John Dryden was a major essayist of the English literary tradition. His works are so praiseworthy that Samuel Johnson, a contemporary of Dryden and himself a major critic, called him ‘the father of English criticism” along with commenting that English prose starts with Dryden’s Essay on Dramatic Poesy.
Along with his wide-ranging criticism of epic, poetry, plays, etc., he also wrote plays, prefaces, prologues. His contribution to the field of criticism influenced writers like Pope, Johnson, Mathew Arnold, T. S. Eliot, etc.
And he is mostly famous for his poetic works like “Mac Flecknoe”, Absalom and Achitophel, etc., and his dramatic works like All for Love, Aurang-zebe, and Marriage a la Mode.
Dryden’s Essay on Dramatic Poesy explicitly states in the begin that its aim is to have our English writers to stay away from those who prefer French over English. The essay is a debate on the use of rhyme in the drama that took place originally between Sir Robert Howard and John Dryden.
However, there are four characters in the essay: Eugenius, Crites, Lisideius, and Neander, which are originally identified as Charles Sackville, who was a patron of Dryden and poet himself, Sir Robert Howard, Dryden’s brother-in-law, Sir Charles Sedley, and Neander, Dryden himself, respectively.
Of the various that this debate concerns itself, one the typical issue of ancients and moderns. In neoclassical times, supporters of ancients believed that modern society has corrupted the man and society, and looked for answers in the old texts.
Moderns, on the other hand, were breaking away or abandoning the old ideals completely. They saw the modern world as the development of human nature because of Renaissance ideals. Other issues that the essay deals with are the classical model of ‘unities of time, place and action’, the classical distinction of genres such as tragedy and comedy, etc.
The essay shows a shift in the definition of drama from classical to modern with Lisideius defining it. A mention of delight, humour and representation of human nature are found missing in the classical definition of drama. So, a movement towards a modern kind of drama is evident.
On the other hand, Crites argues that everything / every rule that we know about drama is told to us by Aristotle, Horace and others. He believes that we have nothing new to offer except calling our wit to be superior. In his opinion, modern plays are failures.
By calling moderns to be the ones who don’t indulge in mere imitation of the ancients, Eugenius becomes the first to defend the moderns. Modern do not follow ancients in order to create something, they have nature and humans to draw inspirations from. He believes that with the wisdom of the ancients, we also have our own experiences of the world to understand it.
On the point of French versus English, Lisideius prefers French and Neander (Dryden) defend the English. Lisideius argues that French drama follows all the unities, provides a variety of emotions, He argues that French has the right way of dividing the time among narration, action, dialogue.
Dryden, in his support of English drama, doesn’t refute any claim made by Lisideius in favour of the French; on the other hand, argues that all that is considered erroneous in the English drama is actually a virtue that surpasses traditional techniques. Read this document for detailed analysis.