A great and heroic medieval English king, brutal Saxon warriors, magicians and magic, enchanted woods, fairies…this doesn’t really sound like an eighteenth-century play, does it?
Indeed, the ‘long eighteenth century’ (c.1688-c.1837) is not a period that people usually associate with medievalism; indeed, neo-classical motifs seemed to dominate the age. If anything, history writers such as Edward Gibbon in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (published in six volumes between 1776-1789).
Yet one can detect in this period glimmerings of interest in the medieval period; when government buildings such as Somerset House were being built in the neo-classical design, the people designing the new buildings for Oxford University resisted the neo-classical in favour of the Gothic; in fact, Alice Chandler says that, in one sense, the medieval period had never really died:
In a sense, the middle ages had never died […] Chaucer’s plowman would have found England’s [18th-century] rural life very familiar. The tools and produce of agriculture had scarcely changed for centuries; the old country customs and festivals were only slowly dying out; and the whir of the spinning wheel had just begun to grow silent.
Which brings me to the play which is the subject of this post; King Arthur; or, The British Worthy, written by John Dryden (1631-1700) originally in 1685, but then set to music by Henry Purcell (1659-1695) in 1691. The play premiered at the Queen’s Theatre in May 1691. Dryden was a poet, literary critic, translator, and playwright, and exercised a profound influence upon Restoration literary life. Little is known of Purcell’s life and career, but he is credited with having invented a uniquely English form of Baroque music. Together these men produced what is, in my opinion, one of the best medievalist operas of the long eighteenth century.
Today, King Arthur is pretty much a fantasy figure, occupying the same sort of quasi-historical ground that the television show Game of Thrones does; not “historical” as such, but not so far removed from fact either. Dryden’s play seeks to ground King Arthur in (almost) verifiable history, although Merlin does make a brief appearance.
The dramatis personae of the play are:
- King Arthur.
- Oswald, King of Kent, a Saxon and a heathen.
- Conon, Duke of Cornwall, Tributary to King Arthur.
- Merlin, an infamous Inchanter.
- Osmond, a Saxon Magician.
- Aurelius, a friend to Arthur.
- Albanact, Captain of Arthur’s Guards.
- Guillamar, friend to Oswald.
- Emmeline, daughter of Conon.
- Matilda, her attendant.
- Philidel, an Airy Spirit.
- Grimbald, an Earthly Spirit.
- Officers and Soldiers, Singers and Dancers, etc.
As you can see, there is a distinct lack of the Arthurian characters which we, as modern audiences, have come to expect as part of the Arthurian tradition. There is no Guinevere, no Lancelot, no Sir Gawain. In fact, the cast is almost unrecognisable. But this is ok, as these characters were only firmly established as part of the legend in the nineteenth century (indeed, even Marian, another “medieval” figure, did not firmly become Robin Hood’s love interest until the nineteenth century, before that his sweetheart was a woman called Clorinda).
The opera opens on St. George’s Day, just as the Christian King Arthur is to go into battle against the heathen, Saxon King Oswald:
Con. Then this is the deciding Day, to fix Great Britain’s Scepter in great Arthur’s Hand.
Aur. Or put it in the bold Invaders gripe. Arthur and Oswald, and their different Fates, Are weighing now within the Scales of Heaven.
Arthur enters bearing a letter from Merlin, which tells Arthur that there are good omens with him on this day of battle.
The scene then switches to the Saxon camp, where Oswald and his soldiers are sacrificing to the Saxon gods before they go into battle, where the “the Stage is fill’d with Priests and Singers:”
Woden, first to thee,
A Milk white Steed in Battle won,
We have Sacrific’d
Chor. We have Sacrific’d
Vers. Let our next Oblation be,
To Thor, thy thundring Son,
Of such another.
Chor. We have Sacrific’d.
Vers. A third; (of Friezeland breed was he,)
To Woden’s Wife, and to Thor’s Mother,
And now we have atton’d all three
We have sacrific’d.
Chor. We have Sacrific’d.
I’m not sure how “accurate” a scene of a Saxon sacrifice this would have appeared; were all the Saxons wearing wigs? Personally, I’d like to think so, as I love the “elegance” of eighteenth-century fashions.
After the prayers of the Britons and the Saxons’ sacrifices, a battle is given behind the scenes, and the Britons sing this rousing song:
“Come if you dare,” our trumpets sound.
“Come if you dare,” the foes rebound.
We come, we come, we come, we come,”
Says the double, double, double beat of
the thund’ring drum.
