Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Crowne, John

CROWNE, JOHN (d. 1703?), dramatist, is stated by Oldys to have been the son of William Crowne, gentleman, who in 1637 accompanied the Earl of Arundel on an embassy to Vienna, and published in that year ‘A true Relation of all the Remarkable Places and Passages’ observed on the journey. William Crowne emigrated with his family to Nova Scotia, and on 10 Aug. 1656 received from Oliver Cromwell a large tract of territory. Shortly after the Restoration the French took possession of William Crowne's lands, and his title was not upheld by the authorities at home. In the dedicatory epistle prefixed to the ‘English Frier,’ 1690, and again in the dedicatory epistle before ‘Caligula,’ 1698, the dramatist complains that he had been robbed of his patrimony. John Dennis in his ‘Letters,’ 1721 (i. 48), says that William Crowne was an ‘independent minister;’ but this statement, which has been frequently repeated, is probably incorrect, for in the ‘Colonial State Papers’ he is invariably styled ‘Colonel’ Crowne. It is related by Dennis that John Crowne on his arrival in England (early in the reign of Charles II) was driven by his necessities to accept the distasteful office of gentleman-usher to ‘an old independent lady of quality.’ His first work was his romance, ‘Pandion and Amphigenia; or the History of the coy Lady of Thessalia. Adorned with sculpture,’ 1665, 8vo. In the dedicatory epistle to Arthur, lord viscount Chichester, he says: ‘I was scarce twenty years when I fancied it.’ In 1671 he published his first play, ‘Juliana, or the Princess of Poland. A Tragi-comedy,’ acted with moderate success at the Duke of York's Theatre. In the dedicatory epistle to the Earl of Orrery he states that ‘this unworthy poem … was the offspring of many confused, raw, indigested, and immature thoughts, penn'd in a crowd and hurry of business and travel; … and lastly the first-born of this kind that my thoughts ever laboured with to perfection.’ His next play, the ‘History of Charles the Eighth,’ a tragedy in rhyme, was acted for six days together at the Duke of York's Theatre in 1672 (Genest, History of the Stage, i. 124), Betterton taking the part of Charles VIII, and was published in that year with a dedication to the Earl of Rochester; 2nd ed. 1680. In ‘Timon, a Satyr,’ published in the 1685 collection of Rochester's poems, some high-flown lines from Crowne's tragedy are selected for ridicule. On the appearance in 1673 of Settle's ‘Empress of Morocco,’ Crowne joined Dryden and Shadwell in writing satirical ‘Notes and Observations on the Empress of Morocco.’ Many years afterwards, in the address to the reader prefixed to ‘Caligula,’ 1698, he stated that he had written ‘above three parts of four’ of the pamphlet, and expressed his regret that he had shown such bitterness. In 1675 was published Crowne's court masque, ‘Calisto, or the Chaste Nymph,’ with a dedication to the Princess Mary, afterwards Queen Mary. It was by Rochester's influence that Crowne was engaged to prepare the masque. Under ordinary circumstances the task would have been assigned to the poet laureate, Dryden; but Dryden expressed no chagrin, and even composed an epilogue, which by Rochester's intervention was not accepted. ‘Calisto’ is smoothly written and gave great satisfaction. In the address to the reader, Crowne says that he had to prepare the entertainment in ‘scarce a month.’ He was directed to introduce only seven persons, who were all to be ladies, and two only were to appear in men's habits. The writing of masques was a lost art at this date; but Crowne's attempt at a revival has considerable merit. In 1675 the ‘Country Wit,’ a favourite play with Charles II, was acted with applause at the Duke's Theatre; it was published in the same year, with a dedication to Charles, earl of Middlesex. The plot was partly drawn from Molière's ‘Le Sicilien, ou l'Amour Peintre.’ ‘Andromache,’ a tragedy translated from Racine into English verse by ‘a young gentleman,’ was revised by Crowne (who reduced the verse to prose), and, after being acted without success, was published in 1675. In 1677 were produced the two parts of the ‘Destruction of Jerusalem,’ written in heroic verse; they were printed in that year with a dedication to the Duchess of Portsmouth. These declamatory dramas met with extraordinary success on the stage, and were reprinted in 1693 and 1703. St. Evremond, in a letter to the Duchess of Mazarin (Works of Rochester and Roscommon, 1709), states that it was owing to the success of these plays that Rochester, ‘as if he would still be in contradiction to the town,’ withdrew his patronage from Crowne, who was afterwards lampooned by Rochester and Buckingham in ‘A Tryal of the Poets for the Bayes.’ Crowne's next work was ‘The Ambitious Statesman, or the Loyal Favorite,’ acted in 1679, and published with a dedication to the Duchess of Albemarle in the same year. In the preface the author styles this play ‘the most vigorous of all my foolish labours,’ and attributes its ill-success on the stage to the malice of his enemies. ‘The Misery of Civil War,’ founded on the second part of ‘Henry VI,’ was printed in 1680, but was not acted until 1681; it was followed by ‘Henry the Sixth, the First Part,’ 1681. ‘Thyestes, a Tragedy,’ 1681, founded on Seneca's play, was favourably received, in spite of the repulsive nature of the plot; and it must be allowed that there are passages of striking power. It is stated in ‘Biographia Dramatica’ that the first edition of the comedy ‘City Politiques,’ acted at the King's Theatre, was published in 1675; Genest (i. 399) gives 1688 as the date of the first edition, and the editors of Crowne's ‘Dramatic Works,’ 1874 (ii. 83), follow Genest. Some copies are undoubtedly dated 1683 (Brit. Mus. press-mark, 644. g. 46), and the play seems to have been first performed about that date. In the ‘Address to the Reader’ Crowne writes: ‘I have printed Bartholine's part in the manner of spelling by which I taught it Mr. Leigh;’ and it is known that Leigh did not join the King's Theatre until 1682. Langbaine describes the comedy (which he had seen acted with applause) as a ‘severe satire upon the whiggish faction.’ The character of Dr. Panchy was evidently intended as a satirical portrait of Titus Oates; the Bricklayer is Stephen Colledge; and Bartholine, ‘an old corrupt lawyer,’ is probably Sergeant Maynard, though the name of Aaron Smith (Titus Oates's counsel) has also been suggested. Strong efforts made by the whigs to have the play suppressed were frustrated by the king's intervention. In 1685 was produced by his majesty's servants ‘Sir Courtly Nice, or It cannot be,’ which was published in the same year with a dedication to the Duke of Ormonde. This was the most popular of Crowne's plays, and held the stage for upwards of a century. Mountfort and Colley Cibber were famous in the character of Sir Courtly. In the dedicatory epistle Crowne states that the play was written at the command of Charles II, on the model of the Spanish play ‘No Puedesser, or It cannot be.’ Dennis relates that Crowne was tired of play-writing; that Charles promised to give him an office if he would first write another comedy, and when Crowne replied that he plotted slowly, the king put into his hands the Spanish play. On the very last day of the rehearsal Charles died, and ‘Sir Courtly Nice’ was the first comedy acted after the succession of James. Crowne bewailed the death of Charles and saluted his successor in ‘A Poem on the late lamented Death of our late gratious Sovereign, King Charles the II, of ever blessed memory. With a congratulation to the Happy succession of King James the II.’ In 1688 was published ‘Darius, King of Persia. A Tragedy,’ which had been produced at the Theatre Royal. In 1690 was produced ‘The English Frier, or the Town Sharks,’ which contains some bitter satire on the favourites of the deposed King James; it was published in the same year with a dedication to William, earl of Devonshire. To Motteux's ‘Gentleman's Journal,’ 1691–2, Crowne contributed some songs, which were set to music by Henry Purcell; and in 1692 he published ‘Dæneids, or the Noble Labours of the Great Dean of Notre Dame in Paris,’ 4to; a burlesque poem in four cantos, partly translated from Boileau's ‘Lutrin.’ His next play was ‘Regulus, a Tragedy,’ published in 1694, but acted in 1692. In 1694 was also published, with a dedication to the Earl of Mulgrave, ‘The Married Beau, or the Curious Impertinent. A Comedy,’ which had been produced at the Theatre Royal; the plot is chiefly drawn from Don Quixote. ‘Caligula, a Tragedy,’ 1698, written in rhymed heroics, is Crowne's last play. From the dedicatory epistle to the Earl of Romney we learn that he had lost a liberal patroness in Queen Mary. In the ‘Epistle to the Reader’ he writes: ‘I have for some few years been disordered with a distemper, which seated itself in my head, threatened me with an epilepsy, and frequently took from me not only all sense but almost all signs of life, and in my intervals I wrote this play.’ Downes mentions an unpublished play of Crowne's entitled ‘Justice Busy,’ which was well acted, but ‘proved not a living play,’ though ‘Mrs. Bracegirdle, by a potent and magnetic charm, in performing a song in't caus'd the stones of the streets to fly in the men's faces.’ Crowne was certainly alive in 1701, for in a satire published in that year, ‘The Town display'd in a Letter,’ he is thus maliciously noticed:—

