The Essay was written while Dryden was out of London in flight from the plague.
Between June 1665 and December 1666, he was staying at Charlton in Wiltshire, the country estate of his father-in-law, the Earl of Berkshire; this period also saw the composition of the heroically patriotic Annus Mirabilis, the most substantial of Dryden’s early attempts to mythologize the Stuart monarchy.
He cites the application of the pseudo- Aristotelian “Unities” as an example of how far short of the classical model the Moderns have fallen.
Eugenius, in response, attempts to turn Crites’ points against him.
Out of such classical spareness, claims Lisideius, emerges a new verisimilitude.
It is left to Neander to reply, and to summarize, one suspects, on Dryden’s behalf.The French are strict observers of the “Unities”; they have rejected that peculiar English hybrid, the tragicomedy; they have modernized and simplified their plots to give them a familiar credibility; and they have engaged in a more searching exploration of human passion.Narration has, to an extent, replaced action, so that the performances are no longer embarrassed by inept death scenes and acts of violence.He acknowledges the superior “decorum” of French drama, but then qualifies his approval by allowing French plays only the lifeless beauty of a statue.And, with a sly glance at the Unity of Place, he describes the scenery moving around two motionless characters as they endlessly declaim.Conversely, the English stage is more vital, more exciting.Subplots and tragicomedy lend variety and contrast, dramatic dialogue is better suited to passion, and even violent action is justified by deference to popular appeal.It is true that he states a preference for the plays of “the last age” (Elizabethan and Jacobean) over the present; his central contention, however, is that in classical drama we find the eternal verities, which have never received more powerful expression.The current age has discovered its own genius in scientific progress, but in the theater its best hope is to conform to the rules provided by its predecessors.Their opening exchanges display the currency of ironic repartee familiar from Restoration comedy, as fears are voiced that an English victory will be heralded by a plethora of outlandish celebrations from those ever-eager “leveller[s] in poetry.” These tart remarks, carrying more than a hint of cultural elitism, lead into a serious discussion of drama.Lisideius proposes a definition for a play which all accept, although the precise meaning of “A just and lively Image of Human Nature” will be differently interpreted according to each speaker’s idea of how it is that Art should imitate Nature.