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John Dryden came of age during a turbulent portion of England’s history. In his lifetime, he observed the collapse of four different governments. Born in 1631, Dryden lived through Charles I’s beheading, the republican experiment of the interregnum, the return to monarchy under Charles II, and finally the glorious revolution in which perhaps no blood was spilt but the condition of the English throne was undeniably weakened.1 These abrupt and tremendous political changes also included substantial cultural transformations. One of the transformations that had a limiting effect on Dryden’s literary career was the closing of the English theaters during the interregnum. Meanwhile, Charles II, during his exile in France, was exposed to a continental drama that was quite different from that of his homeland. Charles’s exposure, and his fondness for certain continental practices, may partially account for two of the radical changes that the English stage saw during the restoration. The most immediate change was the introduction of actresses to the stage.2 Prior to 1660 there were no professional actresses on the English stage, and all the female roles were played by men or more usually boys. Beginning in 1660, however, actresses, though still fewer than actors, were an accepted part of English drama. In 1662, Charles II decreed that women could and should play female roles (Howe 26). The second change concerned an increased interest in musical drama.3 While it wasn’t until the eighteenth century that opera came into its own in England, the drama of the seventeenth century contained an increasing amount of music. In 1684, Dryden wrote one dramatic work that could actually be called an opera, Albion and Albanius, and several more that are now labeled semi-operas. One of Dryden’s noted semi-operas, King Arthur, was performed in 1691. A large part of this work’s success depended upon the extraordinary musical ability of his collaborator Henry Purcell.

Publication Date

Spring 2008

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©2008 John Sievers



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