Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Lee, Nathaniel
LEE, NATHANIEL (1653?–1692), dramatist, is said to have been son of Richard Lee, D.D. The latter was educated at Cambridge (B. A. St, John's College, 1632), showed some taste for music, took holy orders, accepted the solemn league and covenant, and adnered through the civil wars to the parliament. By order of parliament he became rector of St. Martin's Orgar, London, in 1643, and an ordainer of ministers on the presbyterian model in 1644 (cf. Journal of the House of Commons, iii. 630). Preferment was liberally bestowed on him. He held at the same time the rectories of Hatfield, Hertfordshire (from 1647), of Little Gaddesden (from 1655}, and of Berkhampstead, St. Peter (from 1656), esides the mastership of Royston Hospital, Leicester, from 1650. He became chaplain to Monck, duke of Albemarle, and conformed after the Restoration. In 1663, in St. Mary's Church, Cambridge, and at St. Paul's Cathedral (29 Nov.), he preached a sermon—published with the title 'Cor Humiliatum et Contritum'—in which he recanted all his earlier opinions and confessed remorse for having taken the covenant, and for having expressed approval of Charles I's death. Robert Wilde, the presbyterian poet, satirised this change of front in a poem entitled 'Recantation of Penitent Proteus, or the Changeling.' 1664. Richard Lee died at Hatfield in 1684, aged 73, and was buried in the chancel of the cnurch there. The Hatfield registers contain entries of the baptisms of his sons Daniel (b. 1652), Richard (b. 1655), John, ye 10th child' (b. 1662), and Emmanuel, 'his sixt sonn* (b. 1667). The son Richard was vicar of Abbots Langley from 27 Oct. 1691 to 15 Sept. 1699, and rector of Essendon from 1699 till his death in 1725, at the age of seventy. An older son than any of these was named Samuel.
Nathaniel, perhaps the second son, was probably born in 1653. He was educated at Westminster School, and, according to Lord Rochester, was 'well lasht' by the head-master, Busby. On 7 July 1665 he was admitted to Trinity College, Cambridge, and graduated B.A. in January 1667-8 (information from W. Aldis Wright, esq.) To a collection of 'Threnodia' by Cambridge students on the death of his father's patron, George Monck, duke of Albemarle, he contributed an ode in English verse (cf. Nichols, Miscellany Poems, vii. 86). As a young man he is said to have been handsome and 'of an ingenious conversation,' and he seems to have obtained an entrance into fashionable society before leaving Cambridge. The Duke of Buckingham, who became chancellor of the university in 1671, is credited with having 'brought him up to town,' and with having wholly neglected him on his arrival there (Spence, Anecdotes, p. 62). But Lee came to know Rochester and other of his neglectful patron's abandoned friends, and he lost no time in imitating their vices, to the permanent injury of his health.
To earn a livelihood he at first sought to become an actor, and in 1672, according to Downes's 'Roscius Anglicanus ' (p. 34), was allotted the part of Duncan at the Dorset Garden Theatre in D'Avenant's adaptation of 'Macbeth.' but his acute nervousness rendered the experiment a failure, although he was reported to be an admirable elocutionist. Oldys assigns a similar result to his attempt to play a part in Mrs. Behn's 'Forced Marriage, or the Jealous Bridegroom.' in the same season, but Downes assigns that disaster to Otway. Although Lee appears to have undertaken the small rôle of Captain of the Watch in November 1672 in the 'Fatal Jealousy.' a play assigned to Neville Payne, he very soon abandoned acting for the writing of tragedies. In that pursuit he achieved, despite his extravagances, much popular success. The actor Mohun, who filled the chief rôles in Lee's pieces, is reported to have repeatedly expressed his admiration at the author's effective mode of reading his plays aloud to the company. 'Unless I were to play it.' the actor is reported to have said to Lee of one of his parts, 'as well as you read it, to what purpose should I undertake it?'
