John Dryden (1641-1700) is today chiefly remembered as one of the greatest English poets, whose creative brilliance reached from elegy to satire, from mock epic to love song. In his own time, however, he was equally celebrated as an outstanding and innovative playwright.
His theatrical career stretched from the early 1660s to the year of his death and was constantly experimental and mould-breaking.
He is the first English dramatist to write a systematic treatise which aimed to define, and analyse, the generic and stylistic choices writers of his own generation faced, and which sought to position contemporary invention for the stage within the illuminating perspective of intricate genealogies which stretched back past the early seventeenth-century work of Shakespeare and Jonson to the Greek and Roman theatres, and also reached out to embrace the most interesting continental thinking of his own time.
In his own playwriting practice, he was equally adventurous. In comedy, he ranged restlessly from farce to tragicomedy, while essaying many intricate generic variations in between.
He also delighted in crafting challenges precisely calculated for the talents of specific actors. In 1667, in his highly successful Secret Love, he created for Nell Gwynn her finest role; and, at the other end of his career, he wrote brilliantly, in the 1690s, for the greatest actress of the century, Elizabeth Barry, who was the original Alcmena in Amphitryon.
In the process, he created some of the most lasting hits of the Restoration stage; and, when his plays were published, he accompanied them with eloquent excursions on the developing state of his ideas about what the stage might yet attempt, as well as on the most promising paths for modern playwrights to pursue.
His focus was always on matching a sophisticated sense of all we inherit from the great achievements of our predecessors with the imperative that, in his view, the theatre must always confront – i.e., the need to generate experiences which make sense, and communicate, vividly now.
In fulfilling that goal, he was always clear about the need to combine indebtedness to theatrical precedent with radical innovation, in order to devise works which belonged distinctively to their moment of creation and spoke eloquently, and arousingly, to contemporary audiences. Amphitryon, his comic masterpiece, amply lives up to those demands.
In the 1680s Dryden withdrew for a time from writing for the stage, relieved by his income as Historiographer Royal and Poet Laureate from a dependence on earnings from the playhouse. The sudden blow of the 1688 Revolution, however, transformed his life.
A Catholic convert, he remained loyal to his new faith and accordingly, under the Protestant regime the Revolution enthroned, lost his public offices. Necessity therefore drove him back to writing both for the stage and for print. Amphitryon was one of the first fruits of this new reality.
In creating it, he drew freely, and gratefully, on the masterpieces by the Roman playwright Plautus and Molière, Dryden’s great French contemporary, which retold the same potent classical myth. At times, he directly absorbs incidents and dialogue from their plays, but he also radically innovates, even as he borrows. No narrating of the Alcmena/Amphitryon story preceding Dryden’s, for instance, allows spectators to experience Alcmena’s state of mind, and her ecstatic absorption in her love for her husband, before Jupiter’s intervention damagingly, and permanently, transforms the nature of their relationship.
In addition, his great play is at all points inflected by his own recent experiences. A writer whose life circumstances had been catastrophically impaired by a political convulsion he could not in any way seek to control or avert generated eloquent meaning from a story which maps the fate of humans whose futures are turned irretrievably awry by a divine power, whose operations they cannot discern at work on them until it is too late.
In the process, he created a deliciously multi-hued work, which combines ingenious farce and sustainedly witty dialogue with some of the most moving writing composed for the seventeenth-century stage. His play’s imaginative resourcefulness immediately earned it enormous popular success and, in due course, a central place in the English theatrical repertoire throughout the following century.