1902 Encyclopedia > Cumberland

Richard Cumberland
English dramatist
(1732-1811)




RICHARD CUMBERLAND (1732-1811), a dramatic and miscellaneous writer, was born in the Master's Lodge of Trinity College, Cambridge, on the 19th of February

1732. He was the great-grandson of his namesake, the I bishop of Peterborough; and his father, Dr Denison Cumberland, became successively bishop of Clonfert and of Kilmore. His mother was Joanna, the youngest daughter of the great Bentley, and the heroine of John Byrom's once popular little eclogue, Colin and Phoebe. Of the great Master of Trinity his grandson has left a kindly account; he afterwards collected all the pamphlets bearing on the Letters of Phalaris controversy, and piously defended the reputation of his ancestor in a Letter to Bishop Lowth, who had called him " aut caprimulgus aut fossor." Cumberland was in his seventh year sent to the grammar-school at Bury St Edmunds , and he relates how, on the head-master Arthur Kinsman undertaking, in conversation with Bentley, to make the grandson as good a scholar as the grandfather himself, the latter retorted: " Pshaw, Arthur, how can that be, when I have forgot more than thou ever knewest! " Bentley died during his grandson's Bury school-days; and in 1744 the boy, who, while rising to the head of his school, had already begun to " try his strength in several slight attempts towards the drama," was removed to Westminster, then at the height of its reputation under Dr Nicholls. Among his schoolfellows here were Warren Hastings, George Colman (the elder), Lloyd, and (though he does not mention them as such) Churchill and Cowper. From Westminster Cumberland passed, in his fourteenth year, to the familiar Trinity, where at first he was, according to custom, left to study on his own account. Afterwards, however, under the advice of the master, Dr Smith, he applied himself closely to mathematics, and in 1750 he took his degree as tenth wrangler. His account of his degree examination, as well as that for a fellowship at his college (part of which he underwent in the " judges' chamber," where he was born), is curious ; he was (by virtue of an alteration in the statutes) elected to his fellowship in the second year of his degree.
Meanwhile his projects of work as a classical scholar had been interspersed with attempts at imitating Spenser— whom, by his mother's advice, he " laid upon the shelf "— and a dramatic effort (unprinted) on the model of Mason's Elfrida, called Caractacus. He had hardly abandoned these pursuits in order to read for his fellowship, when he was offered the post of private secretary by the earl of Halifax, First Lord of Trade and Plantations in the duke of New-castle's ministry. His family persuaded him to accept the office, to which he returned after his election as fellow. It left him abundant leisure for literary pursuits, which included the design of a poem in blank verse on India. He was fortunate enough to obtain a lay fellowship at Trinity, but this he not long afterwards resigned on his marriage—in 1759—to Miss Elizabeth Bidge, to whom he had paid his addresses on receiving through Lord Halifax " a small establishment as crown-agent for Nova Scotia." In 1761 he accompanied his patron (who had been appointed lord-lieutenant) to Ireland as Ulster secretary; and in acknowledgment of his services was afterwards offered a baronetcy. By declining this he thinks he gave offence ; at all events, when in 1762 Halifax became secretary of state, Cumberland in vain applied for the post of under-secretary, and could only obtain the clerkship of reports at the Board of Trade under Lord Hillsborough. While he takes some credit to himself for his incorruptibility when in Ireland, he showed zeal for his friends, and obtained a bishopric for his father. On the accession to office of Lord George Germaine (Sackville) in 1775, Cumberland was appointed secretary to the Board of Trade and Plantations, which post he held till the abolition of that board in 1782 by Burke's economical reform. Before this event he had, in 1780, been sent on a confi-dential mission to Spain, to negotiate a separate treaty of
peace with that power ; but though he was well received by King Charles III. and his minister Floridablanca, the question of Gibraltar proved a stumbling-block, and the Gordon riots at home a most untoward occurrence. He was recalled in 1781, and was refused repayment of the expenses he had incurred, and for which only ¿£1000 had been advanced to him. He thus found himself £4500 out of pocket : in vain, he says, " I wearied the door of Lord North till his very servants drove me from it;" his memorial remained unread or unnoticed either by the prime minister or by secretary Robinson,through whom the original promise had been made. Soon after this experience he lost his office, and had to retire on a compensation allowance of less than half-pay. He now took up his residence at Tunbridge Wells ; but during his last years he mostly lived in London, where he died May 7, 1811.
