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