Major Editions and Performances of Dryden and Purcell's King Arthur


Major Editions and Performances of Dryden and Purcell's King Arthur

by: Jamie Childs (Author)
from: The Camelot Project  2006


As an exemplary semi-opera of the Baroque era, King Arthur (1691/92) was co-authored by John Dryden, a major English poet of the late seventeenth century, and Henry Purcell, the most important English composer of the time. The earliest performances of Dryden and Purcell's King Arthur, including both fully-staged and "concert versions" of the semi-opera, took place in London. Three stagings took place in June, December, and January (no exact dates were recorded) in the 1691/92 theatrical season at the Dorset Garden Theatre, and Dryden's original text, King Arthur, or The British Worthy, was published during this same season. This text, or playbook, was reprinted in 1695; however, no dates for performances have been confirmed for this season in London. Three performances were staged in the 1697/98 season at the Dorset Garden Theatre on February 7, February 25, and March 19; this is also the season from which the first fairly complete manuscript score dates. (NOTE: For a complete listing of musical scores, both manuscripts and printed, readers should refer to Collected Works of Henry Purcell, Vol. XXVI, ed. by Margaret M. Laurie for the Purcell Society, London, 1971. Listings of early editions of texts for King Arthur may be found in the bibliography of this article.)

In the early eighteenth century, three fully-staged performances were recorded at the Drury Lane Theatre in London on January 29, February 1, and April 8 of the 1700/01 season; in 1703/04 King Arthur played in the adapted form of a "concert-ballet", and in shortened "Afterpiece" presentations on January 4 and March 28. Five more revivals in the form of Afterpiece took place in the 1704/05 season at Drury Lane from April through June, and two were fully-staged on March 2 and March 12 of the 1705/06 season. King Arthur played opposite Georg Friderick Handel's popular Italian opera, Rinaldo, staged at the King's Theatre, in a concert version at Stationer's Hall, London, in April and May of 1711. In January through May of 1715, a total of eleven performances of scenes from King Arthur were given at Lincoln Inn Field's Theatre. Eight more adapted scenes from King Arthur were performed in the 1715/16 season at Lincoln Inn Field's, and two final stagings were made in the 1716/17 season.

While the above records attest to the popularity of the semi-opera, King Arthur, and particularly to Purcell's music, the most prominent of the early eighteenth-century revivals was yet to come. In the season of 1735/36, King Arthur was fully-staged more than forty times in London, with a few more performances during the next season, and four more in 1740/41. These performances were relatively unaltered from Dryden and Purcell's original, with Dryden's text reprinted in 1736 with only slight alterations in two editions titled, King Arthur, or, Merlin, the British Inchanter, and Merlin, or The British Inchanter, and King Arthur, the British Worthy. A musical score dated ca.1738 likewise presents little revision to Purcell's original music.

King Arthur was presented in Dublin in 1750 with records for a total of 76 performances, but little else is known about this revival. When performed in Dublin again in 1763, two editions of a much-adapted playbook were published with sub-titles, "A Dramatick Opera", and "A Masque"; Another, similarly revised, was printed for a Dublin production of the semi-opera in 1769, again with the subtitle, "A Masque". The 1763 and 1769 editions both contain an appended history titled "Account of the Life of Arthur" adapted from medieval sources of the legend. King Arthur was revived again in London in 1770, this time in a newly-altered form by the well-known actor-director David Garrick, with both text and music published in this new form in 1770 and 1781. Performances in London based upon these altered texts and scores ran from 1770 to 1773, and resumed in 1781/82. Yet another reworking of both text and music was produced by actor-director John Phillip Kemble for revivals in the seasons between 1784 to 1787 and between 1789 to 1791, with playbooks for these performances published with the new title, Arthur and Emmeline, in 1784, 1785, and 1789. Still more revivals of the 1770 and 1781 adaptations of King Arthur took place in London in 1803 and 1810, and then were altered again in 1819 and 1827.

