Heroic Tragedy

Introduction:
If the age of the Restoration (1660-1700) is one of the most splendid periods in the annals of English drama, it is primarily on account of the comedy of manners. This kind of comedy-brilliant, witty, albeit a little licentious here and there-was an authentic reflection of the society of the age. The so-called heroic tragedy which had a brief run concurrently with the comedy of manners had also a modicum of popularity, but was too stilted and artificial and. to some extent, merely a transplant from the French soil. A heroic tragedy of the Restoration (for example, Dryden’s The Conquest of Granada or Tyrannic Love) is much less representative of the ethos of Restoration society than a comedy of manners.

What is a Heroic Play?:
A heroic play (and most heroic plays end unhappily, and hence are tragedies), like a heroic poem or an epic, is generally built around a larger-than-life heroic warrior who is a master both of swordsmanship and stagy rhetoric. The hero is almost invariably a “king, prince, or an army general. The plot of the play involves the fate of an empire. Gallantry, adventure, love-and honour are the usual themes of heroic plays. The principal conflict faced by the hero is between love and honour. The writers of heroic plays aimed at the effects of intensity and sublimity and were keen to arouse in the audience admiration rfrore than the specific tragic emotions of pity and fear. The diction and verse used by them were in accordance with their aim. They mostly used rhymed pentameter couplets (heroic couplets) which were quite artificial but could be impressively declamatory. For impressing the audience even more, elaborate stage scenery and even live animals were used by theatre managers. Little wonder then if heroic drama managed to rival the Restoration comedy of manners in popularity.
Its Principal Practitioners: Sir William D’Avenant:
The vogue of the heroic play lasted throughout the reign of Charles II (i.e. 1660-1685) and even beyond to the early years of the eighteenth century. Its principal practitioners were John Dryden, Elkanah Settle, Nat Lee, and Thomas Otway. Among the lesser playwrights may be mentioned Roger Boyle, Earl of Orrey and John Crowne. Dryden is surely head and shoulders above the rest of the crowd. There is a controversy regarding which is the earliest heroic play or tragedy in the history of English drama. There are two contenders for this honour of precedence–The Siege of Rhodes (1656) by Sir William D’Avenant and The Indian Queen (1664) by John Dryden and Sir Robert Howard (Dryden’s brother-in-law and Crites of Dryden’s Essay of Dramatic Poetry}. If, strictly speaking, not the first heroic play, The Siege of Rhodes was, in Cazamian’s words, “the germ both of English opera and heroic tragedy.” Put up on the stage before the Restoration when the Puritans were in power and the theatres were lying closed to popular entertainment, the play was written by the author on a heroic theme with the avowed aim of recommending virtue “under the forms of valour and conjugal love.” The play deals with the siege of Rhodes (an island off Greece) by the Turkish king Solyman the Magnificent. The valour of the Sultan is matched by the conjugal devotion of lanthe, wife of the Sicilian Duke Alphonso, who succeeds in saving her husband and those who are defending the island from the Turkish hordes. The play, which may alternatively be called an opera, is in rhymed verse which has musical quality, for it is meant for recitation rather than natural dialogue. Another sensational feature of the play was its emphasis (something new in the history of English drama) on stage accessories for creating picturesque effects. Much more was sought by D’Avenant to be shown than acted out. The besieged town of Rhodes, the Turkish camp, the fleets, and the port were materially represented on the stage itself. Needless to say, the play was very well received by the drama-starved Londoners who had remained without entertainment since 1649 when the theatres were closed by the Puritan regime.
Yet another remarkable feature of The siege of Rhodes was the introduction of actresses to play the role of female dramatis personae. Formerly such roles were played by boy actors (who for reasons of appearance and voice could pass for ladies). The new daring step taken by D’Avenant was welcomed by all and became a norm of the English theatre. In fact one of the reasons why love is such an important theme of heroic tragedy (as lust is of the manners comedy) is to be found here. The playwrights had to invent suitable roles for some accomplished, beautiful, and popular actresses who appeared on the scene-actresses like Nell Gwyn and Mrs. Barry whose very presence among the players was an insurance of success. They were very successful as beloveds or wives of great heroes or as princesses and “captive queens” courted by noble heroes in a grandiloquent style.
John Dryden:
The Indian Queen (1664) by Dryden and Howard is the first heroic play, but it cannot be called a tragedy because of its happy ending. The play has almost all the other ingredients of heroic tragedy. Montezuma is an army general of heroic blood in love with a princess (whom he ultimately marries-hence the happy ending). The central motives in the play are love and valour. Then there are stock characters other than the virtuous heroine and the all-conquering, honourable hero-such as the emperor of a remote land, the villain-general, the rival contrasting queens, and the noble idealist. The rhyming couplets in which the piay is couched aim at sublimity and sonority but often descend into rant and singsong.
Dryden’s heroic plays are: The Indian Emperor (1665) Tyrannic Love (1669) The Conquest ofGranda (1670) Amboyana (1673) Aureng-Zebe (1675)
Except Tyrannic Love almost none of these plays can technically be called a tragedy with respect to its ending, but all of them are heroic plays different from the later plays of Dryden like All for Love (1677) and Don Sebastian (1689) which use blank verse rather than rhyme and which avoid the stereotypes of heroic drama.
The hero of Tyrannic Love, Maximin, a Roman emperor, has an intensity of passion and ear-filling sonority of style which remind one of Marlowe’s Tamburlaine. Like Tamburlaine, Maximin dies threatening the gods in heaven. He rants:
And after thee I go
Revenging still, and following ev’n to the other -world
my blow:
And shoving back this earth on which I sit,
I’ ll mount, and scatter all the Gods I hit.
