Heroic Drama Essay - Critical Essays

Heroic Drama


Heroic Drama

Heroic drama, sometimes called heroic tragedy or heroic romance, is a genre of English drama that flourished in the years of the Restoration. Characterized by highly stylized poetic dialogue, larger-than-life heroes and idealized heroines, and sensationalistic action often played out in exotic locales, heroic drama was uniquely suited to the tumultuous era after the return of Charles II to the English throne following the regicide of Charles I and the ensuing civil war. John Dryden, the dominant playwright and dramatic theorist of his time, wrote extensively in support of the heroic genre, citing its lineage in the classical theater as well as the French drama of Pierre Corneille. However, unlike other dramatic forms of the period, such as the comedy of wit or manners, heroic drama seems to have been uniquely suited to Restoration audiences and never became a mainstay of the English theatrical repertoire.

Although Dryden is generally considered the master of the genre—particularly for his Conquest of Granada (1670-71)—heroic drama was established as a popular and well-defined theatrical style by earlier authors. William Davenant, a playwright during the reign of Charles I and later the manager of the theatrical troupe the Duke's Company, wrote what is considered the first heroic drama, The Siege of Rhodes. This two-part play was performed as an opera in 1656, to evade the prohibition on plays during the Interregnum; in 1661 it was recast—or perhaps restored—as a drama. Dryden, who worked with Davenant throughout much of his career, acknowledged The Siege of Rhodes as an important model for his own heroic plays. While Davenant provided the stylistic features of melodramatic rhetoric and adventure-filled storylines, Roger Boyle, Earl of Orrery, is often credited with introducing the political tone that is also associated with heroic drama. As an astute politician, Orrery had succeeded in aligning himself with Charles I, Oliver Cromwell, and Charles II. This was particularly challenging in the case of Charles II, since Orrery's affiliation with Cromwell made him seem complicit in the regicide of the new king's father. However, the repeated assertion of his regret and his genuine royalist sympathies quickly won over Charles II. Orrery's heroic plays, from The Generall in 1661 to Tryphon in 1668, continually address the problems of loyalty, usurpation, and regicide, and ultimately assert that political order must derive from monarchical authority.

Dryden's first heroic drama, The Indian Queen (1664), was a joint effort with Robert Howard. Like many of Dryden's heroic plays, The Indian Queen is set in the context of colonial conquest, with the Spanish fighting for possession of Indian lands in the Americas. In both The Indian Queen and its sequel, The Indian Emperor (1665), tyrannical Indian rulers contend with warring tribes on the one hand and the invasion of the Spanish on the other; each character is caught in a complex web of loyalties in addition to romantic rivalries that often cross tribal or cultural barriers. In these and his next heroic play, Tyrannick Love (1669), Dryden developed the heroic drama along a slightly different course from that of Orrery. As in his other writings, Dryden's heroic plays demonstrate a unique and prescient insight into sexual and gender politics in both the public and private realm: some of the most corrupt usurpers and idealized heroes in his dramatic works are women, and his female characters are considered more interesting and nuanced than those in other heroic dramas. Perhaps the most memorable of Dryden's heroic characters appear in his most significant heroic play, The Conquest of Granada, which appeared in two parts, the first premiering in late 1670 and the second in early 1671. The heroic couple of The Conquest of Granada, Almanzor and Almahide, in many ways defined the standard for the genre: Almanzor is the brash, unconquerable hero unencumbered by any political or romantic loyalties and Almahide is the self-sacrificing heroine who will not abandon the bonds of honor that subjugate her to a tyrant. Dryden's final heroic drama, Aureng-Zebe (1675), presages the changes in taste that signaled the decline of heroic drama during the late 1670s and marks his formal farewell to the verse dialogue that was a distinguishing feature of his heroic plays.

After Dryden ceased to write heroic drama, a new generation of playwrights began experimenting with the form, most prominently Nathaniel Lee and Thomas Otway. Both Lee and Otway would eventually develop a more emotionally affective and tragic style of drama—Lee with his violent plots of regicide and Otway with his roles written to highlight the actress Elizabeth Barry's talent for conveying passionate feelings on the stage. Lee and Otway's early efforts in the heroic manner are generally considered transitional plays hinting at these developments. Lee's first heroic drama, Sophonisba (1675), was a popular success, though his next effort, Gloriana (1676), was widely disparaged. Lee was less unabashedly royalist than earlier heroic dramatists, a trait that pointed toward the darker, more complex tragedies of his later career. Otway's first heroic drama, Alcibiades (1675), has the dubious distinction of being considered among the worst efforts in the genre. Nevertheless, his subsequent work, Don Carlos Prince of Spain (1676), was significantly more successful, embracing the tradition of The Conquest of Granada while also displaying a gift for restrained passion and the evocation of pity. While Otway, Lee, and Dryden were responsible for the rise of heroic drama, their talents led beyond the conventions of the genre, bringing its dominance in the English theater to an end. The move toward more emotionally introspective and less outwardly dramatic tragedies produced such masterworks as Otway's Venice Preserved (1682) and Dryden's All for Love (1678), plays that suited their audience's changing tastes. As the cautious celebration of the early Restoration gave way to the uncertainties and tension of the 1680s, there developed a trend toward more complex political tragedies, as exemplified by the later works of Lee. Heroic drama would continue to enjoy the occasional revival, particularly at the close of the seventeenth century, but relatively few new plays in this genre would be written and none by the major authors who defined the taste and style of their age.