All of the Dublin and London revivals and adaptations of King Arthur in the late eighteenth century were popular with audiences, in part because both Garrick and Kemble, as acclaimed actor-directors of the era, found in it the opportunity to develop the characters of Arthur, Emmeline, et al, on the stage. Few, if any, other dramas about King Arthur (in any form) were enacted in this time period in Great Britain; thus, under Garrick's and Kemble's direction, Dryden and Purcell's semi-opera remained the most prominent vehicle for transmission of Arthurian legend throughout the eighteenth century and well into the nineteenth. Another notable large-scale revival of King Arthur was staged in London in 1842, this time by prominent producer, William Charles Macready, with adaptations to both text and music; yet another was produced in 1857 at the Lyceum Theatre in London, after which few others were produced until a concert of Purcell's music for the semi-opera, directed by J. Fuller-Maitland, was performed to acclaim in Birmingham in 1897.

Several revivals of King Arthur in the twentieth century are especially important to recognize because of their early approaches toward "historically-informed" performance practices. Outstanding for their contributions to this early-music movement were those produced at Falmouth in 1924, and in Cambridge in 1928 by Denis Arundell, with new editions of text and score published in the latter year. Another revival in Nottingham in 1956 focused upon aspects of staging, again with efforts toward authentic performance practices. More drastic alterations, some of them quite controversial, were made in productions in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1968, and in Norwich, Edinburgh, Aldeburgh, and London in 1970 and 1971, with adapted text and music published under the new title, King Arthur: His Magical History. An abridged version of the semi-opera was given in Buxton in 1986, under direction of Malcolm Fraser, with motion-picture actor Alan Bates in the character of King Arthur, once again with attention to authenticity of performance practices.

In 1995, the tercentennial celebration of Purcell's music, many concert and staged performances of King Arthur took place throughout Europe, America, and elsewhere. Most prominent among them are those of the Boston Early Music Festival (MA) directed by Jack Edwards, Peter Holman, and Paul O'dette, the Royal Opera's King Arthur at Covent Garden, London, by Graham Vick with William Christie's Les Arts Florissants, and Nicholas Mcgegan's concert version with the Philharmonia Baroque orchestra and singers in San Franscisco and Berkeley, CA (that repeated McGegan's earlier King Arthur concert given at the Ojai, CA Festival in 1988). All of these excelled in aspects of historically-informed restoration and performance practices.

After the tercentennial performances, King Arthur was propelled further toward and into the twenty-first century with more revivals at the Purcell Conference and Festival of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (1995), at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor (1999), at Trinity College in Greenwich (2000), at the Bloomington Early Music Festival in Indiana (2002), and at the Salzburg, Austria Festival (summer, 2004), among others worldwide that are currently on-going. Dryden and Purcell's semi-opera has been, and continues to be a legendary work for all seasons, and King Arthur is still adapting.

Primary Source Texts (Chronological)

Dryden, John. King Arthur, or, The British Worthy, A Dramatick Opera. London: Jacob Tonson, 1691.

---. King Arthur, or, The British Worthy, A Dramatick Opera. London: Jacob Tonson, 1695.

---. King Arthur, or, Merlin, the British Inchanter. Adapt. by Henry Giffard, London: R. Walker, 1736.

---. Merlin, or The British Inchanter and King Arthur, the British Worthy. London: anon., 1736.

---. King Arthur, or, The British Worthy. A Dramatick Opera. Dublin: James Hoey, 1763.

---. King Arthur, or, The British Worthy. A Masque . . . Altered from Dryden. The Music by Purcell. To Which Is Perfixed [sic], The Life of Arthur. Dublin: J. Potts, 1763.

---. King Arthur, or The British Worthy. A Masque . . . Altered from Dryden. The Music by Purcell. To Which Is Prefixed, The Life of Arthur. Dublin: J. Potts, 1769.

Garrick, David. King Arthur; or The British Worthy. A Masque by Mr. Dryden. The Music by Purcell and Dr. Arne. London: W. Strahan, L. Hawes, and Co., 1770.

---. King Arthur; or The British Worthy. A Masque. Altered from Dryden . . . The Music by Purcell and Dr. Arne. The Scenes by French and Carver. London: W. Strahan, et al., 1781.

