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Heroic Drama

Heroic drama is a term created by English poet John Dryden to describe a type of play popular during the 1660s, referring to both its subject matter and its verse form.

We will learn more about heroic dramas in this article, so make sure you keep reading!

Heroic drama: definition

It is important for us to first consider the term's definition:

The heroic drama, sometimes called heroic tragedy, is a dramatic genre that involves epic stories of grandeur with noble heroes, lavish, exotic settings, themes of courage, duty, love, war, and usually, a tragic ending.

'Heroic' does not only refer to the genre's favoured subject matter, it also refers to its form. Heroic dramas were written using heroic verse, used typically in epic poems.

Heroic verse, also known as heroic couplets, is a verse form that uses rhymed couplets in iambic pentameter (five metrical feet per line, each with an unstressed syllable, followed by a stressed syllable).

In adopting this verse form, writers attempted to emulate the great scale of epic poems, lending heroic dramas an impressive sense of gravity, importance and extravagance by association.

Heroic drama: characteristics

The term 'heroic drama' was coined by John Dryden in 1670 to describe his play from that year, titled The Conquest of Granada.

In its preface, Dryden notes that the heroic drama serves as an adaptation of epic poetry designed for the stage and, importantly, created a set of rules to classify works of the genre.

Epic poems were long, narrative poems that followed extraordinary characters on lengthy journeys characterised by exceptional deeds and circumstances, usually involving divine or supernatural forces. Important examples include Homer's the Odyssey and the Illiad (c. 8th century BCE).

These rules enshrine its key characteristics, which include:

  • Heroic couplets. Heroic dramas should be composed using the heroic verse form (couplets in iambic pentameter).

  • Epic stories. Subject matter should concern grand, important matters, focusing on themes of valour, romance and glory.

  • A noble hero. The protagonist should be honourable, powerful and decisive, usually a decorated warrior with the fate of an empire in his hands. Often, these characters possess superhuman abilities or qualities. Heroic dramas tended to show this hero as he is faced with an impassioned conflict between romantic love and the demands of patriotic duty.

Dryden, when classifying the genre, took much inspiration from early 17th-century French classical dramatists like Pierre Corneille and Jean-Baptiste Racine.

French classical tragedy was a dramatic genre that attempted to re-popularise the classic Greek dramatic forms, particularly as informed by Aristotle's theories and models about tragedy.

Heroic dramas were an English attempt to similarly bring back classical tragedies, striving to recreate such grand stories as were seen in antiquity.

Heroic drama in English literature

The heroic drama became popular during the Restoration period when monarchical rule was re-instated in Britain.

The Restoration period (1660-85) occurred in 1660 when Charles II ascended the throne after 20 years of Republican rule under Oliver Cromwell.

During this time, a period in English literary history called Restoration literature emerged, in which most literary works were produced in celebration or as a reaction to Charles II's court and the re-introduction of the monarchy.

Heroic drama saw its largest period of popularity during the years between 1664 and 1678, as is contended by historians, emerging as an immediate response to the country's previous political turmoil.

During Cromwell's Puritan reign, public theatre was banned, so with the return of the monarchy came the return of dramatic performance. Audiences during this time sought uplifting moral messages after years of divisive civil wars, finding comfort in powerful heroes with stories that enshrined strong, exalted ideals. Nobility, honour and courage had long been associated with royalty, helping to rouse support through public celebration of the newly restored King.

Heroic drama: examples

Now, let's consider some important examples of heroic dramas.

Dryden's heroic dramas

John Dryden was a dominant literary figure during the Restoration, writing celebrated pieces of drama, poetry and prose. His influence cannot be understated, marking his works as some of the most significant in English literature.

Of course, he was the pioneer of the heroic drama, with plays like The Indian Emperour (1665) and The Conquest of Granada (1672) serving to define and establish the genre.

The Indian Emperour

John Dryden's The Indian Emperour was a notable work for the genre, cementing the heroic drama on the Restoration stage, even before the term was coined.

It was first performed during the Spring of 1665 with lavish costumes, set pieces and a star cast with leading actors of the period.

