Nathaniel Lee


Stroup & Cooke

The Works of Nathaniel Lee, ed. Thomas B. Stroup and Arthur L. Cooke, 2 vols (New Brunswick, N.J., 1854-5)


Lost Papers

Nat Lee — the extravagant, brain-sick tragic dramatist whom Allardyce Nicoll regarded as, next to Dryden, possibly ‘the most influential man of his age’ — has left not a single known example of his handwriting, let alone any literary papers. The sole evidence of such materials is the testimony of William Oldys (1696-1761), in the prolific notes on Lee he wrote in his exemplum of Gerard Langbaine, An Account of the English Dramatick Poets (Oxford, 1691), now in the British Library (C.28.g.1, pp. 320-7) [a clear transcript of them written by Edmond Malone (1741-1812) is in his exemplum of Langbaine in the Bodleian (Malone 131)]:

There is or was lately a brother of Nat Lee's somewhere in or near the Isle of Axholm in Lincolnshire, who has a trunk full of his writings, as I have been informed by Old Mr Sam Westley, the late parson of Epworth in that isle.

In a letter to Edward Harley, dated 23 February 1730/1, Oldys mentions having heard about these remains a year earlier (see HMC, Portland VI (1901), Appendix, p. 37; cited in J.M. Armistead, Nathaniel Lee (Boston, 1979), pp. 25, 186). One wonders whether these writings might have included the play of 25 acts which, according to the less-than-reliable testimony of the satirist Tom Brown (in Letters from the Dead to the Living, Part II (London, 1703), pp. 130-1), the mad Nat Lee wrote during his sojourn in Bedlam (i.e. between November 1684 and 11 April 1688). Lee's brother, the Rev. John Lee, Rector of Bigby and Cadney in Lincolnshire, died in 1730, bequeathing his estate to his wife Sarah, who, as Armistead has conjectured (op. cit., p. 25), might conceivably have passed on such remains to their ‘married daughter Ann Langdon, or over to some of her cousins, perhaps to Ann Lee Pitman Holmes’. Needless to say, there has never been any subsequent sighting of Lee's trunk — which would be a fascinating literary cornucopia if it ever came to light.

Nor are there any contemporary manuscripts of any works by Lee that can claim authority. One only of his few occasional poems had limited circulation in the poems on affairs of state of the period (LeN 1-6).

The Rival Queens

Although Lee's most respected play today is his pro-republican Lucius Junius Brutus (1680), by far the most popular, most influential and most enduring of his plays on the stage was his The Rival Queens: or The Death of Alexander the Great (1676), which was more commonly known by the title Alexander the Great or simply Alexander. Although subject to later adaptations — notably in the 1750s by the Irish lawyer and playwright Macnamara Morgan (c.1720-62) — this play held the stage, and was performed by most of the leading British actors and actresses, for nearly two centuries; its last recorded performances in the London area occurring in 1843, in the provinces in 1860 and, last of all, in New York in 1863. Its stage transmogrifications included at least one ‘operatic’ version (LeN 12), and it inspired a host of burlesque versions, as well as influencing many other operas and plays (including All for Love and even The Beggars' Opera). For a comprehensive account of its stage history and influences, see Peter Beal, The Fortunes of Alexander: A Stage History of Nat Lee's ‘The Rival Queens: or, The Death of Alexander the Great’ (unpub. Ph.D. diss., 4 vols, University of Leeds, 1973). In addition to the innumerable printed texts, theatrical records, playbills, illustrations, and related prologues and epilogues discussed (and sometimes reproduced) there, the manuscript sources include several eighteenth- and nineteenth-century promptbooks. These (chiefly recorded in Beal, op. cit., IV, Appendix D, p. xxxvi, and Fiii, p. xlvii, and III, 948-9, 993-7, 1033-5, 1056-71; IV, 1130-7, 1256-63, 1268-74) are in:

Birmingham Central Library, Cat. No. 660473, Iron Room 501, Box 1, Prompt No. 25 [by Wood St. Benson, Birmingham, 1844, together with a set of manuscript music parts for ‘the March & Chorus’].

Boston Public Library (K. 47. 5 No. 6) [signed in 1824 by John G. Gilbert of Boston].

Clark Library, Los Angeles. [Possibly for a school production, after 1684].

Folger (Prompt A9 [by J.P. Kemble]). (T. a. 10) [J.P. Kemble's autograph part of Alexander, 1795].

Garrick Club [by J.P. Kemble].

Harvard Theatre Collection (i) (TS 2478.74, no. 4) [by James (?) Stokes and William Powell for J.P. Kemble, probably 1795]. (ii) (TS 2587.600 [by the Nottingham Company of James Robertson and T.H. Wilson Manly, 1807]; (iii) (TS 2587.605) [unidentified]). (iv) (TS 2587.610) [‘E. R. Davenport’, Boston].

Huntington (i) (RB 227383) [by Henry Betty, c.1838-42]. (ii) (RB 479142) [Francis Mundy's, 1795].

Library of Congress (PT 2452.R 5Z33) [Boston, unidentified].

University of Michigan [by J.P. Kemble and others].

New York Public Library, Library & Museum of the Performing Arts (i) (Acc. 34190) [‘J. Burrows Wright’, Boston, 1838].(ii) (Acc. 162636) [‘James Stark’, New York, 1847].

