"Man: False Man"

(Magill's Quotations in Context)

Context: Little is known about the English dramatist Nathaniel Lee. Neither the place nor the year of his birth is certain. He may have been born as early as 1649. His minister father changed religious belief according to political changes, but retained his rectory at Hatfield, where Nathaniel was brought up. Like Otway, stage fright prevented his becoming an actor, so he started writing plays, beginning with Nero in 1674. Critics lampooned its plotting and characterization, but he learned from it, and in Sophonisba (1675) glorifying heroic love, he scored a hit. He became friendly with Dryden, with whom he collaborated on Oedipus (1678) that ran ten nights. Lee's Rival Queens was his most popular success, but he considered Mithridates (1678) his best play. Then, for political and religious reasons, his popularity waned, and he tried to regain his public with Theodosius or The Force of Love, based on Pharamond (1661) by the French dramatist Gautier de la Calprenède (1609–1663). For its eight songs, the English composer Henry Purcell provided music. As a tender heroic drama, with a love-honor conflict, its sentiments appealed to the ladies. He dedicated it to "La Belle Stuart," the Duchess of Richmond, the king's favorite. It won back his popularity. However, Lee's sympathies for the Whigs appeared in his last two plays, and they were suppressed. The dramatist went mad and was committed to Bedlam in 1684. Though finally released, he remained ill and in poverty. No one knows the actual cause of his death, and no trace of his grave remains today. For his times, Lee's characters are unusually complex and reveal understanding of human passions and motivations. Though not a major dramatist, he did express the dignity and nobility of man. In this tragedy, set in Persia, Theodosius sees Athenais bathing and falls in love with her. She, however, has long been in love with his friend Prince Varanes. (In the French drama she loves no one and is quite willing to marry Theodosius while Varanes, refused by Rosamond, is content with the Princess Sydemiris, but Lee omits both these women.) By stressing the eternal love of Athenais and Varanes, he produced a tragedy which ends with the death of both lovers. There is a subplot in which Princess Pulcheria, in love with a commoner, General Marcian, banishes him to test his love for her. Addison declared that, though it may lack the strength of some of Lee's other plays, Theodosius also lacks their extravagance, violence, and occasional repugnance. While it may not be Lee's greatest work, yet because of its warmth, tenderness, and emotional appeal, it is certainly his most charming. At the end of Act II, Varanes, heir to the throne of Persia, cannot persuade himself to marry the daughter of a commoner philosopher, so he spurns her. In Act III, after a torturing night in which Love and Glory struggle, his love for Athenais conquers, but too late. She has taken her final vows. Here she rages to her friend, Princess Pulcheria, about the fickleness and evil in man. (The old spellings have been modernized.)

Drive me! O drive me from the traitor man:
So I might 'scape that monster, let me dwell
In lions' haunts or in some tiger's den;
Place me on some steep, craggy, ruin'd rock,
That bellies out, just dropping in the ocean;
Bury me in the hollow of its womb;
Where, starving on my cold and flinty bed,
I may from far, with giddy apprehension,
See infinite fathoms down the rumbling deep!
Yet not ev'n there, in that vast whirl of death,
Can there be found so terrible a ruin
As man: false man, smiling, destructive man.