1902 Encyclopedia > Sir John Vanbrugh

Sir John Vanbrugh
English dramatist and architect

SIR JOHN VANBRUGH (1666 -1726), dramatist and architect, was the son of a wealthy sugar-baker in Cheshire and grandson of a Protestant refugee of Ghent. Prom a passage in one of his letters to Tonson it might be supposed that he was born in the Bastille, though in what year is uncertain, probably in 1666. He was educated in France, but what he learnt there, whether architecture or merely that art of good-fellowship which he found to be the true Aladdin's lamp of social life, is a question that will be variously answered by those who, like Sir Joshua Reynolds, admire Blenheim and Castle Howard, and those who, like the wits of Vanbrugh's time, scoff at them. This, however, is certain, that after his return from the Continent to England what he did was, not to pursue architecture, but to work, with a gusto and a success that are humor-ous and exhilarating, the " Aladdin's lamp" above men-tioned. His first step towards becoming a power in society was, of course, to enter the army. Perhaps, however, had he begun life in any other way his advance would have been just as rapid. For, strong as are social conditions, character is stronger still, and Vanbrugh's equipment—wit, tempered by good humour, a genuine feeling of comrade-ship, an exceedingly fine presence (according to Noble's description), and a winsome face (according to Kneller's portrait)—would, under any circumstances, have been irresistible. One of the points of difference between the dialogue in Vanbrugh's comedies and the dialogue in the comedies of Congreve is this : we feel that the characters in the Relapse and the Confederacy talk as Vanbrugh must have talked; we feel that the characters in the Old Baclielor and the Way of the World talk, not as Congreve talked, but as Congreve wrote. We feel that, while such dazzling sword-play as Congreve's would in society have chilled, even as it illumined the air, talk so hearty, good-humoured, frank, and daring as that we get in Vanbrugh's plays would have made the fortune of any man of fashion, made it as certainly at a Roman supper party in the time of Augustus as at a London drinking-bout in the days of

