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all for love

25 april 2022

I first – and till now, last – read All for Love in an undergraduate course on The Eighteenth Century, 44 years ago. The "long" 18th Century, anyway; Dryden's play premiered in 1677, but we studied his post-Restoration generation of writers along with the true 18th-century folks. On the basis of one long-ago syllabus, I have assumed that All for Love was Dryden's dramatic masterpiece. I remembered it as being OK. But not much more than that.

The first question that rises when you see that Dryden wrote an Antony & Cleopatra play is "Why?" There already was a great Antony & Cleopatra play in English, and by Shakespeare, no less. But as Maximillian Novak argues in his definitive 1984 edition, Dryden didn't really see himself as an epigone of Shakespeare's. Antony and Cleopatra was not in the Restoration repertory; it was seen as disorganized and distracted. In 1677 and for a century after, All for Love became the default English dramatic version of the last days of the Egyptian queen.

And even after critics brought Shakespeare's version back to prominence, its long shadow has never stopped dramatists from reimagining the doomed pair. From Hollywood blockbusters to the Metropolitan Opera to long-arc television, Antony and Cleopatra have proven irresistible dramatic material.

So, question settled: maybe it's more pertinent to ask why a playwright doesn't try Antony and Cleopatra. They are a challenge, and John Dryden was nothing if not ambitious. I will confirm my 19-year-old self's opinion that he was modestly successful. All for Love now strikes me as an interesting, readable, carefully constructed neoclassical play. I am not sure how much potential it really has for being strong theater, anymore. School and occasional professional productions keep All for Love barely viable onstage, but probably require some jolts of spectacle and/or camp that other old plays might survive without.

The action takes place in relatively short temporal compass. Dryden doesn't aim for a single-day unity of time, but everything in All for Love happens between Actium and the lovers' deaths. He presents them as having decisively lost to Octavius Caesar, but still having various options, including flight, prostrate surrender, dying with harness on their back, or asp.

Within this brief window for decision-making, everything seems to come down to whether Antony knows how to leave Cleopatra. Antony is still "unty'rd of loving" (Act 2, Scene 1, 49), and Cleopatra still loves him "quite out of Reasons view" (Act 2, Scene 1, 40). "All the pleasures I have known, beat thick / On my remembrance," says Antony (Act 2, Scene 1, 54), and this inability to detach themselves from passion for any practical purpose is the dramatic problem that …

… well, that various characters try to solve in Acts 3 and 4. Each lover is provided, in good neoclassical fashion, with a counterweight who tries to steer them, with interested motives: the Roman Ventidius tries to get Antony away from Cleopatra, and the Egyptian Alexas tries to swing her back toward him. Ventidius produces Octavia, sister to Caesar and abandoned mother of Antony's daughters. Octavia is such a noble matron that Antony almost turns virtuous himself just to prove she can't outdo him in that area. But she's also boring, and she truly dislikes him; Octavia's ability to sway Antony is understandably weak.

But seeing Antony wavering, Alexas convinces Cleopatra to flirt with Antony's friend Dolabella. Editor Novak says that "comedy … is certainly present" in All for Love (388), and till I got to Act 4 I was hard-pressed to say where. But if you want to play anything for laughs in this somewhat buttoned-down play, it would be Dolabella. Weak and somewhat effeminate, clearly more in love with Antony than Cleopatra, unflirtable with (by a woman anyway) for more than a handful of lines, Dolabella could be a kind of campy counterpoint to all the gravitas. But it seems to me that if you press that humor too far, you just wind up mocking the rest of the play and making it silly.

Though Dryden's Antony is inherently a bit silly, as Novak points out. Antony changes his mind several times an act, and seems so feckless that you can't believe he could really have conquered half the world. Maybe a complete dismantling of the play's tragic pretensions is the way to make it stageworthy.

Neoclassical drama often seems to try to suggest real-life emotions and their sources without quite understanding what it's like to experience them. All for Love, like many of its contemporary plays, assembles all the passions in cool, logical array, but never sets them in much dramatic motion. The most striking image in the play remains the closing speech by one of the functionaries:

See, see how the Lovers sit in State together,
As they were giving Laws to half mankind (Act 5, Scene 1, 110)
Impressive, but static.

Dryden, John. All for Love; or, the world well lost. 1677. In The Works of John Dryden. Volume 13. Edited by Maximillian E. Novak. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984. 20-111.