bear your good fortune moderately, Mr. Poet: for . . . if I had written for your Party, your Pention wou’d have been cut off, as useless.Dryden, Vindication of the Duke of Guise (1683)
Restoration theatre was political theatre. To write for the stage or to become involved in theatre business in the early 1660s - as did the Earl of Orrery, Sir William Davenant, Thomas Killigrew, Sir Robert Howard, and the less socially exalted John Dryden - was to declare one's royalist and pro-Stuart credentials. Dryden's most substantive printed composition prior to the return of Charles II had been Heroique Stanzas (1659), commemorating Oliver Cromwell. His choice of the profitable dramatic medium signaled his desire to make money. Yet it also reiterated his commitment, manifest in his versified celebrations of the Restoration, to the Stuart monarchy.
What were Dryden’s early allegiances – personal, political, commercial – and how did they change over a playwriting career that spanned nearly four decades? Dryden eulogized the king in Astraea Redux. A Poem on the Restoration of Charles the Second (1660) and To His Sacred Majesty, A Panegyrick on His Coronation (1661), and he made Stuart rule the stuff of heroic poetry in Annus Mirabilis (1667), a Virgilian chronicle of 1666; he collaborated with Sir Robert Howard, Sir William Davenant, and the Duke of Newcastle on The Indian Queen (1664), The Tempest (1667), and Sir Martin Mar-All (1667) respectively; and he dedicated his published work to a range of noble recipients. Even as he sought royal and aristocratic patronage, he solidified his position in the theatrical marketplace. Dryden re-invented the dramatic profession after an eighteen-year hiatus. He started out as a freelancer but in 1668 he signed an exclusive contract with the King’s Company under the management of Thomas Killigrew, effectively becoming a house playwright. The contract obliged Dryden to supply three scripts a year in return for one and a quarter shares, out of twelve and three-quarters, in the company’s profits.