Since its inception, heroic drama has attracted sharp criticism: nothing about the genre was subtle, and the grandiloquent dialogue and characters were obvious targets for witty deflation. Among the first and most stinging critics of the form was George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, whose comedy The Rehearsal (1671) satirizes the plots, themes, and dialogue of heroic plays. The Rehearsal was as popular as the plays it mocked and enjoyed revivals throughout the vogue of heroic drama. Later critics tended to echo the criticisms of Buckingham, adding that the heroic plays presented fantasy worlds that provided frivolous entertainment for Londoners weary of the political trauma of the previous decades. Scholars have also noted the influence of French literature on heroic drama, which in part derived from the exile of Charles II and his supporters in France during the Interregnum. Roswell Gray Ham, for example, has suggested that the fashion for heroic drama was merely a part of the fashion for “all things French” at the dawn of the Restoration period. Not until the late 1970s did scholars begin to emphasize the political aspects of the plays. J. Douglas Canfield and Susan Staves were among the earliest critics to counter the prevailing notion that heroic plays were apolitical trifles aimed at diverting playgoers' attention from the recent strife. To the contrary, both Canfield and Staves have argued, these plays helped facilitate the cultural assimilation of the horrors of regicide and civil war, thus buttressing the social order against further instability. Later studies have developed this idea in greater detail, focusing on the contributions in this direction of particular themes, including those relating to gender, political philosophy, and imperialism. Some scholars have also paid increased attention to the performance aspects of the plays. As Robert Hume has observed, scenery and music were as important to the development of heroic drama as rhymed dialogue and the conflict between love and honor. Philip K. Jason has proposed that the evolution of the heroic drama was due not only to changing tastes and political trends but also to changes in acting style and the special talents of Restoration actors. No longer viewed as a form of escapism, the heroic drama of the early Restoration is today regarded as a significant phase in the development of the English stage and the evolution of English cultural ideology.

Representative Works

John Banks
The Destruction of Troy (play) 1677

Robert Boyle, Earl of Orrery
The Generall (play) 1661
The History of Henry the Fifth (play) 1664
The Tragedy of Mustapha, Son of Solyman the Magnificent (play) 1665
The Black Prince (play) 1667
Tryphon (play) 1668

John Crowne
Juliana, or the Princess of Poland (play) 1671
The Destruction of Jerusalem by Titus Vespasian (play) 1677

William Davenant
The Siege of Rhodes: The First and Second Part (play) 1656; revised 1661

John Dryden
The Indian Queen [with Robert Howard] (play) 1664
The Indian Emperour; or, The Conquest of Mexico by the Spaniards (play) 1665
Tyrannick Love; or, The Royal Martyr (play) 1669
The Conquest of Granada by the Spaniards: In Two Parts (play) 1670-71
Aureng-Zebe (play) 1675

Edward Howard
The Change of Crowns (play) 1667
The Usurper: A Tragedy (play) 1667

Robert Howard
The Duke of Lerma (play) 1668
The Vestal Virgin; or, The Roman Ladies (play) 1668

Nathaniel Lee
Sophonisba; or, Hannibal's Overthrow (play) 1675
Gloriana; or, The Court of Augustus Caesar (play) 1676

Thomas Otway
Alcibiades (play) 1675
Don Carlos Prince of Spain (play) 1676

Criticism: Definitions And Overviews

John Dryden (essay date 1677)

SOURCE: Dryden, John. “The Author's Apology prefixed to The State of Innocence and Fall of Man, an Opera (1677).” In The Prelude to Poetry: The English Poets in Defence and Praise of Their Own Art, edited by Ernest Rhys, pp. 123-34. London: Dent, 1970.

[In this essay, Dryden defends the genre of heroic drama from critics who describe it as bombastic and unrealistic.]

To satisfy the curiosity of those who will give themselves the trouble of reading the ensuing poem, I think myself obliged to render them a reason why I publish an opera which was never acted. In the first place, I shall not be ashamed to own that my chiefest motive was the ambition which I...

(The entire section is 4006 words.)