“Come if you dare,” our trumpets sound, etc.
Now they charge on amain.
Now they rally again.
The Gods from above the mad labour behold,
And pity mankind that will perish for gold.
Now they charge on amain, etc.
The fainting Saxons quit their ground,
Their trumpets languish in their sound,
They fly, they fly, they fly, they fly,
“Victoria, Victoria,” the bold Britons cry.
The Saxons, however, attempt to use magic to defeat Arthur and he is led into an enchanted forest where “nymphs and sylvans” emerge from the trees and attempt to trap him there. This leads to what is perhaps one of the most beautiful songs in the play: How Happy the Lover!
How happy the lover,
How easy his chain!
How sweet to discover
He sighs not in vain.
How happy the lover?
For love ev’ry creature
Is form’d by his nature.
No joys are above
The pleasures of love.
No joys are above
The pleasures of love.
In vain our graces
In vain are your ayes.
If love you despise,
When age furrows faces
‘Tis too late to be wise.
Then use the sweet blessing
While now in possessing.
No joys are above
The pleasures of love.
No joys are above
The pleasures of love.
At the end, however, Arthur destroys the Saxons’ magic, and approaches the Oswald’s castle, and is drawn into hand-to-hand combat with Oswald. Arthur manages to disarm Oswald. Victorious, instead of killing Oswald, Arthur says to him:
Arth. Confess thy self o’ercome, and ask thy Life.
Oswa. ‘Tis not worth asking, when ’tis in thy Power.
Arth. Then take is as my Gift.
The Saxons are commanded to go back because, “Britain’s [sic] brook no foreign power.” The play ends with a Masque in which Britannia rises out of the ocean with fisherman at her feet.
As far as I’ve been able to uncover, there are no extant reviews of this play so I don’t know how it was received at the time that it was first performed. But the play is interesting because there seems to be the first flickerings of a national consciousness in it.
There are numerous references to Britain which, as a state, did not yet exist (England and Scotland would not be incorporated into one United Kingdom until 1707), and it is a consciousness that, in the play at least, is forged by war, and which will last for generations, as Merlin exclaims:
Our Valiant Britains, Who shall by Sea and Land Repel our Foes. Now look above, and in Heav’ns High Abyss, Behold what Fame attends those future Hero’s.
Clearly, the heroism of King Arthur and his knights will resonate through the centuries; and, indeed, in 1691, when the opera was performed, saw England involved in the Grand Alliance against the French and the Jacobites in the Nine Years’ War (1688-1697), and indeed, the reigning king, William III, was forced in July 1691 to take care of a Catholic Jacobite uprising in Ireland, and decisively defeated the Irish supporters of the deposed King of England, James II, at the Battle of the Boyne.
Furthermore, the image of Britannia rising above the waves surrounded by boats is significant; by 1691 Britain was well on its way to becoming the “polite and commercial” nation of the eighteenth century. Over the course of the eighteenth century, Britain’s trade would boom, along with the expansion of the (often informal) British Empire under the auspices of private commercial ventures such as the East India Company (established 1600), and the Hudson Bay Company (established 1670).
Scholars have on the whole been full of praise for King Arthur:
Then human and supernatural interests are closely interwoven, the spoken dialogue and the musical numbers are in general well-balanced. The main interest of the play is inevitably centered on the music, but the dialogue is clear and not too prolix, and although the principal characters do not sing at all, the music is cleverly led up to so as to be an integral part of the drama.Edward J. Dent, Foundations of English Opera: A Study of Musical Drama in England During the Seventeenth Century (New York: Da Capo, 1965), p.208.
This type of glorification of England’s medieval past, evident in Dryden’s King Arthur, is often thought to be an exception in a period which was drawn to the neo-classical fashions of the Continent. Dryden also seems to have been fascinated by the medieval period, having translated some of Chaucer’s works into neo-classical, ‘heroic’ couplets. Yet Purcell and Dryden were not alone; perhaps one of the most famous examples of 18th-century medievalism is Thomas Arne’s patriotic song Rule Britannia (1740). Everyone has heard this song, and it is still sung annually at the BBC’s Last Night of the Proms. The song was originally part of the finale to a larger opera entitled Alfred. The masque, as it is properly called, was about the medieval Saxon King Alfred the Great. The masque was composed under a commission from Frederick, Prince of Wales (1707-1751). Anxious over his quarrels with his father, and as a German prince who had grown up in Hanover, the prince through this piece of music sought to connect with his British subjects, by linking himself to Britain’s legendary King.