In addition, three of the burlesques on Alexander discussed in Beal's dissertation survive in the Lord Chamberlain's licensed manuscript copies, namely:

Ralph Schomberg, The Death of Bucephalus (1765), revived as The Rival Favourties; or, The Death of Bucephalus the Great, 1769. Huntington (Larpent MS 203). Beal, II, 702-22.

An anonymous adaptation of Colley Cibber's The Rival Queans, renamed Alexander the Little, 1791. Huntington (Larpent MS 901). Beal, III, 876-82)

An anonymous burletta, The Rival Queans, or Little Alexander the Great!, 1843. British Library (Add. MS 42967, ff. 459r-508r). Beal, IV, 1235-48).

A prologue and epilogue (possibly written earlier by the Earl of Roscommon) for a performance of Lee's Alexander on ‘the 14th of October 1685’ at the Smock Alley Theatre, Dublin, are preserved at Harvard (fMS Eng 674, pp. 5-8: Beal, II, 422), and are edited in Danchin, Prologues & Epilogues, IV, 593-6 (and see III, 47-8).

A roughly sketched ‘Symphony for Alexander ye Great’ by Daniel Purcell occurs in a manuscript music book of John Channing, c.1697, in the British Library (Add. MS 35043, f. 36). Beal, I, 314.

Other Plays

An anonymous prologue to Lee's second most enduring tragedy, Theodosius, ‘as it was Acted in a private family’ in 1687, is preserved in two texts among papers of Anthony Hammond, M.P., in the Bodleian (MSS Rawl. D. 360, f. 72r, and Rawl. poet. 129, ff. 6v-7r), and is edited in Danchin, IV, 630-2. There are also a few eighteenth-century promptbooks of Theodosius: see Edward A Langhans, Eighteenth-Century British and Irish Promptbooks: A Descriptive Bibliography (New York, Westport, Conn., & London, 1987), pp. 111-12.

An early-eighteenth-century promptbook of Oedipus (the tragedy by Lee and Dryden) — a marked-up exemplum of the second edition (London, 1682) from the collection of promptbooks given by J.O. Halliwell-Phillipps to the Morrab Library, Penzance — was sold at Sotheby's, 27 May 1964, in lot 699, to Rota and is now at the University of Texas at Austin (Prompt Books Box 1, No. 90) (a microfilm is in Edinburgh University Library, Mic. P. 305). This is discussed, with facsimile examples, in Leo Hughes and A.H. Scouten, ‘Dryden with Variations: Three Prompt Books’, Theatre Research International, 11/2 (Summer 1986), 91-105, and in Edward A Langhans, Eighteenth-Century British and Irish Promptbooks: A Descriptive Bibliography (New York, Westport, Conn., & London, 1987), pp. 46-8.

A Prologue to Oedipus ‘by a Person of Honour’ [i.e. Lord Roscommon] (‘I come to tell you, Gentlemen, you may’) is at Harvard (fMS Eng 647, pp. 10-12). The prologue is edited in Danchin, III, 139-41.

Music by Henry Purcell, was written for a revival of Oedipus in 1692, and is published in Alan Gray (ed.), The Works of Henry Purcell, XX (London, 1917), 1-18. Scores, including the masque in Act III, scene i, lines 300-44 (‘Hear, ye sullen Pow'rs below’) [Stroup & Cooke, I, 369-449 (p. 412)], are in: Bodleian (MSS Mus. C. 27, ff. 37r-44v [collated in the California edition of Dryden's works]); Tenbury 338, No. 4); British Council (op. 45); British Library (Add. MSS 31447, ff. 2v-4v; 31452, ff. 40r-6r; 31455; 62671, ff. 42r-51v; R.M. 24.e.13 (4)); Christ Church, Oxford (Mus. MS 32); Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (Mus. MS 119); Folger (MSS W.b.533, pp. 1-15 second series; W.b.535, pp. 22-41; W.b.540, pp. 1-24 third series); New York Public Library, Music Division (Drexel MS 4285.6); Oriel College, Oxford (U a 34); Royal Academy of Music (N. Pr. [5]); and Royal College of Music (MS 993).

The Canon

The canon of Lee's known works has been established in Stroup & Cooke (and see also A.L. McLeod, ‘A Nathaniel Lee Bibliography, 1670-1960’, Restoration & Eighteenth-Century Theatre Research, 1 (1962), 27-39). Included below is also a song attributed to ‘Mr Lee’ in a manuscript source (LeN 0.5), which might conceivably be by or associated with him.


Although no personal papers of Lee himself appear to survive, the will of his presumed father, Richard Lee, Rector of Hatfield, dated January 1684/5, is now in the Hertfordshire Record Office (81 HW 41). It is discussed in J.M. Armistead, ‘Nathaniel Lee and Family: The Will of Richard Lee, D.D.’, N&Q, 222 (April 1977), 130-1. Of incidental interest, a publisher's assignment of the later copyright in Lee's plays, dated 1768, is in the British Library (Add. MS 38730, f. 45r).

Notes on Lee by the Rev. Joseph Hunter (1783-1861) in his Chorus Vatum Anglicanorum (Volume IV) are in the British Library (Add. MS 24490, f. 224v). A set of Lee's Dramatic Works (3 vols, London, 1734) annotated by George Thorn-Drury, KC (1860-1931), literary scholar and editor, is in the Bodleian (Thorn-Drury f. 5-7).

Peter Beal