The plots of Lee's tragedies were mainly drawn from classical history, but he treated his authorities with the utmost freedom, and at times seems to have wilfully travestied them. His earliest effort, 'Nero.' produced in 1675, was chiefly written in heroic couplets (London, 1675, 1696, 1735). Like its three immediate successors, it was first performed at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Hart figured in the title-role and Mohun as Britannicus. In 1676 Lee wrote two plays, also in rhyme, 'Gloriana, or the Court of Augustus Caesar' (London, 1676, 4to), and 'Sophonisba, or Hannibal's Overthrow ' (London, 1676 and 1693, 4to ; 5th edit. 1704, 1709, 1735). The latter piece, for which Purcell wrote the earliest music prepared by him for the stage, treats of Hannibal's legendary passion for a lady of Capua, and was dedicated to the Duchess of Portsmouth. It was always admired, according to Genest, by 'the fair sex.' Rochester asserts that Hannibal was presented as 'a whining amorous fool.' The play was performed in the tennis-court at Oxford during commemoration week in July 1680 (cf. Wood, Life and Times, ii. 490), and Dryden wrote a special prologue for the occasion.
Lee's reputation was not definitely secured till 1677, when his best -known tragedy, 'The Rival Queens, or the Death of Alexander the Great' — his first essay in blank verse— proved a triumphant success (London, 1677, 1684, 1694 ; 4th edit. 1702, 4to). De La Calprenede's novel 'Cassandre' seems to have suggested some of the scenes. The jealousy of Alexander's first wife, Roxana, for his second wife, Statira, is the leading theme. In this play first appeared the usually misquoted line, 'when Greeks join'd Greeks then was the tug of war' (act iv. sc. 1 ; Works, 1734, iii. 26o) ; but the verses beginning 'See the conquering hero comes.' which were introduced into the play (act ii. sc. 1) in late acting versions (cf. ed. 1785, p. 21), have been repeatedly assigned to Lee in error; they were written by Dr. Thomas Morell [q. v.] for Handel's oratorio 'Joshua' in 1747, and were thence transferred to Handel's 'Judas Maccabæus.' In the first representation of the 'Rival Queens' Hart played Alexander and Mohun 'honest old 'Clytus' Dryden joined in the general chorus of praise, and when the piece was published, with a fulsome dedication to the Duchess of Portsmouth, he prefixed verses in which Lee's delineation of the passions was commended for sincerity and warmth.
'Mithridates, King of Pontus.' in blank verse (London, 1678, 4to), was first acted at Drury Lane in March 1678, with Mohun in the title-rôle, and it sustained Lee's position in popular esteem. Dryden contributed an epilogue, and the play was acted by amateurs at the Banqueting House, Whitehall, when Princess Anne appeared as Semandra. In 1679 Dryden gave practical proof of his regard for Lee by inviting his aid in an adaptation of Sophocles's 'Œdipus.' The general plan and the first and third acts are assigned to Dryden, the rest to Lee. The piece was produced at the Duke's Theatre in Dorset Gardens. In spite of 'the rant and fustian' which Lee introduced, and his revolting treatment of the closing episode, the tragedy Hook prodigiously, being 'acted ten days together.' Œdipus and Jocasta were played respectively by Betterton and his wife. At the same theatre Lee produced in 1680 his next two tragedies, 'Cæsar Borgia' (London, 1680, 4to), with a prologue by Dryden, and Betterton in the title-role, and 'Theodosius, or the Force of Love' (London, 1680, 1684, 1692, 1697, 1708), with the same actor in the part of Varanes (dedicated to the Duchess of Richmond). 'Caesar Borgia.' whose plot was drawn from the 'Pharamond' of Gomberville, abounds in villanies and murders, and is again in blank verse. In 'Theodosius' the blank verse is diversified by many excursions into rhyme. In 1681 Lee wrote a fourth play for Dorset Gardens Theatre, 'Lucius Junius Brutus, the Father of his Country.' a tragedy in blank verse (London, 1689, 4to). It is partly based on Mile, de Scudery's 'Clelie.' Some lines on the immoral effeminacy of Tarquin were interpreted as a reflection on Charles II, and on the third night the further representations were prohibited by Arlington the lord chamberlain. In 1703 Gildon produced a free adaptation with the scenes and names of the characters transferred to Italy ; this was entitled 'The Patriot, or the Italian Conspiracy.' and was duly licensed and acted at Drury Lane. In 'Tryall of Skill, a New Session of the Poets,’ 1704, Lee is introduced as storming wildly at Gildon for ruining his ‘Brutus.’