C. G. Child (essay date June 1904)

SOURCE: Child, C. G. “The Rise of the Heroic Play.” Modern Language Notes 19, no. 6 (June 1904): 166-73.

[In this essay, Child emphasizes William Davenant's role in the development of heroic drama.]

Holzhausen, in his sketch of the rise and development of the heroic play (Englische Studien, 13. 416 n.), says, with reference to Ohlsen's Dryden as a Dramatist and Critic (Altona progr., no. 263, 1883),

Ueber dies passiren ihm allerhand seltsame schnitzer. So nennt er aus s. IV kurzweg Davenant als denjenigen, welcher die heroic plays in England eingeführt habe, was, wenn auch nicht ganz falsch, so doch entschieden...

(The entire section is 5549 words.)

Robert Hume (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: Hume, Robert. “Ideas of Greatness: The ‘Heroic’ Play.” In The Development of English Drama in the Late Seventeenth Century, pp. 192-99. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976.

[In this excerpt, Hume suggests that while many plays designated as “heroic” share important features, there is no single quality or trait shared by all of them.]

How cohesive is ‘heroic drama’? Plainly this depends on your definition. Is a prosperous ending necessary? If so, what is Orrery's Mustapha? Is a villain-centred play truly heroic? I would say no—not unless a character of virtue figures prominently in contrast, as in Tyrannick Love. Does opera count?—and...

(The entire section is 2502 words.)

Laura Brown (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: Brown, Laura. “Heroic Action.” In English Dramatic Form, 1660-1760: An Essay in Generic History, pp. 3-27. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1981.

[In the essay below, Brown considers the defining features of heroic drama.]

Heroic drama and comedy of manners are the familiar labels given to the major serious and comic plays of the Restoration English theater. In most criticism of the period, these descriptive terms are used to refer either to theme, to verse form, to the presence of certain kinds of characters, or to a particular artificial, sophisticated, and witty tone. Traditional categories of such duration and currency deserve respectful...

(The entire section is 12732 words.)

Criticism: Politics And Heroic Drama

Susan Staves (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: Staves, Susan. “Authority and Obligation in the State: ‘Let Majesty no more be held Divine.’” In Players' Scepters: Fictions of Authority in the Restoration, pp. 43-73. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1979.

[In the following essay, Staves analyzes heroic drama in the political context of the years immediately following the Restoration.]


The issues which erupted into the civil war were not solved by that war but remained for Englishmen to struggle with until nearly the end of the seventeenth century. In particular, the revolution failed to define the limits of the king's authority over his subjects. It merely weakened...

(The entire section is 11963 words.)

J. Douglas Canfield (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Canfield, J. Douglas. “Heroes and States: Heroic Romance.” In Heroes and States: On the Ideology of Restoration Tragedy, pp. 6-25. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2000.

[In this essay, Canfield uses Dryden's Conquest of Granada as an exemplary heroic drama in order to uncover the political and ideological values that underlie the genre.]

The restored king and court had been quite taken with French drama in their exiled sojourn on the continent, particularly the rhymed romances and tragedies of France's greatest dramatist at midcentury, Pierre Corneille. So Charles II invited his courtier playwrights to follow suit. The very formal style of...

(The entire section is 9685 words.)

Criticism: Early Plays: Dryden And Orrery

Arthur C. Kirsch (essay date June 1962)

SOURCE: Kirsch, Arthur C. “The Significance of Dryden's Aureng-Zebe.ELH 29, no. 2 (June 1962): 160-74.

[In this essay, Kirsch interprets Dryden's Aureng-Zebe as a pivotal heroic drama.]

The second decade of the Restoration witnessed two significant changes in the development of serious drama: the advent of sentimental heroes and domestic situations, and the abandonment of rhyme. The changes are particularly interesting because they seem to be related. They can be seen in all the serious plays of the decade, but their relationship is perhaps most clear in Dryden's Aureng-Zebe (1676), the play which stands midway between The Conquest of...

(The entire section is 5766 words.)

Anne T. Barbeau (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: Barbeau, Anne T. “Dryden's Plays of Ideas.” In The Intellectual Design of John Dryden's Heroic Plays, pp. 3-23. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970.

[In this essay, Barbeau examines the view that Dryden's heroic plays emphasized ideas over emotion.]

Samuel Johnson's accurate judgment of Dryden is that the latter's “favourite exercise” consists in ratiocination and that, as a result, he is deficient in portraying natural passion and sensibility.1 This estimate would have had a pejorative connotation for a reader of the late eighteenth century, when sentimental drama had sufficiently displaced, in the public esteem, that theater of ideas...

(The entire section is 7076 words.)

