intensity of the characterization and in certain stock situations. In fact, as Hill remarks, one in “passing directly from the romances to.some of Dryden's plays . . . experiences little sense of change: the types of characters are the same, the characters are related in the same way, under similar circumstances they do the same things." So Artaban, "like Almanzor, inspires fear by his terrible eyes; he controls armies with a glance, puts terror into the hearts of his foes, paralyzing them by his mere presence. The first sight the heroine has of him impresses her—as Almahide at her first meeting with Almanzor-with 'a natural fierceness' and with the sparkling vivacity of his eyes.'
"An heroic play,” says Dryden in his Essay of Heroic Plays, “ought to be an imitation, in little, of an heroic poem; and, consequently, . . . love and valor ought to be the subject of it.” As in the poem, the action is built around two heroic characters, one a hero unsurpassed in valor, the other his beloved, as constant in virtue as she is in love, and it is carried fout in a court harassed by domestic treason, rebellion, and foreign attack. The action proceeds from one great scene to another, so that there is no lack of excitement in the entire course of the five acts. The object of the play is not, as in the Shaksperean tragedy, to work out the fate of a mighty * La Calprenède's Romances, pp. 58 and 78.
soul in conflict with great moral forces, but to depict the fortunes of a superhuman hero, who by his amazing valor or the very awe of his name puts down rebellions and overthrows kingdoms in order that he may win his love and that as a consequence virtue may triumph over the forces of evil, his enemies. The motives of action are often violent in keeping with the violent deeds which they occasion; they are unexpected, sometimes arbitrary, but never commonplace. They spring from the complication of love affairs with those of state, and in their variety and startling character they never allow the action to drag. The scene of the play is usually laid in some strange court, as in Jerusalem or Africa or Spanish America, and thus it had for the untravelled Englishman all the charm of a journey into the realm of the imagination. Finally, there was a certain pleasure in the very verse, the heroic couplet, which was admirably adapted to express the exalted sentiments of the heroic character.
It is in the exceeding turmoil of events that the interest of The Conquest of Granada chiefly lies. Through the ten acts of its two parts three love plots of divergent claims to attention, laid in a city which is besieged by a foreign foe and distracted by warring factions within its walls, keep one as busy as a spectator at a three-ring circus. Standing out pre-eminently is the love of Almanzor and Almahide. The mighty hero holds in his hands the fortunes of the city and the fates of the Spaniard and the rival factions. His love is the quintessence of the heroic; so far is it above Zulema's that this rival shall “not dare to be so impudent as to despair.” In contrast to such love is that of the infatuated Abdelmelech and Abdalla for the designing Lyndaraxa, who plays one lover against another for a crown. Then as striking a more normal balance there is the pure romance of Ozmyn and Benzayda. In addition to the complexities of love there is excitement caused by the recurrently attacking Spaniards and the intermittently revolting Zegrys. It may indeed impress one that the revolts and the siege are timed to suit the exigencies of the love plots; when one of the heroes has to advance his love affair, he goes or is taken over to the Spaniards and thereby sets both love and war in motion. When love is not in need of external excitation, zambras may be danced, songs may be sung, and tournaments and bull fights conducted in ceremonious state without fear of disturbing foes. Then when in Part II mortal agencies fail to keep the stage astir, the ghost of Almanzor's mother dares to reprove her erring son. Very unfilially he threatens to
Squeeze thee, like a bladder, there
[The ghost retires.
In addition to these more important events we have songs and dances, duels, a murder, a suicide, an attempted assault on-of all persons-Almahide, and a trial by combat. No one need complain that the drama lacks action!
In the motivation of his events Dryden rarely fails of startling effects. His interweaving of love affairs with the military operations of the city has very little of the inevitable. One hardly notices that Almahide has a third lover, Zulema, who is mentioned in the early acts. It is seen later that he is used by the dramatist as a mere tool in the manipulation of plot. When Almanzor has aided Abdalla in overthrowing Boabdelin and is therefore in a position to dispose of Almahide, he is checked by his rival Zulema. This check so enrages him that he deserts Abdalla, goes over to Boabdelin, and restores the deposed king to the throne. The counter-turn may not be inevitable, but it furnished lively action.
