Nell Gwynn, John Dryden, and the Restoration of Theatrical History

Does anybody care what I want to write?
— John Dryden

No!
— The rest of the King’s Company

Hooray for Jessica Swale’s Nell Gwynn, now playing at the Globe. As well as being a sprightly, engaging feminist reclamation of Restoration theatre history, it’s also the only play I’ve ever encountered where all roads of narrative fulfilment lead to the debut performance of John Dryden’s Tyrannick Love, and thus quite possibly represents the first time Dryden’s 1669 couplet tragedy has been seen on the London stage since 1702.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Nell Gwynn

Most of Swale’s script, stuffed with knowing winks and cracking one-liners, is geared towards Gwynn’s development as a person as well as a performer. Her self-actualisation culminates in the Epilogue to Tyrannick Love, which is both a moving and funny final moment and a call to arms against the male, pale and stale state of the theatre industry. Swale rearranges chronology to give this moment maximum impact – Gwynn’s fictional return to the theatre comes after the death of King Charles, the lover whose wits she is constantly able to match and check in the finest tradition of ‘gay couple’ Restoration comedy. She has moved beyond identification either with the King or his company, and ends on her own terms, in her own voice: Swale presents the epilogue itself as written by Gwynn.

These changes to the raw material of history (Charles died in 1685, some time after Gwynn’s retirement, and I haven’t found any scholars directly arguing for Gwynn’s authorship, though I might be looking in the wrong places!) are in the best tradition of No Bed for Bacon (1941) and Shakespeare in Love, particularly its recent incarnation as a West End metadrama. Through playful anachronism, character and humour are foregrounded – the best story matters more than the ‘true’ one, and as Pete Kirwan has argued, this kind of adaptive engagement has a pedigree dating back to Shakespeare’s own histories.

By performing theatrical history in, and with an eye towards, the theatrical present, Nell Gwynn and Shakespeare in Love both delight audiences with their appeals to our own participation in a continued tradition: we pay homage to our theatre’s roots as we celebrate its current cultural value. The characters in both plays imagine the theatrical future – and here we are, in it, because of them, watching them both anticipate and create us. We gratefully resurrect characters such as Burbage and Gwynn partly to venerate them as mythic founders, and partly to imagine them as ordinary humans.

So where does Dryden fit into all this?

Graham Butler as John Dryden – credit due to the blog ‘Partially-Obstructed View’

Though I’m not a specialist in Restoration theatre or the biographies of any of the main figures, Swale’s play is clearly engaging with a tradition of previous lives of Gwynn, many of them likely to be sexist traductions. But in doing so, she also gives Dryden more of a voice within English theatre than he’s had for a long time. Doubtless there are other fictions set in this period in which Dryden plays a role – it’d be great if anyone could tell me what’s out there – but if he has any kind of public image at all, even within academia, it’s as something of a patrician figure. Rightly or wrongly, Dryden sounds dusty, stuffy, pedantic, the mainstay of a literary establishment most of us rarely engage with outside of the period’s prose comedy. Or, as a guy in my A-level English Language class once said, when asking for clarification on the name of the author of a nit-picking text on English grammar: ‘Like, a dry den, Miss? It’s not wet in there?’

It is not, indeed, wet in the cultural profile of John Dryden. But Swale’s version of the character is neither arid, nor ossified. Instead he’s floppy-haired, diffident, somewhat gauche, but the subject of gentle mockery rather than outright scorn. It’s a genuine surprise to see Dryden (played wonderfully by Graham Butler, with a meek charm reminiscent of the play’s show-stealing spaniel cameo) as a young writer making his place in the world. Young Dryden is a perfectionist, always late for his deadlines, never having quite written ‘the middle bit’ of the plays he dashes off for the King’s Company as he tries to find the right words, the right story. This is not too far from contemporary accounts of Dryden, as analysed by Steven N. Zwicker:

He was a man of the theatre writing in an age of intense theatricality, and yet nothing of Dryden’s public reputation suggests either fluency of personal manner or success in adopting the accents and postures of public life: he was apparently hesitant of speech, poor at telling jokes, awkward in reading his own scripts – an object of theatrical ridicule.

