For quite a long time now, writers have been unable to stay away from Rome. I don’t necessarily mean the actual city (although it’s pretty enticing itself) but the Roman State, whether in its royal, republican, or imperial phases just seems irresistible to the human imagination. This goes beyond art. When the last shred of the Empire fell to the Ottoman Turks, Sultan Mehmed II added “Emperor of Rome” to his titles. The actual city of Rome would never be in Turkish hands and had not been part of the “Roman” Empire for ages. Obviously, the title was just too good for the Sultan to pass up. To this day, Russia uses the heraldry it took from the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire, a symbol of now only dimly remembered claims that Orthodox Christian Moscow was the third Rome. The first had fallen into (Catholic) heresy, while the second, Constantinople, had been conquered by the Muslim Turks. Few people ever saw Russia as a continuation of Ancient Rome, but the claim was clearly the ultimate geopolitical ego booster. Well over 500 years since the last true emperor died fighting in Constantinople, the influence of Rome continues to be felt in numerous ways.
I must admit, while Ancient Greece is usually seen as the richer civilization, I’ve always been an Ancient Rome junky. Something about its bravado and grandeur almost always captivates me. Be it a play, opera, novel or film, if it takes me back to Rome I’m usually up for it. However, I’m a bit less familiar with the semi-mythical foundation of the Roman Republic. The only specific work about that event I had previously read was Shakespeare’s narrative poem The Rape of Lucrece, which I’ve reviewed elsewhere on this blog. I am a devout Shakespearean, but not a blind one. When I tell people I’d have to be paid to read that poem again, they often assume I’m joking. I am not. Unlike his great play Julius Caesar and its even greater sequel Antony and Cleopatra, The Rape of Lucrece struck me as dull and interminable. Still, the story of the expulsion of the Tarquins is a powerful one. It’s too bad Shakespeare didn’t use it as the basis for a stage work. Still, while this tragedy by Restoration dramatist Nathaniel Lee doesn’t rise to Shakespearean heights, it is a startlingly fine piece.
Nathaniel Lee is largely forgotten today. Over the years, I’ve come across several mentions of him in literary reference books. He is usually considered an interesting but unfulfilled artist. If Lucius Junius Brutus is the work of an unfulfilled talent, world drama really missed out. I saw no sign of flawed structure or unrestrained emotionalism, flaws often attributed to Lee. I wonder if critics and commentators were overly influenced by his apparent struggles with mental illness. The word “frantic” frequently seems to be applied to Lee’s writing. To be sure, Lucius Junius Brutus is one of the more intense old plays I have ever read. The blood definitely runs hot all throughout, but it always feels under Lee’s control, subservient to his purposes.
Those purposes, as scholar John Loftis lucidly explains in his Regents Restoration Drama series edition, were explicitly political. Lee’s tragedy was actually banned from the London stage as a result. One might reasonably imagine that this would limit the modern appeal of Lucius Junius Brutus. On the contrary, while the sense that this story has deeper meanings pervades the play, Lee wisely makes the issues more timeless. Audiences and readers today could easily catch the themes of faith versus justice, family versus country, and love versus loyalty without knowing anything about the conflict between Whigs and Torries that preoccupied Lee and his contemporaries.
In aesthetic terms, anyone familiar with Shakespeare’s mature tragedies will recognize them as Lee’s models. Saying that he doesn’t measure up is true but rather beside the point. By following Shakespeare’s blueprint, Lee guarantees a vital drama full of vivid characters. The only real flaw is not that Lee does anything particularly wrong, but that he only does one thing. Loftis states, with total accuracy: “His characters are often at the top of their voices.” Lucius Junius Brutus often feels like a collection of Shakespeare’s heavier scenes. By “heavier” I mean the big dramatic moments in the tragedies when the plot is moved forward. Shakespeare did these superbly, and Lee is no slouch himself. What’s missing in Lee are the quirkier moments, the scenes of philosophical depth and incongruous tragicomedy. These are the moments that only a writer of the highest level would risk.
That being said, on his own terms Lee succeeds wonderfully. The lovers Titus and Teraminta are genuinely sympathetic and Titus, one of Brutus’ sons, grows into a movingly tragic figure. Another of Brutus’ sons, Tiberius, is an effectively snarling villain. The wicked Roman priests, in league with the tyrannical royal family, feel more than a little like figures of proto-gothic horror. Lee provides them with a chilling showpiece, full of sinister incantations and blood-curdling sacrifices, that could be a real knockout if done well today. (The scenes with the priests have an anti-catholic purpose, but that could be easily muted by modern performances.) While the play is mostly dead serious, there are some solid moments of comedy provided by the roguish Vinditius. It’s a shame Lee hurries through these parts. All throughout, the action is supported by Lee’s evocative and memorable verse.
It is in the finale that Lee attains his most notable achievements. The full title of the play is Lucius Junius Brutus; Father of His Country. The price Brutus pays for that subtitle is a terrible one. To his enormous credit as an artist, Lee sidesteps telling us what he thinks of the swap, although the celebratory last lines ring conspicuously hollow. Some will find the price worth it. I felt sick to my stomach. Lee raised questions that must be answered, but left finding the answers to us. That’s a big part of what makes a true tragedy.