Heroic Drama Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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.