Queen Anne. It is no wonder then that he was a favourite, no wonder that the two best haters of the time, Swift and Pope, tried in vain to hate the "man of wit and honour," Vanbrugh. During the martial period of his life, Van-brugh wrote the first sketches of the Relapse and the Pro-voked Wife. These he showed to Sir Thomas Skipworth, one of the shareholders of Drury Lane, and with fortunate results.
In 1695 he was offered—whether through the court interest which he had secured or whether because he really had acquired a knowledge of architecture in France is not known—the post of secretary to the commission for endowing Greenwich Hospital. He accepted the post, and by way of fulfilling his functions as an architect turned his attention to the amours of " Lord Foppington." His Relapse or Virtue in Danger, a sequel to Colley Gibber's Love's Last Shift, was produced at Drury Lane in 1697. When a comic dramatist of the school of Wycherley con-fesses that the fine gentleman of his play, " drinking his mistresses' health in Nantes brandy from six in the morn-ing to the time he waddled on upon the stage in the evening, had toasted himself up to such a pitch of vigour " that something too outrageous even for such an audience seemed imminent, we may assume that he has enjoyed a satisfactory first night. The success was so triumphant that Montague, afterwards Lord Halifax, asked at once for the Provoked Wife for the theatre in Lincoln's Inn Fields, and—Skipworth waiving, for the advantage of Vanbrugh, his own claim upon the play—it was produced at that theatre in the following year. All that could be said in answer to those who condemned it on account of its un-blushing libertinism was that Sir John Brute is sufficiently brutal to drive any woman into rebellion, and that since the glorious days of the Restoration a wife's rebellion and a wife's adultery were synonymous terms. The play was a complete triumpn.
And now, having succeeded as a man of fashion, as an architectural commissioner, and as a comic dramatist of the school of Wycherley, Vanbrugh turned his attention to morals. Though vEsop—produced at Drury Lane in the same year as the Provoked Wife—was an adaptation of Boursault's dramatic sermon on the same subject, it was an improvement on the French play. As usual with Vanbrugh, who never did things by halves, he surpassed the Frenchman on that very point where the Frenchman had been pronounced unsurpassable. Just as in the Re-lapse, when he aspired to be merry, his merriment had en-tirely surpassed that of Cibber's play, of which his own was meant to be a sequel, and just as afterwards, when in Castle Howard and Blenheim he aspired to rival in mass-iveness the " thick rotundity of the earth," he laid on her a structure only a " few tons lighter than herself," so now, when he aspired to surpass the Frenchman in gravity, he achieved a kind of dulness compared with which the owl-like dulness of Boursault was as the wit of Voltaire. In a word, the humour of the piece lies in the fact that it was written by the author of the Relapse and the Provoked Wife. The play ran during a week only. Vanbrugh, accepting the failure with his usual good-temper, seems then to have turned his attention completely to archi-tecture; for the adaptation in 1700 of the Pilgrim of Beaumont and Fletcher, and the production in 1702 of A False Friend, could hardly have engaged his serious efforts at all, so perfunctory are they and so inferior to all that he had done before.
Castle Howard in Yorkshire, which he had built for the earl of Carlisle, was a great success so far as pleasing his patron went, who as a reward gave him yet another open-ing in life by presenting him,—the most ignorant man perhaps in England of heraldry, judging from the fun he made of the appointment,—with the tabard of Clarencieux king-at-arms. But, if the dangerous moment in every man's life is when he has just scored a brilliant success, it is especially so with genial glowing natures like Vanbrugh's. It seems to have been the success of Castle Howard that caused him to entertain the rash project of building a theatre, from his own design, for the acting of his own plays. The joyous courage with which, having persuaded thirty people in the fashionable world to aid him in finding the money, and Congreve to aid him in finding the plays, he began to build in perfect unconsciousness of the danger before him is the only passage in his life which may be called pathetic, save of course his struggle with the " wicked woman of Marlborough." No doubt any archi-tect who builds a theatre is always in danger of letting his ideas run riot in the wide field of experiment, but he who builds a theatre for his own plays seems doomed by the malice aforethought of fate. The magnitude of Van-brugh's architectural ideas grew as the work went on, and with the ideas the structure grew till a theatre meant for the delicate bijouterie work of polite comedy seemed grow-ing to the proportions of the Roman Colosseum. Whether Congreve endeavoured to put a check upon his friend's architectural and authorial fervour does not appear. But it must be remembered that not only Vanbrugh's plays but his own were to be acted there, and that, although Congreve was a man of great sagacity, no man, not even he who pretended to set his gentility above his genius, is sagacious when confronted by the surpassing excellence of his own poems and plays.
When at length the time came to test the acoustics of the pile, it was found to be sadly defective. What changes were made to rectify the errors of structure does not appear. The theatre was opened to the public with an Italian opera, which was followed by three of Moliere's comedies, and these by the Confederacy, Vanbrugh's masterpiece on the whole, though perhaps its finest scenes are not equal to the finest scenes in the Relapse.
Vanbrugh at last withdrew from the disastrous speculation ; Congreve had already withdrawn. But a man to whom fortune had been so kind as she had been to Van-brugh could hardly be depressed by any of her passing frowns. Queen Anne at once sent him abroad on an important state errand, and afterwards he was commis-sioned to build Blenheim. Upon the merits and demerits of this famous "hollowed quarry" there has been much conflict of opinion. As to the sarcasms by Swift, Walpole, Evans, and the rest, they are as nothing when set against Sir Joshua Reynolds's defence of Vanbrugh and his style. For in England the general sense for architecture seems to be even rarer than the general sense for poetry and painting. The truth is that Vanbrugh imported largely into architecture what in all the plastic arts should be allowed to fructify but sparsely, namely, literary ideas, and even these literary ideas of his seem to lack that fusion which we see in the works of the great masters. Hence, impressive as are the parts, they do not form an impressive whole. Blenheim, however, was a source of great sorrow to the kindly dramatist. Though Parliament had voted for the building of it, no provision had been made for the supplies. The queen while she lived paid them, and then Vanbrugh was left to the meanness of the duke of Marlborough and afterwards to the insolence of the "wicked woman," who did her best to embitter his life. Besides Castle Howard and Blenheim, he built many other country mansions, such as Grimsthorpe and Duncombe Hall in Yorkshire, Eastbury in Dorsetshire, Seaton-Delaval in Northumberland, King's Weston near Bristol, Oulton Hall in Cheshire, &c.
About the end of 1710 Vanbrugh married Henrietta