Cumberland's literary productions are spread over the whole of his long life ; they are very numerous, but it is only by his contributions to the drama, and perhaps by his Memoirs, that he is likely to be remembered. In the latter, however, he dwells with more or less of paternal fondness on a great number of other productions. Among these should in the first instance be mentioned the collection of essays and other pieces entitled The Observer (2 vols., 1785 ; afterwards republished in 5 vols., and in 6, including a translation of The Clouds of Aristophanes). This collection found a place, as the author complacently points out, among The British Essayists. For the accounts given in The Observer of the Greek writers, especially the comic poets, Cumberland availed himself of Bentley's MSS. and annotated books in his possession; his translations from the Greek fragments, which are not inelegant but lack closeness, are republished in Bailey's Comicorum Graicorum (part i., 1840) and Hermesianactis, Archilochi, et Pratince Fragmenta. Cumberland also produced Anecdotes of Eminent Painters in Spain (2 vols., 1782) ; with a Cata-logue of the King of Spain's Paintings (1787) ; two novels, Arundel (2 vols., 1789,-—a story in letters " hastily put together during a few idle weeks at Brighthelmstone ") and Henry (4 vols., 1795,-—a " diluted comedy " on the con-struction and polishing of which he seems to have expended great care) ; and a religious epic, Calvary, or the Death of Christ, in 8 books (1792) ; and (as his last publication) a poem entitled Retrospection. He is also said to have been concerned in an epic, the Exodiad (with Sir James Bland Burges) and in John de Lancaster, a novel in 3 vols. Besides these he wrote the Letter to the Bishop of 0\xfor\d in vindication of Bentley; another to the Bishop of Llandaff on his proposal for equalizing the revenues of the Established Church (1783); a Character of Lord Sackville, whom in his Memoirs he vindicates from the stigma of cowardice; and an anonymous pamphlet, Ctirtius rescued from the Gulf, against the redoubtable Dr Parr. He was also the author of a version of fifty of the Psalms of David ; of a tract on the evidences of Christianity; and of other religious exercises in prose and verse, the former in-cluding " as mAny sermons as would make a large volume, some of which have been delivered from the pulpits.' Lastly, he edited a short-lived critical journal called The London Review, conducted on a principle to which Cum-berland doubtless attached high importance,-—that the articles should bear the names of the contributors.
Cumberland's Memoirs, which he begun at the close of 1804 and concluded in September 1805, were published in 1806, and a supplement was afterwards added. This sufficiently ample narrative of his public and private life (which includes a long account of his Spanish mission) contains some interesting reminiscences of several persons of note,—more especially Bubb Dodington, Single-Speech Hamilton, and Lord George Sackville among politicians,


and of Garrick, Foote, and Goldsmith.; but the accuracy of some of the anecdotes concerning the last-named is not beyond suspicion. In general the book exhibits its author as an amiable egotist, careful—though not arrogantly so— of his own reputation, given to prolixity, and little remarkable for wit, but a good observer of men and manners. The uneasy self-absorption which Sheridan immortalized in the character of Sir Fretful Plagiary in The Critic is apparent enough in this autobiography, but presents itself there in no offensive form. The comparative estimates of the author's own works and the development of their designs are harmless if uninteresting; the long quotations from unpublished or forgotten productions almost ask to be skipped; on the other hand the incidental criticisms of actors have been justly praised, for Cumberland was possessed of theatrical instinct, though not of dramatic genius. Lastly, his morality and piety are here at least free from affectation in their expression, though not less effusive than in his comedies themselves.
