CROWNE, JOHN (d. c. 1703), British dramatist, was a native of Nova Scotia. His father “Colonel” William Crowne, accompanied the earl of Arundel on a diplomatic mission to Vienna in 1637, and wrote an account of his journey. He emigrated to Nova Scotia where he received a grant of land from Cromwell, but the French took possession of his property, and the home government did nothing to uphold his rights. When the son came to England his poverty compelled him to act as gentleman usher to an Independent lady of quality, and his enemies asserted that his father had been an Independent minister. He began his literary career with a romance, Pandion and Amphigenia, or the History of the coy Lady of Thessalia (1665). In 1671 he produced a romantic play, Juliana, or the Princess of Poland, which has, in spite of its title, no pretensions to rank as an historical drama. The earl of Rochester procured for him, apparently with the sole object of annoying Dryden by infringing on his rights as poet-laureate, a commission to supply a masque for performance at court. Calisto gained him the favour of Charles II., but Rochester proved a fickle patron, and his favour was completely alienated by the success of Crowne’s heroic play in two parts, The Destruction of Jerusalem by Titus Vespasian (1677). This piece contained a thinly disguised satire on the Puritan party in the description of the Pharisees, and about 1683 he produced a distinctly political play, The City Politiques, satirizing the Whig party and containing characters which were readily recognized as portraits of Titus Oates and others. This made him many enemies, and he petitioned the king for a small place that would release him from the necessity of writing for the stage. The king exacted one more comedy, which should, he suggested, based on the No pued esser of Moreto. This had already been unsuccessfully adapted, as Crowne discovered later, by Sir Thomas St Serfe, but in Crowne’s hands it developed into Sir Courtly Nice, It Cannot Be (1685), a comedy which kept its place as a stock piece for nearly a century. Unfortunately Charles II. died before the play was completed, and Crowne was disappointed of his reward. He continued to write plays, and it is stated that he was still living in 1703, but nothing is known of his later life.
Crowne was a fertile writer of plays with an historical setting, in which heroic love was, in the fashion of the French romances, made the leading motive. The prosaic level of his style saved him as a rule from the rant to be found in so many contemporary heroic plays, but these pieces are of no particular interest. He was much more successful in comedy of the kind that depicts “humours.”
The History of Charles the Eighth of France, or The Invasion of Naples by the French (1672) was dedicated to Rochester. In Timon, generally supposed to have been written by the earl, a line from this piece—“whilst sporting waves smil’d on the rising sun”—was held up to ridicule. The Ambitious Statesman, or The Loyal Favourite (1679), one of the most extravagant of his heroic efforts, deals with the history of Bernard d’Armagnac, Constable of France, after the battle of Agincourt; Thyestes, A Tragedy (1681), spares none of the horrors of the Senecan tragedy, although an incongruous love story is interpolated; Darius, King of Persia (1688), Regulus (acted 1692, pr. 1694) and Caligula (1698) complete the list of his tragedies. The Country Wit: A Comedy (acted 1675, pr. 1693), derived in part from Molière’s Le Sicilien, ou l’amour peintre, is remembered for the leading character, Sir Mannerly Shallow; The English Frier; or The Town Sparks (acted 1689, pr. 1690), perhaps suggested by Molière’s Tartuffe, ridicules the court Catholics, and in Father Finical caricatures Father Petre; and The Married Beau; or The Curious Impertinent (1694), is based on the Curioso Impertinente in Don Quixote. He also produced a version of Racine’s Andromaque, an adaptation from Shakespeare’s Henry VI., and an unsuccessful comedy, Justice Busy.
See The Dramatic Works of John Crowne (4 vols., 1873), edited by James Maidment and W. H. Logan for the Dramatists of the Restoration.