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12 june 2022

Aureng-Zebe, John Dryden's rhyming-couplets Orientalist spectacle from 1676, opens with some conversation among guys we don't care about, concerning another bunch of guys, only half of whom we'll run into later. It is that sort of play. Empires are at stake, and you have to listen closely, maybe even keep a scorecard.

Four sons of a decrepit Emperor converge with their armies on his capital. The only two we will ever meet are Aureng-Zebe and Morat. The former is the most badass of the four, and has the hottest girlfriend, the captive queen Indamora. But there's a catch: the Emperor has also caught feelings for Indamora. "I hate his presence, and his absence fear," says the old man chiasmatically of Aureng-Zebe.

For a guy who was supposedly on his last legs when the curtain rose, the Emperor is pretty spry. Not only is he able to chase Indamora around the palace, he can also carry on a lively spitefest with his Empress: Morat's mother Nourmahal. The Emperor tends toward expressions that, if this were Shakespeare, we would assume are what editors used to call "bawdy quibbles." He tells Indamora that her resistance will "make possession hard" and calls himself "the Canon of his Bed." The dialogue needs jolts like that, because for all the talk of passion, it is pretty dry stuff.

By the middle of the third act, it gets difficult to remember all the passions and their progress. As noted, Aureng-Zebe and the Emperor both love Indamora. The faithful retainer Arimant loves Indamora. Morat loves Indamora. Nourmahal hates the Emperor, because he doesn't love her; but Nourmahal also loves Aureng-Zebe. Indamora loves Aureng-Zebe but isn't above flirting with all the men who love her, to help him. Melesinda loves Morat, wait, who the hell is Melesinda.

All such plays work better on stage, where everyone is wearing a distinctive costume, of course. But one wonders just how well Aureng-Zebe does work, or ever worked, on stage. It is hard to take seriously, but it's no joke-fest. It is subtitled "A Tragedy," and all of the characters take themselves solemnly. Honor, love, marriage, rank, filial devotion: all these themes are invoked even if the characters seem far from following the high road with regard to any of them. At some level, this play consists of weighty stuff.

Dryden himself apparently thought that the play was entirely serious. But he doesn't get the last word, even though he wrote it. Samuel Johnson thought it was farcical throughout; T.S. Eliot believed it was mixed, part funny part serious. Of course a play can never be pinned down for sure. The best we can say is that the text of a play supports certain interpretations in production. It is hard to conceive of a slapstick version of Ibsen's Ghosts. It is much easier to imagine parts or all of Aureng-Zebe being played broadly for laughs.

I'm no big Dryden expert, not that I'm an expert on anything. I read his work in English-major doses, decades ago, and have returned lately to read a few of his most famous plays. It strikes me that Dryden used his overblown operatic dramas as vehicles for sententious remarks. Hence all the characters whose motivations and rhetoric turn on a dime, or perhaps a groat. You gotta get in sage remarks on all the human noblenesses and foibles, and for that you need lots of characters and a kaleidoscopic plot. Morat, for instance, behaves like an asshole for four and a half acts, until Indamora gives him a talking-to, and Morat reforms on the spot:

Renown, and Fame, in vain, I courted long;
And still pursu'd 'em, though directed wrong.
In hazard, and in toils, I heard they lay;
Sail'd farther than the Coast, but miss'd my way:
Now you have giv'n me Virtue for my guide;
And, with true Honour, ballasted my Pride.
Unjust Dominion I no more pursue;
I quit all other claims but those to you. (V.i, p. 231)
Good for you, Morat! Earlier, Aureng-Zebe delivers himself of what seems to be an entry in a "Condensed To-Be-Or-Not-To-Be" contest:
Distrust, and darkness, of a future state,
Make poor Mankind so fearful of their Fate.
Death, in it self, is nothing; but we fear
To be we know not what, we know not where. (IV.i, p. 209)
And so forth. A commonplace book full of such stray couplets would not be very attractive, so 17th-century writers put them into full battle dress and had them contend for the throne of India.

Dryden, John. Aureng-Zebe. 1676. Edited by Vinton A. Dearing. In The Works of John Dryden, Volume 12. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994. 148-250.