In November of the year (1681) that saw the production of ‘Brutus,’ Lee's comedy the ‘Princess of Cleve,’ founded on Madame La Fayette's romance of the same name, was acted at Dorset Gardens for the first time. It is singularly coarse in plot and language. Dryden wrote a prologue and epilogue, which appear in his ‘Works,’ but were not published with the play, which first appeared in print eight years later. Lee in the first act makes a reference to the recent death of his patron Rochester under the disguise of ‘Count Rosidore.’ Nemours, the chief character, was played by Betterton.
With a view to removing the bad impression created by his ‘Brutus,’ Lee wrote an adulatory poem ‘To the Duke [of York] on his Return’ in 1682 (Nichols, Miscellany Poems, i. 46), and in the same year he induced Dryden to join him in an historical tragedy called ‘The Duke of Guise,’ in accordance with a promise made by the great poet after they had collaborated in ‘Œdipus.’ The plot was readily capable of an application to current politics, and it championed the king and tories far more directly than ‘Brutus’ had favoured the whigs. Dryden was only responsible for the first scene of act i., act iv. and half of act v. (Dryden, Vindication of the Duke of Guise, Scott's edition, vii. 139). Two of Lee's scenes were introduced from the ‘Massacre of Paris,’ a manuscript piece already written by him, but apparently refused a license (cf. Princess of Cleve, ded.). The piece was produced on 4 Dec. 1682 at the Theatre Royal, soon after D'Avenant's and Betterton's companies had effected their well-known union. Betterton assumed the character of the duke, who was clearly intended to suggest the Duke of York. The public were excited, and Hunt and Shadwell attacked the authors in the interest of the whigs, and Dryden replied to his critics in his ‘Vindication of the Duke of Guise’ (1683). Dryden there confuted the popular political interpretation, and in the dedication of the published piece to Laurence Hyde, earl of Rochester, he made a like disclaimer in the joint names of Lee and himself. Finally, in 1684 Lee's last tragedy, ‘Constantine the Great,’ was produced at the Theatre Royal, with Betterton in the title-rôle and Mrs. Barry as Fausta. The epilogue was written by Dryden and had a political flavour. Lee was himself responsible for the prologue, and after bitterly bidding his hearers keep their sons ‘from the sin of rhyme,’ reminded them
How Spencer statv'd, how Cowley mourn'd,
How Butler's faith and service were returned.
A worse fate was in store for himself. In spite of his dramatic successes, Lee's vices grew with his years, and his rubicund countenance testified to his intemperate habits. His aristocratic patrons were gradually estranged. Three of his published plays, ‘Brutus,’ ‘Princess of Cleve,’ and ‘Mithridates,’ he had dedicated to the Earl of Dorset. The Earl of Pembroke, to whom he dedicated his ‘Cæsar Borgia,’ is said to have invited him to Wilton, where he outstayed his welcome in an attempt, the butler feared, to empty the cellar. His indulgences affected his brain, or, at any rate, aggravated an original tendency to insanity. In many of his plays he had dwelt on madness, and had described with startling realism ‘a poor lunatic’ in his ‘Cæsar Borgia.’ Before the catastrophe actually came, Dryden wrote of ‘poor Nat Lee … upon the verge of madness.’ His mind completely failed at the close of 1684, and he was removed to Bethlehem Hospital on 11 Nov. of that year. Tom Brown, who, in his ‘Letters from the Dead,’ represents Lee in hell as singing a filthy song in Dryden's company, declares that while under restraint he wrote a tragedy in five-and-twenty acts (Brown, Works, 1730, ii. 187–8). Many instances are on record of his epigrammatic replies to inquisitive visitors, who included Sir Roger L'Estrange and Dean Lockier. To L'Estrange Lee is said to have addressed the line, ‘I'm strange Lee alter'd, you are still L'Estrange,’ but the same play upon words appears in the poem addressed by Robert Wilde to the dramatist's father. The author of a contemporary ‘Satire on the Poets,’ applies to Lee lines from his own ‘Cæsar Borgia’ in a well-known stanza beginning—
There in a den removed from human eyes,
Possest with muse, the brainsick poet lies.
