Charlotte Melmoth as Roxana in Lee's "The Rival Queens" (Drury Lane Theatre, February 1777)
Lee's reputation was made in 1677 with a blank verse tragedy, The Rival Queens, or the Death of Alexander the Great. The play, which deals with the jealousy of Alexander's first wife, Roxana, for his second wife, Statira, was a favourite on the English stage right up to the days of Edmund Kean. Lee followed this with Mithridates, King of Pontus (acted 1678); Theodosius, or the Force of Love (acted 1680); and Caesar Borgia (acted 1680), an imitation of the worst blood and thunder Elizabethan tragedies. Lee was also named as a collaborator with Dryden in an adaptation of Oedipus (1679). The Princess of Cleve (1681) is an adaptation of Madame de La Fayette's 1678 novel of the same name. The Massacre of Paris was written about this time but not published until 1690.
Lucius Junius Brutus, Father of His Country (acted 1681) gave offence at court. The play was suppressed after its third representation for some lines on Tarquin's character that were taken to be a reflection on King Charles II. He therefore joined Dryden in The Duke of Guise (1683), a play which directly advocated the Tory point of view. In it part of the Massacre of Paris was incorporated. Lee was now thirty, and had already achieved a considerable reputation. Constantine the Great (acted 1684) followed.
He had lived in the dissipated society of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester and his associates, and imitated their excesses. As he grew more disreputable, his patrons neglected him, and by 1684 his mind was allegedly completely unhinged. He spent five years in the notorious Bedlam Hospital. He lamented his situation with the following missive: "They called me mad, and I called them mad, and damn them, they outvoted me". He recovered and was released.