Amboyna (staging)

By John Dryden (May? 1672; pub.1673)

While we cannot be sure whether the text of Shipman’s Henry III relates to its LIF production, the theatrical simplicity of Dryden’s pot-boiler may well reflect the position in which the King’s Company found itself following the Bridges Street fire. It might also reflect the political desire of Thomas Clifford (Lord High Treasurer, dedicatee of Amboyna, and Dryden’s patron) for the theatre to drum up support for the unpopular Dutch War of 1672. Whether the play is a makeshift political contrivance, or a scenic bricolage resulting from the King’s Company’s destitution – as suggested by Colin Visser – in terms of its dramatic worth there is little to add to the verdict of Dryden’s dedicatory epistle: “[it] will scarcely bear a serious perusal; it being contrived and written in a month, the subject barren, the persons low, and the writing not heightened with many laboured scenes”.[1]

Several prologues and epilogues from the King’s Company’s exile repertoire refer to the company’s relative poverty. Somewhat surprisingly, however, the most direct references to the fire itself are to be found in the epilogue to Shipman’s Henry III and in Dryden’s prologue for a revival of Fletcher’s Beggar’s Bush; the former possibly written before the LIF period, and the latter written for the first production mounted at the King’s Company’s new home, Drury Lane, in March 1674. Shipman’s epilogue claims that much of the company’s scenic stock was destroyed:

The Scenes, compos’d of Oyl and porous Firr,
Added to th’ ruine of the Theater.
And ’twas a judgement in the Poets Phrase,
That Plays and Play-house perisht by a blaze
Caus’d by those gaudy Scenes, that spoil good Plays.[2]

While Dryden’s prologue, “spoken at the Opening of the NEW HOUSE”, presents the company as still not recovered from the disaster two years later. Far from the “expected Pomp” the new theatre is but a “bare convenience”; unlike the Duke’s Company which “With mighty Sums may carry on the Trade:/ We, broken Banquers, half destroy’d by Fire,/ With our small Stock to humble roofs retire”.[3] In between these productions, Pierre Danchin records 15 other King’s Company productions at LIF (revivals with newly written prologues or epilogues as well as new plays).[4] If the picture of ruination painted by this prologue and epilogue were wholly accurate, we might expect to find similar references in the topical addresses written for the other King’s LIF productions. Only six of the 16 productions (including Henry III), however, make more or less negative references either to LIF itself or to the company’s relative poverty.

‘More or less’ is a fair representation, as the negativity ranges from derision of the vacated LIF building as a “shed” (Fletcher’s Wit Without Money, February 1672), to the near affection of “this trusty Nook” (unknown production, June 1672?).[5] Other prologues describe the players as “poor” and the stage as being equipped with “Alehouse Scenes”.[6] There is little doubt that the fire was a major blow to the company, but the fact that only texts related to six productions make some negative comment while the majority make none at all, and in the case of Thomas Duffett’s The Empress of Morocco (LIF, December 1673) even brag that the play was “Perform’d with new and costly Machines”, perhaps puts some perspective on the extent of the disaster. It paints a somewhat different picture to the one of abject destitution proposed by Colin Visser in his 1976 article ‘John Dryden’s Amboyna at Lincoln’s Inn Fields, 1673’.[7]

Visser is almost certainly correct in relating the jingoism of Dryden’s Amboyna to that of Davenant’s two pre-Restoration ‘operas’, The History of Francis Drake and The Cruelty of the Spaniards in Peru, which were later bundled together in Davenant’s The Play-house to be Let (LIF, 1663). However, while there are probably too many similar themes and aspects of staging for the relation to be a mere coincidence, I am not convinced by Visser’s contention that Dryden’s play “might well have been designed to exploit the settings” for the two operas, which he proposes would have been left behind by the Duke’s Company when it vacated LIF.[8] I argue in Chapter 5 of my PhD thesis that we should not assume that the production at LIF of plays designed for the simpler and smaller Siege of Rhodes stage (such as Davenant’s operas) would have been unproblematic.