Cumberland was hardly warranted in the conjecture that no English author had yet equalled his list of dramas in point of number; but as the plays, published and unpublished, which he produced have been computed to amount to a number exceeding by four that of the sons of Priam, he must be allowed to have been fairly prolific as a dramatist. About 35 of these are regular plays, to which have to be added 4 operas and a farce ; and about half of the whole list are comedies. Among these again the best-known, upon which the literary reputation of their author virtually rests, belong to what he was pleased to term " legitimate comedy," and to that species of it known as " sentimental." The two terms are in point of fact mutually contradictory ; but this was precisely the proposition Cumberland was at so much pains to disprove, though his most successful works remain among the most striking illustrations of its truth. He asserted, with some show of reason, that in his senti-mental comedy he was following in the footsteps of the new comedy of the Greeks ; he was less willing to confess that he was in truth an imitator of native models ; for he was by no means the creator in our dramatic literature of the species he so assiduously cultivated. The essential characteristic of these plays is the combination of plots of domestic interest with the rhetorical enforcement of moral precepts, and with such comic humour (and it is usually but little) as the author possesses. These comedies are primarily, to borrow Cumberland's own phraseology, designed as " attempts upon the heart;" and British hearts are "hearts that feel." He takes great credit to himself for weaving his plays out of " homely stuff, right British drugget," and for eschewing " the vile refuse of the Gallic stage; " on the other hand, he borrowed (often perhaps unconsciously) from the sentimental literature of his own country, including Bichardson, Fielding, and Sterne. The favourite theme of his plays is virtue in distress or danger, but safe of its reward in the fifth act; their most constant characters are men of feeling and young ladies who (to quote a retort of Goldsmith upon the sentimental dramatists) are either prudes or coquettes. Cumberland's comic power—such as it was—lay in the invention of comic characters taken from the " outskirts of the empire," and professedly intended to vindicate from English prejudice the good elements in the Scotch, the Irish, and the colonial character. For the rest, patriotic sentiment (such as became one who in his old age was a major of volunteers) liberally asserts itself by the side of general morality. If Cumber-land's dialogue never approaches the brilliancy of Sheridan's, and if his characters have about them that air of unreality which in his Retaliation Goldsmith satirized with so ex-quisite a grace, the construction of the plots is as a rule skilful, and the situations are contrived with what
Cumberland indisputably possessed—a thorough insight into the secrets of theatrical effect. In this respect at all events he was the " Terence of England," that there is hardly one of his principal plays in which the audience is not allowed to enjoy that most thrilling of theatrical emotions which is produced by a meeting between parent and child after long years of separation or ignorance of one another's existence. It should be added that, though Cumberland's sentimentality is often wearisome, his morality is generally sound ; that if he was without the genius requisite for elevating the national drama, he did his best to keep it pure and sweet; and that if he borrowed much, as he undoubtedly did, it was not the vicious attractions of other dramatists of which he was the plagiary.
After making his debut as a dramatic author with a tragedy, The Banishment of Cicero (of which the plot, though inspired by Middleton, rather strikingly deviates from history), published in 1761 after its rejection by Garrick; and producing in 1765 a musical drama, The Summer's Tale, which was performed for a few nights and afterwards compressed into an afterpiece, Amelia (1768), Cumberland first essayed sentimental comedy in The Brothers (1769). This comedy has more vigour than some of its author's later works ; its theme is inspired by Tom Jones; its comic characters are the jolly old tar Captain Ironsides, and the henpecked husband Sir Benjamin Dove, whose progress to self-assertion is perhaps as genuinely comic a notion as Cumberland ever executed, though, as he confesses, not altogether an original one. The epilogue paid a compliment to Garrick, who accordingly interested himself in the production of Cumberland's second and by far most successful comedy, The West-Indian (1771). The hero of this comedy is a young scapegrace fresh from the tropics, " with rum and sugar enough belonging to him to make all the water in the Thames into