Amphitryon (play)

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Date: 1698

Region: Europe

Subject: Explicit Sexuality

Medium: Theater


Artist: John Dryden

Confronting Bodies: British reformers

Dates of Action: 1690, 1698, 1756, 1930s

Location: Great Britain

Description of Artwork: The myth of Amphitryon was adapted into a play first by the Greeks and the oldest text of the play that survives dates from 184 BCE. The basic English version was written by John Dryden in 1690 and was adapted from the texts of Plautus and Moliere. Dryden's version focuses on themes of sexual morality and power. The play begins with Jupiter confessing to some lesser gods that he is in love Alcmena, a mortal. Alcmena is married to Amphitryon, a soldier who is away at war. Alcmena is so faithful to her husband that the only way Jupiter can seduce her is by taking the form of her husband. When the real Amphitryon returns he is confused by his wife's claim that they had spent the night together and accuses her of infidelity. Finally Jupiter reveals himself, after much confusion, and announces that Alcmena will give birth to twins, one human and the other Hercules.

The Incident: Dryden's Amphitryon angered many who said it undermined authorities and conventions. The play was bitterly attacked by Jeremy Collier in a pamphlet published in 1698 called "A Short View of the Immortality of the Stage". Collier was bothered by a couple of things in the play. The first was the characterization of Jupiter, which Collier took to be an attack on the Christian God. The second was the cynical view of love and morality. Despite the popularity of the play Collier's words had an effect and even Dryden himself admitted to being guilty of obscenity. In order to make the play suitable for a performance in 1756 the play was rewritten by John Hawkesworth. Hawkesworth made over 200 separate changes to the text, most of them on moral grounds. Even after this revision Hawkesworth said he still found the play in many ways offensive. About a hundred years later the play was again rewritten by John Oxenford to make it appropriate for the audiences of the time. Oxenford keeps Alcmena a virgin in the end and cuts out all mention of Hercules.

Results of Incident: The play remained largely unperformed in the twentieth century. A new version was written by the French playwright called Amphitryon 38. This version also faced controversy. At the time all plays had to be licensed by Lord Chamberlain, the British theatrical censor. Many urged him not to grant the play a license but in the end he did, deciding that being a classical play it would only attract intellectuals and not do any widespread damage. It was licensed in the 1930s although it still underwent some alterations. More modern productions of the play double the roles of Amphitryon and Jupiter.

Source: Censorship: A World Encyclopedia