Maria, daughter of Colonel Yarborough of Haslington, and four years afterwards, at the accession of George I., he was knighted. He afterwards wrote again for the stage, and the unfinished fragment left at his death, which took place on 26th March 1726 at his house in Scotland Yard, London, shows that his powers remained to the last as fine as ever.
In order to find and fix Vanbrugh's place among English comic dramatists, an examination of the very basis of the comedy of repartee inaugurated by Etheredge would be necessary, and, of course, such an examination would be impossible here. It is chiefly as a humorist, however, that he demands attention.
Given the humorous temperament—the temperament which impels a man to get his enjoyment by watching the harlequinade of life, and contrasting it with his own ideal standard of good sense, which the harlequinade seems to him to mock and challenge —given this temperament, then the quality of its humorous growths depends of course on the quality of the intellectual forces by means of which the temperament gains expression. Hence it is very likely that in original endowment of humour, as distinguished from wit, Vanbrugh was superior to Congreve. And this is saying a great deal: for, while Congreve's wit has always been made much of, it has, since Macaulay's time, been the fashion among critics to do less than justice to his humour,—a humour which, in such scenes as that in Love for Love wdiere Sir Sampson Legend dis-courses upon the human appetites and functions, moves beyond the humour of convention and passes into natural humour. It is, however, in spontaneity, in a kind of lawdess merriment, almost Aristophanic in its verve, that Yanbrugh's humour seems so deep and so fine, seems indeed to spring from a fountain deeper and finer and rarer than Congreve's. A comedy of wdt, like every other drama, is a story told by action and dialogue, but to tell a story lucidly and rapidly by means of repartee is exceedingly difficult, not but that it is easy enough to produce repartee. But in comic dialogue the difficulty is to move rapidly and yet keep up the brilliant ball-throwing demanded in this form, and without lucidity and rapidity no drama, whether of repartee or of character, can live. Etheredge, the father of the comedy of repartee, has at length had justice done to him by Mr Gosse. Not only could Etheredge tell a story by means of repartee alone : he could produce a tableau too ; so could Congreve, and so also could Vanbrugh, but often—far too often—Vanbrugh's tableau is reached, not by fair means, as in the tableau of Congreve, but by a surrendering of probability, by a sacrifice of artistic fusion, by an inartistic mingling of coriiedy and farce, such as Congreve never indulges in. Jeremy Collier was perfectly right therefore in his strictures upon the farcical improbabilities of the Relapse. So farcical indeed are the tableaux in that play that the broader portions of it were (as Mr Swinburne discovered) adapted by Voltaire and acted at Sceaux as a farce. Had we space here to contrast the Relapse with the Way of the World, we should very likely come upon a distinction between comedy and farce such as has never yet been drawn. We should find that farce is not comedy with a broadened grin—Thalia with her girdle loose and run wild—as the critics seem to assume. We should find that the difference between the two is not one of degree at all, but rather one of kind, and that mere breadth of fun has nothing to do with the question. No doubt the fun of comedy may be as broad as that of farce, as is shown indeed by the celebrated Dogberry scenes in Much Ado about Nothing and by the scene in Love for Love between Sir Sampson Legend and his son, alluded to above ; but here, as in every other de-partment of art, all depends upon the quality of the imaginative belief that the artist seeks to arrest and secure. Of comedy the breath of life is dramatic illusion. Of farce the breath of life is mock illusion. Comedy, whether broad or genteel, pretends that its mimicry is real. Farce, whether broad or genteel, makes no such pretence, but by a thousand tricks, which it keeps up between itself and the audience, says, '' My acting is all sham, and you know it." Now, while Vanbrugh was apt too often to forget this the fundamental difference between comedy and farce, Congreve never forgot it, Wycherley rarely. Not that there should be in any literary form any arbitrary laws. There is no arbitrary law declaring that comedy shall not be mingled wdth farce, and yet the fact is that in vital drama they cannot be so mingled. The very laws of their existence are in conflict wdth each other, so much so that where one lives the other must die, as we see in the drama of our own day. The fact seems to be that probability of incident, logical sequence of cause and effect, are as necessary to comedy as they are to tragedy, while farce would stifle in such an air. Rather it would be poisoned by it, just as comedy is poisoned by what farce flourishes on, that is to say, inconsequence of reasoning—_ topsy-turvy logic. Born in the fairy country of topsy-turvy, the logic of farce would be illogical if it w:ere not upside-down. So wdth coincidence, with improbable accumulation of convenient events,— farce can no more exist without these than comedy can exist with
them. Hence we affirm that Jeremy Collier's strictures on the
farcical adulterations of the Relapse pierce more deeply into Van-
brugh's art than do the criticisms of Leigh Hunt and Hazlitt.
In other words, perhaps the same lack of fusion which mars Van-
brugh's architectural ideas mars also his comedy. (T. W.)

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