He’s presented primarily as a prose writer, perhaps because the witty repartee of Secret Love fits more neatly with Swale’s own wordplay, but mostly I suspect because the thundering couplets of his heroic work would have come across as too jarring, a distraction from the general sense of the theatre we know today taking shape. Far from autocratic, he takes suggestions from all those around him, especially the women who he struggles winsomely to understand and represent as authentically ‘tangled’ beings, in Gwynn’s phrase. Nell’s presence in the company encourages him to improve his art, to turn away from pastoral delusions to a more authentic and complex portrayal of his female leads (I don’t know enough of Dryden’s work to know if he achieved this!)

As such, we find ourselves in the strange position of rooting for Dryden, hoping that this callow but eager young figure skulking to the side of the stage will hit upon his true voice under Nell’s inspiration, make a breakthrough, and turn into the dazzling theatrical genius we all know and love today …

Not Dryden

That this doesn’t quite happen seems fair enough: after all, we don’t. Nonetheless, it’s fascinating how closely Butler’s Dryden follows the traditional arc of the young male artist origin story, albeit in the background of a play which is much more interested in a young female artist. Douglas Lanier has explained a version of this narrative at length, whereby

[T]he principle of authorial biographicality, the notion that the art is fundamentally expressive of, or at least deeply co-extensive with, the author’s life […] is often positioned against rival models of authorship that the writer must reject to become ‘authentic’: a professional conception of writing as verbal or adaptational craft, a commercial conception of writing as genre-driven, profit-oriented entertainment for the masses, a high-cultural conception of writing as a learned dialogue with literary tradition.

Or as Sidney’s muse says, ‘Look in thy heart and write.’

Though it steers shy of the biographical, Swale’s account of Dryden’s self-realisation conforms closely to this model: the character turns away from the inauthentic to ‘real life’, from a literary view of women to one grounded in a series of conversations with an actual person. And in a story where Dryden was the main character, the debut of the work which shows the culmination of the development would be a scene of unassailable triumph. In Nell Gwynn, however, Tyrannick Love is nothing of the kind – the Globe company heightens the melodrama, presenting the final bloodbath as a camp and ludicrous pastiche which Nell’s clear-sighted, grounded and self-penned epilogue literally rises above. Though Dryden’s arc has been one of steady progress towards authorial flowering, the play chosen to represent his final level of accomplishment within this context is treated as … a bit of a mess.

Part of me wonders what would have happened if Tyrannick Love was presented as a crowning achievement, a challenge to alternative models of theatre (for instance, those of the original Globe), but this could have risked detracting from Nell’s own victory – a victory which it was essential for the play to pull off on Nell’s, and Swale’s, own terms. As such, Dryden remains where he started the play – in the background of theatrical history – but his name, and some sense of his potential, will now be familiar to far larger audiences than it has been for many years. Is there room for more Dryden on the Globe stage? The ribald, outward-facing audience awareness of Swale’s script made me realise just how responsive this space might be to some of the conventions of the Restoration theatre. Could it handle Tyrannick Love on its own terms – or Aureng-Zebe, or the pseudo-Shakespearean All for Love? It’d be a huge gamble, but I’d be fascinated to see if anyone could pull it off.

Notes

— Douglas Lanier. “’There won’t be puppets, will there?’: ‘Heroic’ authorship and the cultural politics of Anonymous.” Shakespeare beyond doubt: evidence, argument, controversy. Ed. Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

— Peter Kirwan. “‘You Have No Voice!’: Constructing Reputation through Contemporaries in the Shakespeare Biopic.” Shakespeare Bulletin 32.1 (2014): 11–26.

— Stephen N. Zwicker, ed. The Cambridge Companion to John Dryden.

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