Characterized by highly stylized poetic dialogue, larger-than-life heroes and idealized heroines, and sensationalistic action often played out in exotic locales, heroic tragedy is a genre of English drama that flourished in the years of the Restoration. John Dryden, the dominant playwright and dramatic theorist of his time, wrote extensively in support of the heroic genre, citing its lineage in the classical theater as well as the French drama of Pierre Corneille. However, unlike other dramatic forms of the period, such as the comedy manners, heroic drama seems to have been uniquely suited to Restoration audiences and never became a mainstay of the English theatrical repertoire.
Although Dryden is generally considered the master of the genre—particularly for his Conquest of Granada (1670-71)—heroic drama was established as a popular and well-defined theatrical style by earlier authors. William Davenant, a playwright during the reign of Charles I wrote what is considered the first heroic drama, The Siege of Rhodes. Dryden, who worked with Davenant throughout much of his career, acknowledged The Siege of Rhodes as an important model for his own heroic plays. While Davenant provided the stylistic features of melodramatic rhetoric and adventure-filled storylines, Roger Boyle, Earl of Orrery, is often credited with introducing the political tone that is also associated with heroic drama. Orrery's heroic plays, from The Generall in 1661 to Tryphon in 1668, continually address the problems of loyalty, usurpation, and regicide, and ultimately assert that political order must derive from monarchical authority.
Dryden's first heroic drama, The Indian Queen (1664), was a joint effort with Robert Howard. In both The Indian Queen and its sequel, The Indian Emperor (1665), tyrannical Indian rulers contend with warring tribes on the one hand and the invasion of the Spanish on the other. In these and his next heroic play, Tyrannick Love (1669), Dryden developed the heroic drama along a slightly different course from that of Orrery. As in his other writings, Dryden's heroic plays demonstrate a unique insight into sexual and gender politics in both the public and private realm. Perhaps the most memorable of Dryden's heroic characters appear in his most significant heroic play, The Conquest of Granada, which appeared in two parts. Dryden's final heroic drama, Aureng-Zebe (1675), presages the changes in taste that signaled the decline of heroic drama during the late 1670s.
After Dryden ceased to write heroic drama, a new generation of playwrights began experimenting with the form, most prominently Nathaniel Lee and Thomas Otway. Both Lee and Otway would eventually develop a more emotionally affective and tragic style of drama—Lee with his violent plots of regicide and Otway with his passionate feelings on the stage. Lee and Otway's early efforts in the heroic manner are generally considered transitional plays hinting at these developments. Lee's first heroic drama, Sophonisba (1675), was a popular success, though his next effort, Gloriana (1676), was widely disparaged. Otway's first heroic drama, Alcibiades (1675), has the dubious distinction of being considered among the worst efforts in the genre. Nevertheless, his subsequent work, Don Carlos Prince of Spain (1676), was significantly more successful, embracing the tradition of The Conquest of Granada while also displaying a gift for restrained passion and the evocation of pity. While Otway, Lee, and Dryden were responsible for the rise of heroic drama, their talents led beyond the conventions of the genre, bringing its dominance in the English theater to an end. The move toward more emotionally introspective and less outwardly dramatic tragedies produced such masterworks as Otway's Venice Preserved (1682) and Dryden's All for Love (1678), plays that suited their audience's changing tastes.
Since its inception, heroic drama has attracted sharp criticism: nothing about the genre was subtle, and the grandiloquent dialogue and characters were obvious targets for witty deflation. Scholars have also noted the influence of French literature on heroic drama. No longer viewed as a form of escapism, the heroic drama of the early Restoration is today regarded as a significant phase in the development of the English stage and the evolution of English cultural ideology.