After five years' detention Lee's reason sufficiently recovered to warrant his release, but his literary work was done. A pension of 10l. a year was allowed him by the company at the Theatre Royal, where his laurels had been won, and where he seems to have been popular with the actors. He told Mountfort, whose rendering of his ‘Mithridates’ had specially pleased him, ‘If I should write a hundred plays, I'd write a part for thy mouth [in each].’ The ‘Princess of Cleve’ was now first published in 1689. A piece written in earlier life, the ‘Massacre of Paris,’ i.e. of St. Bartholomew, two scenes of which he had already introduced into the ‘Duke of Guise,’ was first produced at Drury Lane in 1690, when Betterton played the Admiral of France, and Mrs. Betterton Marguerite, and it was published in the same year.
But Lee could not long resist temptation. According to Oldys, when returning one night y overladen with wine, from the Bear and Harrow in Butcher Row, through Clare Market to his lodgings in Duke Street, Lee 'fell down on the ground as some say, according to others on a bulk, and was killed or stifled in the snow' (sic). He was buried in the parish church of St. Clement Danes on 6 May 1692 (Beg.) Oldys also states that a brother of Lee, living ' in or near the Isle of Axholme' — perhaps Richard Lee, vicar of Abbots Langley— nad in 1727 a trunkful of his writings, but the assertion has not been substantiated. A collected edition of Lee's tragedies appeared in 1713 in 2 vols. A later edition in vols, was issued in 1734, but some title-pages are dated two years later.
Many of Lee's plays long held the stage. The 'Rival Queens.' known by its second title of ' Alexander the Great' from 1772, was, according to Colley Cibber, in greater favour with the town than any other play in the early years of the eighteenth century. Its success, Cibber hinted, was due to the skill and fame of the actors (Mohun, Mountfort, and Betterton) who filled the leading parts, rather than to the literary merits of the piece. The rdle of Alexander was one of Betterton's most popular assumptions, and when he resigned the part, the play lost its hold on the playgoers* iavour. Colley Cibber produced a coarse parody called 'The Rival Queans, with the Humours of Alexander the Great, a Comical Tragedy,' one act of which appears to have been first acted at the Hay- market on 29 June 1710. It was first pub- lished, 'As it was acted at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane ' in 1729, at Dublin, where new editions of Lee's original play were issued in 1731 and 1760. A manuscript note in the British Museum copy suggests that the parody was often acted in Dublin with Theophilus Gibber in the chief character. But, despite ridicule, Lee's tragedy remained a stock fiece at the chief London theatres for nearly 60 years. Genest notes twenty-one revivals. Among the most interesting were two representations at Covent Garden Theatre (1 June 1808 and 17 Nov. 1822), in which Charles Kemble and Betty respectively played Alexander. Mrs. Powell appeared many times as Roxana. A revised version by J. P. Kemble was published in 1815. Gn 23 June 1823 Edmund Kean appeared as Alexander at Covent Garden, with Mrs. Glover as Roxana. 'Theodoeius' was hardly shorter-lived than 'Alexander.' Editions appeared in 1752, 1779, and 1782, and an altered version, called 'The Force of Love.' was published in Dublin in 1786. Kemble appeared as Varanes at Drury Lane, 20 Jan. 1797, with Mrs. Powell as Pulcheria. 'Mithridates' kept the stage for sixty years. In 1797 Kemble arranged a revival and carefully revised the piece, assigning the part of Ziphares to himself and that of Semandra to Mrs. Siddons. But Sheridan judged the experiment ridiculous, and the rehearsals were stopped, whereupon Kemble published his revised edition, and it was reissued in 1802. Kemble also put 'Œdipus' into rehearsal about the same time, but Mrs. Siddons's objections to the part of Jocasta led to an abandonment of the performance. Sir Walter Scott notes a revival of 'Œdipus' about 1778, when the audience, revolted by the plot, left the theatre after the third act. The 'Massacre of Paris' was revived, after an interval of thirty years, at Covent Garden in 1745, on account of its protestant bias and its applicability to the Jacobite rebellion. It was acted for three nights (31 Oct., 1-2 Nov.)
