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]

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. Colin Visser, ‘John Dryden’s Amboyna at Lincoln’s Inn Fields, 1673’, Restoration and Eighteenth Century Theatre Research, vol.15, no.1, Loyola University of Chicago, 1976, pp.1-11

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  1. Pingback: Amboyna (scenery) | Restoration Theatre

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