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11 february 2016

Amboyna is a little-known play by John Dryden, though it's probably superfluous to call any of Dryden's plays "little-known." The volume of the standard edition in which I recently read Amboyna hadn't been checked out of my university's library in the 22 years they've owned it. Yet come to find that this forgotten "domestic tragedy" from 1673 resonates quite topically in 2016.

"Domestic tragedy," as defined by Vinton Dearing in that 1994 California edition, is a genre where the same things happen as in regular tragedy, but happen to middle-class folks or lower. These are the people that in most tragedies by Marlowe, Shakespeare or Webster might be insensible to suffering – too busy fumbling in the greasy till and adding the ha'pence to the pence. Dearing counts Doctor Faustus and Othello among domestic tragedies; evidently academic and military honors don't turn a commoner into a nobleman. But in Amboyna the central characters really are merchants, and though they have noble qualities, they are untitled and of no particular "name."

This class distinction in dramatic characters seems trivial to us now, but it might have mattered a lot on 1673. The discourse surrounding torture hasn't changed much at all, though, sadly enough. Amboyna is driven by the desire of the Dutch on the island of that name to oust the English from trading privileges. (The germ of the play was a historical event in the real Amboyna.) The Dutch, who are utterly cynical and all but completely depraved, are ready to seize any pretext to expropriate and dispossess the English. Meanwhile, other more personal rivalries also act as engines to their violence. Harman Junior, son of the Dutch governor, loves the native lady Ysabinda. She won't give Harman the time of day, because she's engaged to marry the admirable English sea captain Towerson.

Towerson is such an admirable, heroic guy all round, magnanimous to both Dutchmen and Englishmen, that it's hard for even the sinister Dutch villains to take him down directly. Led by an astonishingly wicked character called the "Fiscal," the Dutch leaders hire a hit man named Perez to kill Towerson. Naturally, the Fiscal is sleeping with Mrs. Perez, and plans to kill Perez after he's done his evil deed. Perez sneaks into Towerson's bedroom only to find the draft of a letter that shows Towerson is fixing to give Perez £500 out of the blue. Perez repents, touching off a well-plotted chain reaction of tragic coincidences that leaves young Harman dead and Towerson answerable for murder.

As if that wasn't enough, the Dutch proceed to torture the English to get them to confess to a phony, ridiculous plot to seize the Dutch citadel at Amboyna. Harman Senior explains the technique, which has a lot in common with modern waterboarding:

You shall be muffl'd up like Ladies, with an Oyl'd Cloath put underneath your Chins, then Water pour'd above; which either you must drink or you must not breath. (Act 5, Scene 1; p. 66)
There's also the alternative of tying a sort of firecracker to the victim's finger and setting it off. The English object: "Ye dare not Torture us." The Fiscal answers: "That, Sir, must be disputed at the Hague" (Act 5, Scene 1, p. 65).

Throughout the play, the basic assumption is that the Dutch will do this kind of miserable stuff and the English won't. Aside from simply being the "Us" of the play to the Dutch "Them," the English are objectively more honorable and have a higher moral code. None of this Dick-Cheney or Donald-Trump eagerness to torture the torturers for John Dryden. There are some things a Restoration English gentleman will not do.

A new article appears on Amboyna every seven or eight years, usually seeing the play as a way of understanding colonialism and nation-building in the early modern period. Dryden's play can be read through that new-historicist lens, and is in turn a valuable source for early-modern rhetoric on those political phenomena. It's also a fraught examination of violence and evil (including a horrific rape) that presents itself as a teaching story about how to react to such evil. And the resolution simply isn't good. One is left with the feeling, as Dutch evil overwhelms the sympathetic characters, that the play ought to have a sequel or two where the wrongs they've inflicted are redressed. That would be poetic justice, at least, but one of Dryden's ideas may be that poetic justice is all too rare.

Dearing points out that Amboyna is written in a very odd style. Dryden apparently rushed it onto the stage and into print. In so doing, he wrote much of the play in iambic meter, but didn't lineate it. Editors have apparently agonized over whether to typeset this material as verse, or leave it in the sing-songy prose that Dryden printed. Dearing leaves it. For instance, one of the Englishmen headed for torture says

Courage my friend, and rather praise we Heaven, that it has chose two such as you and me, who will not shame our Countrey with our pains, but stand like Marble Statues in their fires … (Act 5, Scene 1; p. 72)
Dryden put a great deal of thought into the appropriate style for his works, though apparently not a great deal of time in revising Amboyna. My inference is that he wrote in prose blocks of dialogue, falling into iambic pentameter when he could, but intending ultimately to revise and polish those blocks into regular verse. Amboyna thus looks like what earlier drafts of his somewhat less little-known blank-verse plays like All For Love might have looked like.

Dryden, John. Amboyna, or the Cruelties of the Dutch to the English Merchants. 1673. In The Works of John Dryden, Volume XII: Plays. Edited by Vinton A. Dearing. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994. 1-77.