Maximin falls in love with Catharine, the Christian princess of Alexandria, his captive. Catharine, a pious Christian (who was sainted later), rejects his love and converts Maximin’s wife, Queen Berenice, to Christianity, thus sorely provoking him. Both Catharine and Berenice are beheaded at Maximin’s command. Maximin is soon stabbed to death by one of his officers who is in love with Berenice.
The Conquest of Granada is, in the words of Sherburn and Bond, “Dryden’s most elaborate heroic play.” It is in two parts, each comprising five acts. The hero of the play is Almanzor, a valiant soldier, who participates in the battle between the Spaniards and the Moors over Granada. Almanzor is in love with Almahide, fiance of Boabdelin, the Moorish ruler of Granada. Almanzor remains unsuccessful in his suit for Almahide till the death of Boabdelin in the last act. The plot of the play is very complicated and the frequency with which the hero changes his allegiance between the warring Spaniards and Moors would put to shame even the most seasoned turncoat in an Indian State Assembly. Almanzors rants are flamboyant and sometimes grotesque, but none can ignore the intensity of his character. When the King’s guards approach to kill him he cautions them:
Stand off: I have not leisure yet to die.
Sherburn and Bond appropriately comment: “Clearly such a man has something!”
Dryden’s Aureng-Zebe, though not a heroic tragedy, is. a notable heroic play and Dryden’s last attempt in the genre. With this play he bade good-bye to what he called “his long-loved mistress rhyme” and tried his hand at a different kind in blank verse. Aureng-Zebe is (mis) represented by Dryden as an ideal prince—virtuous, honourable, valiant, and generous as a son, lover, and brother. The captive queen Indamora, who is loved by his father Shah Jehan and brother Morat in addition to himself, is won by him after a lot of intrigues and complications. The play shows Dryden’s maturity. There is much less of rant and more of real poetry which we can find in several reflective passages such as the following uttered by the-hero, beginning:
When I consider life, ’tis all a cheat
Yet;, fooled with hope men favour the deceit,
Trust on, and think to-morrow will repay.
To-morrow’s falser than the former day–
Cazamian praises Aureng-Zebe as “the most inward of Dryden’s heroes, the one in whom virtue is endued with the most distinctly psychological quality.”
Elkanah Settle:
Settle as a writer of heroic drama is chiefly known for his tragedy The Empress of Morocco (1673). One of the reasons why Dryden gave up writing heroic plays after Aureng-Zebe was the highly undeserved success of Settle’s play. “The play,” according to Sherbum and Bond, “is hardly more absurd than some of Dryden’s, but its plotting, which concerns the successful intrigues of a wicked empress and her lover against her son, is less well knit than Dryden’s work, and its poetry is obviously inferior.” This play by Settle was followed by a long satirical wrangle between Dryden and his friends on the one hand and Settle on the other. The last blow was delivered by Dryden who in the second part of his Absalom andAchitophel (1682) pilloried Settle as Doeg.
Nat Lee:
Nat Lee is described by Bonamy Dobree in Restoration Tragedy as “the most completely ‘heroic’ of all the outstanding heroic writers.” His plays, some ten in number, are, in NicolPs words, “formless and hysterical.” Sherburn and Bond observe: “His characters do rage rather than speak; situations change with absurd rapidity; at times motivation of important deeds is sadly deficient; and there is an almost unvarying high emotional tension.” Lee’s continuous striving after grandeur and sublimity often yields only fustian and grotesque rant. Dobree says: “There can be no purple patch where all is incarnadined, and humanity itself is drowned in an ocean of verbiage.” Of course, there are a few lucid and strangely beautiful passages which prove that Lee had a modicum of poetry in him. But as often Lee exposes himself to ridicule. Consider, for example, the last words spoken by King Augustus \nGloriana:
So Heaven abroad with conquest crowns my wars,
But wracks my spirits with domestic jars.
The words “wracks” and “jars” bring before the mind’s eye a picture of a kitchen, which is clearly unintentional. Lee’s impetuosity and torrential rant with little regard for the occasion and for the identity of the speaker compel one to question his sanity. And, indeed, Lee remained in a mad-house for five long years. Lee’s best known , play is The Rival Queens (1677) which represents the bloody rivalry between the two wives of Alexander the Great, namely, Statira and Roxana. Roxana stabs Statira to death and Alexander is poisoned by the conspirator Cassander.
Thomas Otway:
With Otway heroic drama’loses some of its specifically heroic character ‘and accommodates the elements of pathos and even sentimentalism which are essentially alien to this spirit. In Otway we see the last flicker of Elizabethan glory. His best plays are The Orphan (1680) and Venice Preserved (1682), both in blank verse, Otway excels in the delineation of tender scenes involving lovers and children. Dobree objects to his “tear-mongering”, but we cannot help admiring his poetic and dramatic powers. Otway paved the way for sentimental comedy of the eighteenth century.
Conclusion:
The cult of the heroic drama which lasted for about two decades after the Restoration was largely at product of the French influence. French classical tragedy from Corneille to Racine in the seventeenth century was emulated by heroic dramatists of England led by Dryden. English heroic drama was extremely artificial both in content and style. It was supposed to be the dramatic form of heroic or epic poetry. The failure of heroic drama was in part due to the radical incompatibility between the content and the form: the former was overly and patently romantic and the latter largely neoclassical. However, even the worst of heroic piays has its dazzling splendour and beauty which arise from the vigour and energy of expression, howsoever stilted and bombastic.
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