British Dramatists from Dryden to Sheridan

By George Henry Nettleton; Arthur Eillicot Case | Go to book overview
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BLANK-VERSE TRAGEDY
(1677-1700)

A NEW period in the history of serious Restoration drama begins in 1677 with the deliberate turn of Dryden and Lee from rhymed heroic drama to blank-verse tragedy. After three plays in heroic verse ( 1674-76), Nathaniel Lee, in The Rival Queens, or The Death of Alexander the Great ( March, 1677), reinstated blank verse as the medium of tragedy. Some months later, Dryden fulfilled in All for Love, or The World Well Lost (circ. December, 1677) his long-threatened renunciation of rhyme. In reverting to the story of Antony and Cleopatra, he sought, indeed, Shakespeare's substance as well as style. So, too, did Thomas Otway, who turned from high success in his rhymed heroic drama, Don Carlos ( 1676), to borrow from Romeo and Juliet not merely the theme but largely the poetic diction of his Roman version, The History and Fall of Caius Marius ( 1679). Dryden had commanded and mainly controlled the period of rhymed heroic drama. In the succeeding era of blank-verse tragedy he was to share with Lee and Otway the powers of a dominant triumvirate.

Of the trio, NATHANIEL LEE ( 1648-49?-1692) alone gave himself unstintedly to tragedy. Dryden, as during his earlier period of heroic drama, deviated at will from strictly serious drama into comedy, tragi-comedy, and opera. Otway essayed comedy, and admitted into tragedy some comic appeal. But the nondescript Princess of Cleve ( 1681) -- 'this Farce, Comedy, Tragedy, or mere Play,' as the dedication puts it -- is the solitary exception to Lee's fixed tragic rule. The Rival Queens, his first and foremost blank-verse tragedy, exhibits both the swelling diction that made his name proverbial for rant and his characteristic sense of theatrical appeal. Lee knew his actors and his audience. He gave his public what it wanted -- familiar ingredients of impulsive action and declamatory passion, of pictorial display and theatrical device, and novelty enough in his departures from the conventions of rhyme and the 'happy ending' of heroic drama, and from the formal frame of its love-and-honor conflicts. For his actors he created compelling situations and speeches -- ranging from passages where 'Declamation roared,' to lines as arresting and familiar as, ''Tis beauty calls, and glory shows the way,' or 'When Greeks joined Greeks, then was the tug of war.' Compounding plot materials from French heroic romance and from classical history, and freely exploiting the spectacular, whether in the Elizabethan dramatic tradition of ghosts and omens, or in the Restoration theatrical fashion of scenic ornamentation and machinery, Lee surcharged the matter and manner of tragedy, but gratified the popular taste. Despite the 'furious fustian and turgid rants' which made the judicious Colley Cibber grieve and which lent themselves readily to Fielding's mockery in Tom Thumb, The Rival Queens remained a favorite with players and playgoers throughout the eighteenth century.

A succession of other tragedies intensified Lee's qualities and defects. Increasing excesses marked and marred his life and work. His collaboration with Dryden in Œdipus ( 1678) prompted a later Restoration writer, George Granville, to ascribe 'the noble and sublime thoughts' to Dryden, 'the rants and fustian' to Lee, and to deplore popular applause of the latter as proof that 'mad men are only fit to write, when nothing is esteemed great but what is non-intelligible.' Such criticism was itself intemperate, for though it admitted perforce Lee's theatrical appeal, it sensed only the perversion, and not the random inspiration, of his true poetic powers. The Goddess of Unreason, it is true, marked him for her own. Whom she would destroy, she first made 'mad. The 'ungoverned fancy' of Lee's later tragedies, tainted with morbid brooding on the inroads of insanity, had its literal counterpart in the growing disorders of the brain of 'the mad poet.' His poet's eye in a fine frenzy rolled, kindling at times with almost Elizabethan fire, but often con

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British Dramatists from Dryden to Sheridan
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