Home  »  Volume VIII: English THE AGE OF DRYDEN  »  § 14. The Rival Queens

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VIII. The Age of Dryden.

VII. The Restoration Drama

§ 14. The Rival Queens

The Rival Queens and Theodosius supplied favourite parts to many of the most gifted tragic actors not only of their own day, but, also, in the next century. Alexander, in The Rival Queens, was one of Betterton’s most popular rôles, and he played leading parts in all Lee’s later productions; while Hart and Mohun acquired fame in his earlier pieces. At a later date, Charles Kemble and Mrs. Powell and Edmund Kean and Mrs. Glover revived The Rival Queens with marked success. And it is easy to understand how thrilling, in their hands, must have been the scenes of white-hot elemental passion in which Lee abounds. He was consistently a candidate for immediate popular favour. He gave the court what it liked—heroic plays on French lines, with a strong appeal to the senses, and characters capable of being played with immense effect and abandon by gifted actors and actresses. It may be accounted a significant, though hardly a surprising, fact that, at a time when almost everything—good, bad and indifferent—has been reprinted, no publisher has been found courageous enough to undertake an edition of Lee. No analysis of his extravagance can give so distinct an impression of it as an example, and the following description in Lucius Junius Brutus, of a young boy’s grief, is typical of many similar absurdities scattered up and down his plays:

  • His pretty eyes, ruddy and wet with tears,
  • Like two burst Cherries rolling in a storm.
  • On the other hand, the lines frequently quoted:
  • Thou coward! yet
  • Art living? Canst not, wilt not, find the road
  • To the great palace of magnificent Death,
  • Though thousand ways lead to his thousand doors
  • Which day and night are still unbarred for all?
  • may be taken as an instance of Lee at his best. Now and again, a stray verse or metaphor reminds us of the Elizabethan heights from which the restoration dramatists had fallen so far. But these beauties are few and far between, and it must be frankly confessed that, to-day, Lee is almost unreadable.