Differences in dimensions and likely stage arrangements (three pairs of fixed wings (Rhodes) compared to probably four pairs of changeable wings at LIF) must have meant that in 1663 Davenant either comprehensively modified the old scenery to fit the larger LIF stage, or – given the off-season, low-key production for an unsophisticated citizen audience – he used the much smaller old stage arrangements and covered up the resulting gaps above the frontispiece and to the sides with curtains or similar. The latter option seems more likely, as the Duke’s Company almost certainly never used the scenery again after The Play-house to be Let (which itself was probably contrived for such reuse), nor is there any record of a revival of the first part of The Siege of Rhodes (designed for the same stage, of course) after 1661.[9]

That the King’s Company in 1672 should resort to such a crude solution, as Visser implies, while it was trying to compete with the Duke’s for the same fashionable audience seems decidedly retrograde. While it is possible that the old opera scenery would have been left behind by the Duke’s Company, it is not as cut and dried as Visser suggests. Elsewhere in my thesis I argue for a certain amount of flexibility in scenic arrangements at Restoration theatres operating in the same period. We know that productions were transferred regularly and therefore presumably easily, between the public theatres and Webb’s court stage. By extension, this implies that scenic arrangements were broadly similar at Bridges Street and LIF, making Visser’s belief that any salvaged scenery from Bridges Street could not be used at LIF, and that the Duke’s Company would not have been able to transfer scenery to Dorset Garden, seem unfounded.[10]

There is no need to rehearse arguments (Thesis, Chapter 2) against the type of staging Visser proposes for The Adventures of Five Hours and which he again follows to some extent for Amboyna. Suffice to say that while I agree this production was likely to have been a minimal one, I do not believe Dryden could simply have re-used the old opera scenery (if it were available) in the uncomplicated manner Visser suggests; it would have been technically problematic, and probably stylistically unacceptable. Moreover, it is significant that the scenic constraints that Visser proposes for Amboyna are evident neither in Henry III nor in the next King’s production, The Assignation. Shipman’s text may be too close to the fire to reflect LIF production, and production dates for Henry III and Amboyna are uncertain, but if Visser were correct one might expect other plays in the months following the fire to show evidence of scenic impoverishment, but this is not the case, as a glance at the scenery plots will confirm.

As Visser notes, the scenic demands of this play are unremarkable. Three shutter settings – castle exterior, castle chamber, wood – four wing settings (adding a bedchamber), and three relieve scenes – bedchamber, wood, prison – would match fictional locations to scenery, and require only one groove replacement – wood wings for castle or bedchamber in the pause between Acts 3 and 4. Dryden states only two fictional locations, but aside from 3.2 there is little difficulty following his stage directions.

The problem in 3.2 is that fictionally it would be odd for Towerson’s enemies, The Fiscal and Harman Junior, to remain onstage in Towerson’s bedchamber (a relieve scene) while all the others leave, and for Captain Perez to enter and meet them there (Perez had previously entered the house to murder Towerson but had changed his mind). A return to somewhere in the vicinity of the castle, by having the castle exterior shutter close over the relieve space, would be the logical choice at this point.

Unfortunately, no such change is indicated by Dryden and there is no stage clearance, either marked or implied. We could posit an error here, but the consequences of the fictional setting remaining in Towerson’s bedchamber for the remaining 31 lines of the scene are not scenically disastrous. It would not be my preferred solution, but as Dryden is usually so theatrically efficient, I suggest this is simply a pragmatic, if inelegant, theatrical cheat.

[1] The Dramatic Works of John Dryden, vol.5, ed. George Saintsbury, Edinburgh: William Paterson, 1882, p.8.

[2] Pierre Danchin, Prologues 1.2, op cit p.469.

[3] Ibid. p.580-1.

[4] Ibid. pp.464-579.

[5] The prologue to Fletcher’s play is headed, The Prologue to Witt without money: being the first Play acted after the Fire (Danchin, Prologues 1.2, op cit p.465). The later prologue is printed in Dryden’s Miscellany Poems, 1684 (ibid. p.495).

[6] Respectively, the epilogue to The Widow, Thomas Middleton, LIF 1672-3? (ibid. p.511), and the prologue to Lodowick Carlell’s Arviragus and Philicia, LIF 1672-3? (ibid. p.506).

[7] Restoration and Eighteenth Century Theatre Research, vol.15, no.1, Loyola University of Chicago, 1976, pp.1-11.

[8] Ibid. p.2.

[9] Betterton’s company staged The Play-house at the Queen’s theatre in 1706, but Genest (op cit vol.2, p.352) is probably right in surmising it was performed without the by-then thoroughly old-fashioned Acts 3 & 4 (the two American operas). By contrast, the London Stage lists revivals of part two of The Siege of Rhodes (which may have been designed for LIF) in 1662, 1663, 1667, and 1677 (DG).

[10] See Visser, John Dryden’s Amboyna, op cit p.1.A

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  1. Pingback: Amboyna (scenery) | Restoration Theatre

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