Its full title was The Indian Emperour, or the Conquest of Mexico by the Spaniards, being the Sequel of The Indian Queen. As this might suggest, the story follows the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire during the early 16th century.

Primary characters included the conquistador Hérnan Cortés, who led the expedition, and Montezuma, the Emperor of the Aztec Empire.

The Conquest of Granada

Dryden's 1672 play, titled The Conquest of Granada, was originally performed in two parts, the first in 1670 and the second in 1671. It was then published in 1672.

In the preface to the play, Dryden coins the term 'heroic drama', proposing his theories and rules for his new genre.

The Conquest of Granada concerns the Battle of Granada, and its subsequent fall, ending the almost decade-long Granada War (1482-1491) between the Moors and the Spanish. Its lead characters were the hero, Almanzor and his love, Almahide.

The play reached exceptional levels of fame and success. However, for critics, it came to reveal flaws in Dryden's neoclassical heroic genre.

Detractors noted its convoluted plot and ostentatious, bombastic language, ridiculing the superficiality and self-importance of its blundering military heroes in stories that seemed to lack moral depth and nuance.

The philosophy of the heroic drama, as laid out in the Preface to The Conquest of Granada, was even more contentious. Dryden's insistence on the need to remember 'pure drama' seemed to some pretentious and elitist, denigrating contemporary theatre as inferior and unimportant. In reaction, various writers satirised Dryden and his new genre.

In one famous example, the play The Rehearsal (1761), written by George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham, pointedly mocks Dryden's self-importance through its main character, Bayes, a hubristic playwright who laboriously lectures his actors about the importance of the play they are putting on.

The Black Prince

Another important example of a heroic drama was The Black Prince (1667), written by Roger Boyle, 1st Earl of Orrery.

The story chronicles the life of Edward, the eponymous Black Prince, the eldest son of King Edward III. It particularly focuses on the Battle of Poitiers (1356), at which the Prince leads his forces to victory, defeating and capturing the French King John II.

The play premiered at the Theatre Royal on Drury Lane, with King Charles II in attendance, as well as other members of the royal court. It was received with great esteem and was lauded by other members of the aristocracy.

Heroic Drama - Key takeaways

  • Heroic drama was a genre of play popularised in the 1660s which told stories of epic grandeur.
  • Heroic dramas were written exclusively using heroic couplets.
  • Other important characteristics of heroic dramas include: a noble hero and themes of love, honour and courage.
  • John Dryden coined the term in 1670.
  • Examples of the heroic drama include: Dryden's The Indian Emperour (1665) and Boyle's The Black Prince (1667).

Frequently Asked Questions about Heroic Drama

Heroic tragedy creates a powerful emotional response in audiences as they witness a noble hero experience heartbreaking tragedy on a grand scale.

The key features of heroic drama include the heroic verse form, epic stories and a noble hero.

Heroic tragedies involve larger than life stories and figures, operating on an epic scale. Domestic tragedies, however, follow ordinary characters from the middle or lower classes that have commonplace struggles and experiences.

The heroic drama is a dramatic genre that involved epic stories of grandeur.

John Dryden's The Indian Emperour (1665).

Final Heroic Drama Quiz

Question

What is heroic drama?

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Answer

Heroic drama is a dramatic genre concerned with epic stories and larger than life figures.

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Question

What is heroic verse?

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Answer

Rhymed couplets in iambic pentameter

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Question

Who coined the term 'heroic drama'?

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Answer

John Dryden

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Question

For which play was the term coined?

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Answer

The Conquest of Granada (1670)

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Question

During which period of English history did the heroic drama emerge?

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Answer

The Restoration (1660-85)

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Question

Which King ascended the throne in 1660?

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Answer

Charles II

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Question

Which of Dryden's plays was widely satirised by critics?

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Answer

The Conquest of Granada (1670)

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Question

Who wrote the satirical play The Rehearsal to mock Dryden?

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Answer

George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham

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Question

What is an example of a heroic play not written by Dryden?

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Answer

The Black Prince (1667) by Roger Boyle

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Question

What were some of the key themes of heroic dramas?

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Answer

Honour, courage, love, valour, power, glory and war, among others.

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