It is action rather than development of character that we have in this play. Almanzor is as mighty when he kills the bull before the curtain rises as he is when he slays his adversary at the close of the fifth act of the Second Part. And a splendidly imposing personage he must have been to his admiring spectators of the Restoration theatre. It is easy enough for us to pick out inconsistencies which we can glibly say were intended to subserve Dryden's plot. Almanzor can quell riots at a word, turn defeat into victory, and sigh that he has no task worthy of his valor; but when it is necessary to arrest him that the plot may proceed, a few guards are easily equal to the task. Similarly Almahide's repose under distressing circumstances may seem to us ever to be the same, yet this constancy in love must have charmed the cavaliers by its very contrast to their daily experience. She reasons with a calm inflexibility of temper, that marks her off from her passionate lover, and she dispenses wisdom and convincing argument in couplets as elegant as her sentiments are fine.
It was these scenes of debate, usually on love, that Scott says were the most applauded in the heroic plays; they would drive a modern audience through the doors. Scenes almost seem to be invented for the sake of the argument they contain. Thus the attempt of Lyndaraxa to win Almanzor is a fine example of argument in verse and not much else. It is a foregone conclusion that no wicked woman can shake the faith of the incomparable lover. Nearly all of Act II is argument, and when Lyndaraxa and one of her lovers appear, they do nothing but debate. Lyndaraxa speaks quite truly when she says:
“ By my own experience I can tell,
They who love truly cannot argue well."
To argue well is as necessary to an heroic lover as to be valiant is to a soldier. That it was out of place in a play and that it was yet very good verse only show that Dryden was less a dramatic than an argumentative poet.
No form of verse was better adapted to such dialogue than the couplet, as we see it in perfection in the later poems. Dryden was now in the full flush of his enthusiasm over his verse, and he not only used it in the heroic plays but defended it in the critical essays. A serious play, he says, “is indeed the representation of Nature, but 'tis Nature wrought up to a higher pitch. The plot, the characters, the wit, the passions, the descriptions, are all exalted above the level of coinmon converse, as high as the imagination of the poet can carry them, with proportion to verisimility. ... Heroic rhyme is nearest Nature, as being the noblest kind of modern verse” (Ker, Essays, I, 100-1). And again, “Rhyme . . . has something of the usurper in him; but he is brave and generous, and his dominion pleasing” (ibid. p. 115). Rime bears about the same relation to blank verse that the heroic drama does to the Shaksperean. It is as a pair of stilts on which the characters stalk through the play so that they may have the appearance of heightened dignity. The very artificiality of rime suits very well the exaggerated pose of the characters. It is essentially declamatory in Dryden's hands and at times rises to poetic heights. The heroic play would lose in complete consistency were it not written in the couplet form, and it is significant that when Dryden tired of his long-loved mistress rime, he ceased to write heroic plays.
Dryden was not a great dramatic poet, but he wrote the best heroic drama of his time. His stage is nearly always crowded with action, his characters possess the extravagant traits that would thrill a jaded audience, and his verse is rarely without dignity. When events were not following one another rapidly, his audiences were entertained by the thrust and parry of argumentative discourse on the all-important matters of love and honor, so that boredom was impossible to them. To us the heroic play may not remain, as Johnson says, "for the most part delightful,” yet it does “exhibit a kind of illustrious depravity, and majestic madness: such as, if it is somewhat despised, is often reverenced, and in which the ridiculous is mingled with the astonishing."
THE CONQUEST OF GRANADA
Major rerum mihi nascitur ordo;
VIRGIL, Æneid, vii, 44, 45.
PROLOGUE TO PART I
Spoken by Mrs. Ellen Gwyn, in a Broad-brimmed Hat, and Waist-belt.
This jest was first of t'other house's making,