1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Cumberland, Richard (dramatist)
CUMBERLAND, RICHARD (1732–1811), English dramatist, was born in the master’s lodge of Trinity College, Cambridge, on the 19th of February 1732. He was the great-grandson of the 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 scholar Richard 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 his Letter to Bishop Lowth, who had called Bentley “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 schooldays; 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 Trinity College, Cambridge, where 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 just begun 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 Newcastle’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 resigned his Trinity fellowship on his marriage—in 1759—to his cousin Elizabeth Ridge, 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 friend and secured 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 confidential 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, towards 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 on the 7th of May 1811. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, a short oration being pronounced on this occasion by his friend Dean Vincent.
Cumberland’s numerous literary productions are spread over the whole of his long life; but it is only by his contributions to the drama, and perhaps by his Memoirs, that he is likely to be remembered. The collection of essays and other pieces entitled The Observer (1785), afterwards republished together with a translation of The Clouds, found a place 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 James Bailey’s Comicorum Graecorum (part i., 1840) and Hermesianactis, Archilochi, et Pratinae fragmenta. Cumberland further produced Anecdotes of Eminent Painters in Spain (1782 and 1787); a Catalogue of the King of Spain’s Paintings (1787); two novels—Arundel (1789), a story in letters, and Henry (1795), a “diluted comedy” on the construction and polishing of which he seems to have expended great care; a religious epic, Calvary, or the Death of Christ (1792); his last publication was a poem entitled Retrospection. He is also supposed to have joined Sir James Bland Burges in an epic, the Exodiad (1807), and in John de Lancaster, a novel. Besides these he wrote the Letter to the Bishop of O[xfor]d in vindication of Bentley (1767); another to the Bishop of Llandaff (Richard Watson) on his proposal for equalizing the revenues of the Established Church (1783); a Character of the late Lord Sackville (1785), whom in his Memoirs he vindicates from the stigma of cowardice; and an anonymous pamphlet, Curtius 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 including “as many sermons as would make a large volume, some of which have been delivered from the pulpits.” Lastly, he edited, in 1809, a short-lived critical journal called The London Review, intended to be a rival to the Quarterly, with signed articles.
Cumberland’s Memoirs, which he began at the close of 1804, and concluded in September 1805, were published in 1806, and a supplement was added in 1807. This narrative, 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. The book exhibits its author as an amiable egotist, careful of his own reputation, given to prolixity and undistinguished by 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 incidental criticisms of actors have been justly praised.
Cumberland was hardly warranted in the conjecture that no English author had yet equalled his list of dramas in point of number; but his plays, published and unpublished, have been computed to amount to fifty-four. About 35 of these are regular plays, to which have been added 4 operas and a farce; and about half of the whole list are comedies. The best known of them belong to what he was pleased to term “legitimate comedy,” and to that species of it known as “sentimental.” The essential characteristic of these plays is the combination of plots of domestic interest with the rhetorical enforcement of moral precepts, and with such small comic humour as the author possesses. These comedies are primarily, to borrow Cumberland’s own phraseology, designed as “attempts upon the heart.” 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 from the sentimental fiction of his own country, including Richardson, 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 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 liberally asserts itself by the side of general morality. If Cumberland’s dialogue lacks brilliance and his characters reality, 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. 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.
His début as a dramatic author was made with a tragedy, The Banishment of Cicero, published in 1761 after its rejection by Garrick; this was followed in 1765 by a musical drama, The Summer’s Tale, subsequently compressed into an afterpiece Amelia (1768). Cumberland first essayed sentimental comedy in The Brothers (1769). The theme of this comedy is inspired by Fielding’s 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 genuinely comic, though not altogether original. Horace Walpole said that it acted well, but read ill, though he could distinguish in it “strokes of Mr Bentley.” The epilogue paid a compliment to Garrick, who helped the production of Cumberland’s second comedy The West-Indian (1771). The hero of this comedy, which probably owes much to the suggestion of Garrick, 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. This early example of the modern drame was received with the utmost favour; it was afterwards translated into German by Boden, and Goethe acted in it at the Weimar court. The Fashionable Lover (1772) is a sentimental comedy of the most pronounced type. The Choleric Man (1774), founded on the Adelphi of Terence, is of a similar type, the comic element rather predominating, but philanthropy being duly represented by a virtuous lawyer called Manlove. Among his later comedies may be mentioned The Natural Son (1785), in which Major O’Flaherty who had already figured in The West-Indian, makes his reappearance; The Impostors (1789), a comedy of intrigue; The Box Lobby Challenge (1794), a protracted farce; The Jew (1794), a serious play, highly effective when the character of Sheva was played by the great German actor Theodor Döring; The Wheel of Fortune (1795), in which John Kemble found a celebrated part in the misanthropist Penruddock, who cannot forget but learns to forgive (a character declared by Kotzebue to have been stolen from his Menschenhass und Reue), while the lawyer Timothy Weasel was made comic by Richard Suett; First Love (1795); The Last of the Family (1795); False Impressions (1797); The Sailor’s Daughter (1804); and a Hint to Husbands (1806), which, unlike the rest, is in blank verse. The other works printed during his lifetime include The Note of Hand (1774), a farce; 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; and the domestic drama (in prose) of The Mysterious Husband (1783). His posthumously printed plays (published in 2 vols. in 1813) include the comedies of The Walloons (acted in 1782); 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 Capreae; and The False Demetrius (on a theme which attracted Schiller). Cumberland translated the Clouds of Aristophanes (1797), and altered for the stage Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens (1771), Massinger’s The Bondman and The Duke of Milan (both 1779).
In 1806–1807 appeared Memoirs of R. Cumberland, written by himself. Cumberland’s novel, Henry, was printed in Ballantyne’s Novelists’ Library (1821), with a prefatory notice of the author by Sir Walter Scott. A so-called Critical Examination of Cumberland’s works and a memoir of the author based on his autobiography, with the addition of some more or less feeble criticisms, by William Madford, appeared in 1812. An excellent account of Cumberland is included in “George Paston’s” Little Memoirs of the Eighteenth Century (1901). Hettner well characterizes Cumberland’s position in the history of the English drama in Litteraturgesch. d. 18. Jahrhunderts (2nd ed., 1865), i. 520. Cumberland’s portrait by Romney (whose talent he was one of the first to encourage) is in the National Portrait Gallery. (A. W. W.)