Plays

All For Love

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

All for Love, or The World Well Lost is John Dryden's epic adaptation of the tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra into a neo-classical quintet with supporting voices. The play, which the 1678 quarto titlepage claims is ‘Written in Imitation of Shakespeare’s Stile’, draws heavily on Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra; it does away, however, with the salaciousness of Shakespeare’s text, and reduces his temporal and geographical range to that of one time and place as per Aristotelian dramatic unities. The play was arguably intended to be seen in direct relation to the contemporary Antony and Cleopatra: A Tragedy (1677), written by politician and playwright Charles Sedley. Dryden’s application of neo-classical conventions and contemporary dramatic practice gives the classic love story a structural beauty and an austere power.

After Cleopatra’s desertion of Antony at the battle of Actium, not only his wife Octavia but also his general Ventidius and his friend Dolabella strive to win him over to their side. Antony, torn between the claims of duty, friendship, dignity and love, despairs when he hears the rumour of Cleopatra's death, which is not, as in Shakespeare’s version, spread by the queen herself but by her deceitful eunuch.

The first recorded performance was at the Theatre Royal, London by the King’s Company in 1677. The play’s political implications have perhaps been lost over time: absolute monarchy and the illicit love of a ruler were highly topical concerns in a post-Restoration Britain, when King Charles II’s extra-marital amours, most famously with the celebrated actress Nell Gwyn, were the subject of much anxiety.

Bajazet  

Faber and Faber
Type: Text

Bajazet is Racine’s most violent drama; it ends, like Phèdre, with a female character’s on-stage suicide, here the culmination of a vividly described sequence of off-stage murders. The setting, in a claustrophobic space within the harem at Constantinople, menaced from both without and within, seems to license a violence of emotion as well as of deed. Violent too are the repeated reversals of fortune, and the terrifying acceleration of the play towards its inexorable catastrophe.

Alan Hollinghurst’s translation of Bajazet premiered at the Almeida Theatre, London, in November 1990.

Berenice  

Faber and Faber
Type: Text

The critical event in Berenice, the death of Titus’ father, the Emperor Vespasian, happens a week before the play opens. Thereafter Titus knows that his separation from Berenice is inevitable. The breaking off of a great love affair involves too the hopes of Antiochus, himself long in love with Berenice. The play pushes all three of its principles to the brink, not of revenge but of self-murder, before in her sublime last speech Berenice redeems and directs them all in an act of collective abnegation. Many tears are shed, but not a drop of blood. The effect is unconventional, and profound: the pained acceptance of the irreconcilable in human affairs, and the surrender, by each of the main characters, of the person they most love.

Alan Hollinghurst’s translation of Berenice premiered at the Donmar Warehouse, London, in October 2012

Marriage A-La Mode

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Half comic and half serious, Marriage A-la-Mode is a spirited study of the trials and passions of love and marriage, and generally considered John Dryden’s finest comedy.

The play is set in the Sicilian court, and consists of a comic plot written in prose, and a tragic plot written in verse. The comic plot wittily explores the fluttering courtly mode of romance. Two fashionable couples, lifted straight from London drawing rooms into the Sicilian court, play at switching partners in the ‘modern style’, flirting with the boundaries of marriage and betrothal. The tragic scenes belong to Leonidas and Palmyra, who have grown up in obscurity but find their love threatened when their true parentage is discovered. This serious plot, by contrast, offers a timeless understanding of love and marriage as deeply intertwined, and of love as springing from country innocence and honour, and not from the social intriguing of shallow courtiers. With a blend of satire and true romance, Dryden leads the play to the conclusion that the most stylish and modish kind of marriage is what is simple, honourable and true.

M arriage A-la-Mode was presented to King Charles II at Windsor in the summer of 1671; the king was, reputedly, a great fan of the comedy, a factor which contributed to its great success onstage at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. After the theatre was destroyed by fire in early 1672, the play moved temporarily to the Duke’s Company’s old theatre in Lincoln’s Inn Fields.

Phaedra

Faber and Faber
Type: Text

The King is missing, presumed dead. His warrior son is braced for inheritance but is betrayed by his heart. Phaedra, the tormented Queen, has a terrifying secret that will shake Athens to its core.

Based on Euripides’ Hippolytus, Racine’s Phaedra reveals the devastating potential of love and the brutality of human nature.

Phaedra, in this version by Frank McGuinness, premiered at the Donmar Warehouse, London in April 2006.

A concept of drama that originated in the writings of 15th century Italian scholars and came to dominate the stage in 17th- and 18th-century France was the neoclassical drama. Neoclassical theorists advocated a return to the values and conventions of classical Greek drama as these were then understood. In particular, they ascribed a great importance to the Poetics of Aristotle, and to the unities of time, place, and action that they deduced from this work.

In France, where the unities became rigidly formalized, the neoclassical style achieved its fullest expression in the works of Cornielle and Racine (although Corneille’s 1637 tragicomedy Le Cid provoked a storm by deviating from the unities).

By contrast, neoclassicism never took root in the English theatre, despite distinguished advocates such as Jonson and Dryden, whose rhymed heroic tragedies enjoyed some success. Joseph Addison’s blank-verse tragedy Cato (1713) was probably the most popular neoclassical work on the English stage.

In France neoclassical tragedy eventually gave way to the bourgeois drame, although it enjoyed a brief revival in some of the works of Voltaire. The movement as a whole was swept away by the advent of Romanticism.

from Jonathan Law ed., The Methuen Drama Dictionary of the Theatre (London, 2011).