C——n, with a feeble pace and hoary hairs,
Has just outliv'd his wit by twenty years.

Baker in the ‘Companion to the Playhouse’ states, from Coxeter's manuscript notes, that he was still living in 1703, and adds (on the authority of Giles Jacob) that he was buried in the church of St. Giles-in-the-Fields. His name is not found in the burial register.

Crowne seems to have been a man of easy and amiable temperament. ‘Many a cup of metheglin have I drank [sic] with little starch Johnny Crowne,’ says the writer of a letter in vol. xv. of the ‘Gentleman's Magazine’ (1749) on the poets and actors of Charles II's reign; ‘we called him so from the stiff, unalterable primness of his long crevat.’ He preferred a retired life to the bustle of a court, and when he was in high favour with Charles II he was often heard to say that ‘tho' he had a sincere affection for the king, he had yet a mortal aversion to the court’ (Dennis, Letters). Dryden allowed, according to Jacob Tonson (Spence, Anecdotes), that Crowne had some genius, ‘but then he added always that his father and Crowne's mother were very well acquainted.’ Tonson also remarks that when a play of Crowne's failed Dryden hastened to compliment the author; when it succeeded he was ‘very cold.’ Crowne's dramatic works were collected in 1873, 4 vols. 8vo.

[Langbaine's Dramatick Poets, with Oldys's manuscript annotations; John Dennis's Letters, 1721, i. 48–54; Cal. of State Papers, Col. Amer. and W. Indies; Genest's Account of the English Stage, i. 304, 415, ii. 144; Biographia Dramatica; Introduction to Crowne's Dramatic Works, 1873.]

A. H. B.