Tragedy and Comedy of the Times in Dryden’s “Marriage-a-la-Mode”
The English Restoration significantly impacted the work of the artists of the day. As England moved from a monarchy under Charles I, to a commonwealth under the leadership of Oliver Cromwell, and then back again to a monarchy with Charles II on the throne, artists, and in particular playwrights, were given much fodder to explore in their respective fields. The struggle between Catholicism and Protestantism, identifying a clear successor, and discussing royalist loyalties were among the themes that often made their way into the literary work of this period. John Dryden, one of the most prolific and well-known Restoration playwrights, discusses questions of Royalist loyalty, moral uprightness, and unclear succession. Tragicomedy was the form taken by most of these Restoration dramas, from 1660 to nearly the eighteenth century. The form was influenced heavily by the French. Nancy Klein Maguire writes: “Continental influence, especially that of the French, spurred interest in tragicomedy. Charles I’s wife, Henrietta Maria, was a French princess with strong dramatic interests. Many of the Restoration playwrights had been with Charles II during his exile and spent many years in France. They acquired French tastes, and among those tastes was a taste for tragic-comedy” (88). The tragic-comic form allowed the playwright to bring together two divergent genres – tragedy and comedy – often by employing two parallel plot lines. In the case of Dryden’s Marriage-a-la-Mode, the “tragic” plot primarily involves Polydamas and Leonidas and the struggle to find a rightful heir to the throne. This theme would have been one with which Dryden’s audience would have been familiar as the marriage between Charles II and Catherine of Braganza bore no children, just as “this old king, [Polydamas . . . ,] all the world thought childless” (ll. 278-9). The “comic” plot, centered around the couples Rhodophil and Doralice, and Palamede and Melantha, takes questions of royalist loyalty and provisional morality as its themes as the two couples attempt, while remaining loyal to their vows and social standing, to partner in non-traditional ways. But the influence of the French is seen in more than just the structure of Marriage-a-la-Mode. Such pervasive Francophilia is understandable considering the rather lengthy exile the Stuarts had there as well as the upcoming Third Dutch War (1672-74). Conducted “[i]n alliance with France, [. . .] there was a widespread feeling that in combining with an absolutist Catholic regime against a Protestant country, [Britain] had picked the wrong ally and the wrong enemy” (Hughes 133). In the play, Dryden establishes Melantha as a symbol for all things French. Her speech, mannerisms, and ideals are all quintessentially Francophilic. From her daily vocabulary lessons to her courtly manners, virtually every aspect of Melantha’s character is in some way coloured by the French. Nevertheless, “[h]er flirtatiousness, love of court, and idiosyncratic vocabulary are affectations which, however ridiculous, never detract from her visible, exuberant, triumphant vitality” (Martin 752). Melantha’s prominence in the play, demands a judgement of some kind from the audience. While her facile language and often puerile actions may lead one to give a less than glowing assessment of her character and consequently the influence of the French during the Restoration, she does possess a very real joie de vivre, one which managed to attract Rhodophil and will, ultimately, sustain Palamede. Therefore, one cannot simply pass Melantha off as a naÃ¯ve dilettante. Rather, she appears to embody many Royalist ideals including loyalty, quietism, and a high view of courtly responsibility. Even though Dryden was himself a Royalist, it is difficult to take Melantha completely seriously as a symbol of all of his ideals. Duane Coltharp writes: “an enslavement to fashion, a total subordination of the self to the oppressive demands of the social, opens oneself up to all kinds of subjection.” Indeed, while embodying many ideals of the Royalists, many criticisms also can be levied against her. One might be inclined to suggest that the way Melantha is positioned is a way of addressing some of the Stuart’s less flattering aspects while still praising many of the ideals. Susan Owen writes: “We find royal lies, ineptitude, passivity, misrule, ‘effeminacy,’ and excessive mercy towards the kingdom’s enemies, which are all failings for which Charles was criticized” (164-5). While it is difficult to assert what Dryden’s specific motivations might have been, it is reasonable to assert that Melantha is in some ways representative of Charles II, who was exiled in France and, while embodying many Royalist expectations of a monarch, had his own personal failings. Derek Hughes writes: “The natural disasters of the plague (1665) and the Great Fire of London (1666), in which some saw divine punishment for royal sins, were aggravated by a partly man-made disaster: mismanagement and humiliation in a war against the Dutch” (129). Of course, Melantha is only one part of one of the two story lines. There is still the question of succession to consider in the “tragic” line. This story is just as convoluted, if not more so, than the “comic” one, as Leonidas must prove his identity and right to the throne held by the usurper Polydamas. “Though the kingdom in question is ostensibly Sicily, the situation would have held obvious, more immediate connotations for 1670s audiences, especially since the popular Royalist theme of legitimate rule restored would have been already familiar from a number of recent works” (Manning xxxiv). The question of succession would have been at the forefront of a Restoration audience member’s mind, especially a succession that is neither clear nor easy. Charles II claimed the English throne after an interregnum of commonwealth rule, the length of which he spent wandering the continent. The fact that he had no legitimate children made the question of succession all the more pressing — although James Scott, Charles’s illegitimate son, made a bid for the throne after the King’s death in 1685, it was James II, Charles’s brother, who succeeded Charles and executed James Scott. Loyalty, moral uprightness, and legitimate succession are all important themes addressed, often with a French accent, in John Dryden’s Marriage-a-la-Mode. The tragicomic form allows Dryden to present two very different stories in two very different ways, and consequently, prompt the audience draw parallels between the two. One common theme both stories share is Charles II – represented in part by the Francophilic yet somewhat naÃ¯ve Melantha in the “comic” plot line and in the question surrounding legitimate succession in the “tragic” one. Restoration audiences would have been keenly aware of such issues as they were living them, and Dryden, a Royalist himself, was more than happy to stage such timely and alluring themes. Works CitedColtharp, Duane.: Radical royalism: strategy and ambivalence in Dryden’s tragicomedies. Philological Quarterly (Univ. of Iowa, Iowa City) (78:4) [Fall 1999] , p.417-437.Dryden, John. Marriage-a-la-Mode. Rpt. in Libertine Plays of the Restoration. Ed. Gillian Manning. London: Everyman, 2001.Hughes, Derek. Restoration and settlement: 1660 and 1688. Rpt. in The Cambridge Companion to English Restoration Theatre. Ed. Deborah Payne Fisk. Cambridge: CUP, 2000.Maguire, Nancy Klein. Tragicomedy. Rpt. in The Cambridge Companion to English Restoration Theatre. Ed. Deborah Payne Fisk. Cambridge: CUP, 2000.Owen, Susan J. Drama and political crisis. Rpt. in The Cambridge Companion to English Restoration Theatre. Ed. Deborah Payne Fisk. Cambridge: CUP, 2000.