Lee was a student of the Elizabethans. In 'Mithridates' he claimed to have 'mixed Shakespeare with Fletcher' (ded.) In his dedication of 'Cæsar Borgia' to the seventh Earl of Pembroke, he reminded his patron of his ambition to stand towards him in the same relations as Ben Jonson stood to the third earl. He consoled himself for his disappointment at the suppression of his 'Brutus' by the reflection that Jonson's 'Catiline,' and even Shakespeare's 'Julius Caesar,' had been subjected to somewhat similar insults. Throughout his tragedies Lee borrows phrases and turns of thought from Shakespeare. But it is in their barbaric extravagances rather than their rich vein of poetry t nat Lee resembles Shakespeare's contemporaries, and hardly any Elizabethan was quite so bombastic in expression and incident as Lee proved himself in his 'Cæsar Borgia.' 'It has often been observed against me,' he wrote in the dedication of his 'Theodosius,' 'that I abound in ungoverned fancy.' Yet sparks of genius glimmer about the meaningless and indecent rhapsodies which characterise most of his plays. Rochester, in his 'Session of the Poets,'
Confess'd that he had a musical note.
But sometimes strained so hard that it rattled in the throat.
Colley Cibber describes Lee's 'furious fustian' and turgid rant,' but admits that his verse displays 'a few great beauties,' although even these have 'extravagant blemishes.' Steele, 'writing in the 'Spectator' (No. 438, on 'Anger,' 23 July 1712), quotes from the 'Rival Queens' a passionate speech of Alexander (act iii. 8C. 1) to illustrate ' passion in its purity, without mixture of reason . . . drawn by a mad poet.' Addison's criticism is charitable and just. Lee's thoughts.' he writes in the 'Spectator.' No. 39, are . . . frequently lost in such a cloud of words that it is hard to see the beauty of them. There is an infinite fire in his works, but so involved in smoke that it does not appear in half its lustre. He frequently succeeds in the passionate part of the tragedy, but more particularly when he slackens his efforts and eases the style of those epithets and metaphors in which he so much abounds.' 'Dedicating Lee' is the title given the dramatist in the 'Satyr on the Poets' (State Poems, 1698, pt. iii. p. 57). John Dennis calls him 'fiery Lee' in his prologue to Gildon's 'Patriot.' Steele, in his prologue to Mrs. Manley's 'Lucius.' 1717, writes of him approvingly, and states that his success as a dramatist was due to his sedulous endeavour to adapt his pieces to the taste of every class of his audience.
A portrait of Lee appears in the 'Monthly Mirror.' 1812, xiii. 76. It is there described 'as the first that has been published.' and the painting from which it was engraved as 'the only portrait that now exists, or that probably was ever taken.'
[Genest's Account of the Stage ; Theophilus Cibber's Lives of the Poets ; Langbaine's Lives with Oldys's notes; Colley Cibber's Apology, ed. Lowe; Nichols's Miscellany Poems: Bakers Biog. Dram. ; Ward's English Dramatic Literature ; Biog. Brit.; Tom Brown's Works; Dryden's Works, ed. Scott; Beljame's Le Public et les Hommes de Lettres, 1660-1744, Paris, 1881; Retrospective Review, iii. 240-68. The registers of Hatfield and of St. Martin's Orgar have been searched in vain for the date of Lee's birth.]