After a probably successful, but extremely short run at Dorset Garden in late 1680, Nathaniel Lee’s Lucius Junius Brutus was famously banned on December 11, after the Lord Chamberlain had charged it with «Scandalous Expressions & Reflections vpon ye Government». The effect of the prohibition was incredibly long-lived, since the play never hit the stage again, although it enjoyed a brief revival when Charles Gildon adapted it for Drury Lane in 1703 under the title of The Patriot, or the Italian Conspiracy, and moved the setting from sixth-century b.C. Rome to fifteenth-century Florence. Gildon blamed the original play to be «antimonarchical» in a moment of constitutional «Ferment of Whig and Tory». Of course, the writing of an eponymous play on the legendary hero and founder of the Roman republic, the avenger of the rape of Lucrece, and the chastiser of the vicious Tarquins, had been fundamentally daring at a time when the conflict between parliamentary factions was dangerously verging, if only in the contemporaries’ anticipation, on the much feared repetition of the events of the Civil Wars. And yet, what appears to be more intriguing than the exploration of the historical contextualization of the play is the outlining of a rhetorical architecture that shapes the conflict between Brutus’s republican ethos and the monarchical stance of Tarquin’s supporters. The former relies on the centrality of the word and its strongly performative power as it engenders a new republican social and symbolic order, whereas the latter depends on conventional and orthodox expression which also appeals, in order to be apprehended, to the visual resources Restoration theatre production largely made available. In this, Lee looks backwards to Rome’s (and England’s) constitutional struggles, but also to the paradigms of Shakespearean Roman plays, and seems to transform (or purify?) its political, viz. republican essence into an accomplished theatrical experience.
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