[Attributed to] Kemble, John Phillip. Arthur and Emmeline. A Dramatic Entertainment, in Two Acts. Taken from the Masque of King Arthur. By Dryden. London: Jarvis, 1784.

---. Arthur and Emmeline. An Entertainment of Two Acts, Abridged from the Masque of King Arthur. As Altered from Dryden, by David Garrick, Esq. London: R. Baldwin, et al., 1786.

---. Arthur and Emmeline. A Dramatic Entertainment, in Two Acts, Taken from the Masque of King Arthur, By Dryden. Dublin: T. McDonnel, 1789.

---. Arthur and Emmeline: Abridged from the Masque of King Arthur. By David Garrick, Esq. London: H. D. Symonds, 179?.

---. King Arthur; A Dramatick Opera by John Dryden. Ed. Dennis Drew Arundell. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1928.

Collected Editions

Dryden, John. The Dramatic Works of John Dryden, Esq., in Six Volumes. London: Jacob Tonson, 1717. Rep. 1725, 1735, and 1762.

---. The Works of John Dryden . . . Illustrated with Notes Historical, Critical, and Explanatory and a Life of the Author. 18 vols. Ed. Sir Walter Scott. London: W. Miller, 1808. Second Ed., Edinburgh: A. Constable & Co., 1821. Revised and corrected by George Saintsbury, 18 Vols. Edinburgh: W. Paterson, 1882-1893.

---. Dryden, The Dramatic Works. 6 vols. Ed. Montague Summers. London: Nonesuch Press, 1932. Rep. New York: Gordian Press, 1968.

---. The Works of John Dryden. Ed. Edward N. Hooker, H. T. Swedenberg, Jr., and Vinton Dearing. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996.

Secondary Sources

Boaden, James. The Private Correspondence of David Garrick with the Most Celebrated Persons of His Time. 2 Vols. London: 1831-32.

---. The Memoirs of the Life of John Philip Kemble. 2 Vols. London: 1825, Rep. New York: Benjamin Blom, 1969.

Boydell, Brian. "The Dublin Musical Scene, 1749-50," Proceedings of the Royal Musical Association 105 (1978-79) 78-79.

Charlton, David. "King Arthur; Dramatick Opera", Music and Letters 64 (1983) 183-92.

Childs, Jamie L. A Performance History of John Dryden and Henry Purcell's King Arthur. Ann Arbor: UMI Press, 2005.

Downes, John. Roscius Anglicanus. London: 1708. Rep. Judith Milhouse and Robert D. Hume, es. London: Society for Theatre Research, 1978.

Gottesman, Lillian. "Arthurian Romance in English Opera and Pantomime, 1660-1800," Restoration and Eighteenth Century Theatre Research 8:2 (1969) 48-49.

Harris, Ellen. "King Arthur's Journey into the Eighteenth Century," Purcell Studies, Ed. Curtis A Price. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995. 257-289.

Highfill, Philip H., Jr., Kalman A. Burnim, and Edward A. Langhans. A Biographical Dictionary of Actors, Actresses, Musicians, Dancers, Managers, and Other Stage Personnel in London, 1660-1800. Carbondale: Southern Illinis University Press, 1973.

Hume, Robert D., ed. The London Theatre World, 1660-1800. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984.

Lupack, Alan, ed. Arthurian Drama: An Anthology. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1991.

MacDonald, Hugh. Dryden, A Bibliography of Early Editions and of Drydeniana. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1939. Rep. Oxford: Dawsons of Pall Mall, 1966.

Purcell, Henry. King Arthur. Ed. Margaret A. Laurie. London: Novello, 1971.

Van Lennep, William, Emmet L. Avery, Arthur H. Scouten, G.W. Stone, and C.B. Hogan, Eds. The London Stage, 1660-1800. Parts I-V. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1960-1968.

Victor, Benjamin. The History of the Theatres of London and Dublin. London: 1761. Rep. New York: Benjamin Blom, Inc., 1969.

Winn, James Anderson. John Dryden and His World. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987.