punch,"—a libertine with generous instincts, which in the end prevail. The chief comic character is Major O'Flaherty, an honest Irish adventurer, in whom Cumberland took no little pride, but who is in truth neither particularly Irish nor particularly humorous. This comedy was received with the utmost favour; it was afterwards translated into German by Boden, and Goethe acted in it at the Weimar court. The next play of some importance was The Fashionable Lover (1772), a sentimental comedy of the most pronounced type, with an ill-used heroine and a man of feeling exhibiting the very prurience of sentimentality ; " who dreams," he exclaims, " that I am the lewd fool of pity, and thou my pandar, Jarvis, my provider 1 " The comic characters are an honest Scotch steward, whose Scotch is if anything more doubtful than O'Flaherty's Irish, and an antiquarian Welsh tutor Doctor Druid, less creditable to the "outskirt of the empire " represented by him. The Choleric Man (1775), founded on the Adelphi of Terence, but not, as the author in his long " dedication " protests, on Shadwell's Squire of Alsatia, is of a similar type, the comic element rather pre-dominating, but philanthropy being duly represented by a virtuous lawyer called Manlove. Among subsequent comedies may be mentioned The Naturcd Son (1785), in which Major O'Flaherty, now divested of all humour, makes his reappearance; The Impostors (1789), a comedy of intrigue noteworthy for the absence of sentiment, but marred in one of the scenes by an indelicacy of feeling which is unlike Cumberland,—the heroine, " a pleasant child of nature," must have admirably suited Mrs Jordan ; The Box Lobby Chcdlenge (1794), a mere protracted farce, where there is likewise no sentiment, except in Lindamira's novel; The Jew (1794), an essentially serious play creditable to Cumberland's good feeling, and highly effective when the character of Sheva is played as it was by the great German actor Doring ; The Wheel of For

tune (1795), which has a vague resemblance to Kotzebue's Stranger (not produced on the English stage till 1798), and in which the character of the misanthropist Penruddock, who cannot forget but learns to forgive, was a celebrated part of John Kemble, while the lawyer Timothy Weasel was made comic by Suett; First Love (1795) ; The Last of the Family (1795); False Impressions (1797), in which, as the hero instead of the heroine is the injured innocent, the sentimentality is less formidable,—the diction of the apothecary Scud will startle readers of Dickens by its striking resemblance to that of Mr Alfred Jingle ; The Sailor's Daughter (1804); and a Hint to Husbands (1806), which, unlike the rest, is in blank verse. These appear to be all the comedies by Cumberland printed in his lifetime, during which were also published his farce of The Note of Hand (1774) ; the songs of his musical comedy, The Widow of Delphi (1780) ; his tragedies of The Battle of Hastings (1778) ; and The Carmelite (1784), a romantic domestic drama in blank verse, in the style of Home's Douglas, furnishing some effective scenes for Mrs Siddons and John Kemble as mother and son, but ill-constructed, inasmuch as the hero reveals himself several times in succession ; the domestic drama (in prose) of The Mysterious Husband (1783), in which the chief character, the bigamist Lord Davenant, is, for so incredible a scoundrel, prematurely remorseful, and is ultimately got rid of by suicide, but the intricate plot is cleverly contrived; and some minor pieces.
His posthumously printed plays include the comedies of The Walloons (acted 1782—Henderson, who afterwards performed Lord Davenant, achieving a great success as the villainous father Sullivan); The Passive Husband (acted as A Word for Nature, 1798) ; The Eccentric Lover (acted 1798) ; and Lovers' Resolutions (once acted in 1802); the serious quasi-historic drama Confession ; the drama Don Pedro (acted 1796) ; and the tragedies of Alcanor (acted as The Arab, 1785); Torrendal ; The Sibyl, or The Elder Brutus (afterwards amalgamated with other plays on the subject into a very successful tragedy for Edmund Kean by Payne) ; Tiberius in Caprece ; and The False Demetrius, the last on a theme already treated by an earlier English dramatist, and destined to be the last which occupied the genius of Schiller. Beside these and other dramatic pro-ductions of more or less originality, Cumberland, as already stated, translated the Clouds of Aristophanes (1797), and altered for the stage Shakespeare's Timon of Athens (1771), " engrafting on the original the part of Evanthe lor the purpose of writing up the character of Alcibiades," and in-serting other " new matter," of which he has preserved a specimen in his Memoirs, as well as Massinger's The Bond-man and The Duke of Milan (both 1779). . (A. W. W.)








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