Moreover, when G. F. Handel composed a piece of music for the coronation of George II entitled Zadok the Priest in 1727, he used the following lyrics:
Zadok the Priest, and Nathan the Prophet anointed Solomon King. And all the people rejoiced, and said: God save the King! Long live the King! May the King live for ever, Amen, Allelujah.
The lyrics are taken from a passage in the Old Testament. Although a religious man, however, Handel was not seeking to connect George II with the Biblical King Solomon. He was in fact continuing a medieval tradition. Those words had been used at every coronation of an English King since 927 AD. In fact, Zadok the Priest was not the only opera which Handel had written with medievalist overtones. His other earlier opera entitled Rinaldo (1711) was set during the First Crusade in the 1090s, and starred the famous castrato Nicolo Grimaldi (1673-1732). In fact, King Arthur played opposite Georg Friderick Handel’s popular Italian opera, Rinaldo, staged at the King’s Theatre, in a concert version at Stationer’s Hall, London, in April and May of 1711. There must have been some savvy theatre manager who realised the attraction of pitting two medievalist opera together.
In the eighteenth century there were also many Robin Hood plays, such as Robin Hood: A New Musical Entertainment (1751) by Moses Mendez, The Sad Shepherd; or a Tale of Robin Hood (1783) by Francis Waldron, and Leonard MacNally’s Robin Hood, or Sherwood Forest (1784).
Indeed, King Arthur would be revived several times upon the stage during the eighteenth century:
While the […] records attest to the popularity of the semi-opera, King Arthur, and particularly to Purcell’s music, the most prominent of the early eighteenth-century revivals was yet to come. In the season of 1735/36, King Arthur was fully-staged more than forty times in London, with a few more performances during the next season, and four more in 1740/41. These performances were relatively unaltered from Dryden and Purcell’s original, with Dryden’s text reprinted in 1736 with only slight alterations in two editions titled, King Arthur, or, Merlin, the British Inchanter, and Merlin, or The British Inchanter, and King Arthur, the British Worthy. A musical score dated ca.1738 likewise presents little revision to Purcell’s original music (Jamie Childs, 2006).
Jamie Childs further highlights just how popular King Arthur was until the nineteenth century:
King Arthur was presented in Dublin in 1750 with records for a total of 76 performances, but little else is known about this revival. When performed in Dublin again in 1763, two editions of a much-adapted playbook were published with sub-titles, “A Dramatick Opera”, and “A Masque”; Another, similarly revised, was printed for a Dublin production of the semi-opera in 1769, again with the subtitle, “A Masque”. The 1763 and 1769 editions both contain an appended history titled “Account of the Life of Arthur” adapted from medieval sources of the legend. King Arthur was revived again in London in 1770, this time in a newly-altered form by the well-known actor-director David Garrick, with both text and music published in this new form in 1770 and 1781. Performances in London based upon these altered texts and scores ran from 1770 to 1773, and resumed in 1781/82. Yet another reworking of both text and music was produced by actor-director John Phillip Kemble for revivals in the seasons between 1784 to 1787 and between 1789 to 1791, with playbooks for these performances published with the new title, Arthur and Emmeline, in 1784, 1785, and 1789. Still more revivals of the 1770 and 1781 adaptations of King Arthur took place in London in 1803 and 1810, and then were altered again in 1819 and 1827.
Neither was it simply upon the stage that the medieval past was celebrated, but also by scholars and antiquaries. Bishop Thomas Percy (1729-1811) collected ancient medieval manuscripts and published them in his Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765), and following Percy’s lead was Thomas Evans, who published Old Ballads, Historical and Narrative (1784). Among these two men also Joseph Ritson (1752-1803), mentioned many times on this site, followed Percy and Evans’ leads by publishing:
- Ancient English Metrical Romances (1802)
- Robin Hood: A Collection of all the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, Now Extant, Relative to that Celebrated English Outlaw (1795)
- Poems on interesting events in the reign of Edward III. Written in the year MCCCLII (1795)
The prevailing consensus amongst historians and literary critics seems to be that it was Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) who ‘had first turned men’s minds in the direction of the middle ages’ by writing Ivanhoe (1819) and thereby initiating the medieval revival. Yet medievalism was present in the long eighteenth century. Granted, it was often clouded under a haze of neoclassicism (Dryden’s Chaucer, for instance, was “translated” from Middle English into neoclassical, heroic “couplets”), but the interest was still there; as this post shows, perhaps we should start to think in a more nuanced way, and indeed, the topic of eighteenth-century medievalism seems ripe for research.