Nancy Klein Maguire (essay date spring 1991)

SOURCE: Maguire, Nancy Klein. “Regicide and Reparation: The Autobiographical Drama of Roger Boyle, Earl of Orrery.” English Literary Renaissance 21, no. 2 (spring 1991): 257-82.

[In the following essay, Maguire reviews Orrery's corpus as it repeatedly develops the theme of forgiveness and mercy, proposing that through his heroic dramas Orrery sought to expiate his—and by extension society's—guilt for the execution of Charles I and the civil war.]

“For nought is virtue w(ch) successe does want.”

(Orrery, The Generall)

“Guilt next to Love, above all ties does bind.”


(The entire section is 10412 words.)

David R. Evans (essay date spring 1992)

SOURCE: Evans, David R. “‘Private Greatness’: The Feminine Ideal in Dryden's Early Heroic Drama.” Restoration 16, no. 1 (spring 1992): 2-19.

[In this essay, Evans explores the role of the female characters in Dryden's heroic plays The Indian Queen, The Indian Emperor, and Tyrannick Love.]

Within the relatively large body of criticism on Dryden's heroic drama, little attention has been paid to how the plays deploy female characters. In some respects this neglect is not surprising, because they are, after all, “heroic dramas,” and in most people's minds—certainly in Dryden's—a hero is by definition a male. Despite, or perhaps because of such a...

(The entire section is 8980 words.)

Stephan P. Flores (essay date spring 1996)

SOURCE: Flores, Stephan P. “Orrery's The Generall and Henry the Fifth: Sexual Politics and the Desire for Friendship.” The Eighteenth Century 37, no. 1 (spring 1996): 56-74.

[In the essay below, Flores contends that Orrery's heroic plays define “the need for bonds of friendship and faith in political and sexual relations that would not simply restore a mythic heroic past, but would also establish a socio-political practice equal to the conflicted demands of the present.”]

Scholars familiar with the popular heroic plays of Roger Boyle, First Earl of Orrery, have recently begun to explore in detail the ways in which his work articulates conflicts...

(The entire section is 8695 words.)

Criticism: Later Plays: Lee And Otway

Roswell Gray Ham (essay date 1931)

SOURCE: Ham, Roswell Gray. “So Noble a Pleasure.” In Otway and Lee: Biography from a Baroque Age, pp. 65-81. 1931. Reprint. New York: Greenwood Press, 1969.

[In this essay, Ham considers the early plays of Thomas Otway and Nathaniel Lee, when each experimented with heroic drama before moving on to other forms.]

Pouring forth Tears at such a lavish rate,
That were the World on fire, they might have drown'd
The Wrath of Heav'n, and quench't the mighty Ruin.

Lee, Mithridates

Before the curtain had finally descended upon the destruction wrought by Otway in his Alcibiades, Mrs. Mary Lee arose from the heroic dead to recite...

(The entire section is 7432 words.)

J. M. Armistead (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: Armistead, J. M. “Hero as Endangered Species: Sophonisba, or Hannibal's Overthrow. A Tragedy (1675).” In Nathaniel Lee, pp. 43-57. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1979.

[In the following essay, Armistead discusses the structure and themes of Nathaniel Lee's most successful foray into the genre of heroic drama, Sophonisba.]

In charting the modulation of high heroic drama into something resembling genuine tragedy, we can hardly afford to overlook Nathaniel Lee's first smash hit. That it usually is passed over suggests that most commentators have uncritically accepted impressionistic or satiric responses to the play—responses like those of the Earl of...

(The entire section is 6530 words.)

Philip K. Jason (essay date summer 1987)

SOURCE: Jason, Philip K. “The Distinction of Otway and Betterton.” Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Theatre Research 2, no. 1 (summer 1987): 6-18.

[In this essay, Jason proposes that the working relationship between Thomas Otway and the actor Thomas Betterton influenced the writing of Otway's successful Don Carlos.]

Human destinies are often imagined as the conjunction of the traits of individuals with circumstance: men and moments. We understand the works of our intellectuals and artists to be both willed and inevitable, inspired and shaped by conditions. Often we find an even more complex amalgam of forces in which human destinies are intertwined and...

(The entire section is 4853 words.)

Further Reading


Brower, Reuben A. “An Allusion to Europe: Dryden and Tradition.” ELH 19, no. 1 (March 1952): 38-48.

Suggests that Dryden revived continental literary traditions in creating his heroic style of drama.

Canfield, J. Douglas. “The Significance of the Restoration Rhymed Heroic Play.” Eighteenth-Century Studies 13 (1979): 49-62.

Advances the argument that heroic drama represented an effort to reinstate aristocratic cultural values; provides an appendix of heroic-style plays through 1700.

Clark, William Smith, II. “Critical Preface.” In The Dramatic Works of Roger Boyle, Earl...

(The entire section is 455 words.)