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Richard Cumberland (dramatist)

Richard Cumberland 19 February 1731/2 – 7 May 1811 was an English dramatist and civil servant In 1771 his hit play The West Indian was first staged During the American War of Independence he acted as a secret negotiator with Spain in an effort to secure a peace agreement between the two nations He also edited a short-lived critical journal called The London Review 1809 His plays are often remembered for their sympathetic depiction of colonial characters and others generally considered to be margins of society
Nb Cambridgeshire Family History Society have transcribed his baptism record & quote his birth as 19th Feb 1731, Baptism date 5 Mar 1731
The Oxford University and City Herald 18 May 1811 : Deaths : Richard Cumberland esq, author of the Observer Aged 80
The Society of Genealogists have a burial record for Richard Cumberland 1731-1811 buried at Westminster Abbey


  • 1 Early life and education
  • 2 Political and diplomatic career
    • 21 Mission to Madrid
  • 3 Writing career
    • 31 Adaptations
    • 32 Novels
  • 4 References
  • 5 Sources

Early life and education

Richard Cumberland was born in the master's lodge of Trinity College, Cambridge on 19 February 1731/2 His father was a clergyman, Doctor Denison Cumberland, who became successively Bishop of Clonfert and Bishop of Kilmore His mother was Johanna Bentley, youngest daughter of Joanna Bernard and the classical scholar Richard Bentley, longtime master at Trinity College She was featured as the heroine of John Byrom's popular eclogue, Cohn and Phoebe Cumberland's youngest sister Mary became recognized later as the poet Mary Alcock One great-grandfather was the bishop of Peterborough A great-great grandfather was Oliver St John, the statesman

Cumberland was educated at the grammar school in Bury St Edmunds He later related how, when the headmaster Arthur Kinsman told Bentley he would make his grandson an equally good scholar, Bentley retorted: "Pshaw, Arthur, how can that be, when I have forgot more than thou ever knewest"[citation needed] In 1744 Cumberland was moved to the prestigious Westminster School, under Doctorr Nicholls as headmaster Among his contemporaries at Westminster were Warren Hastings, George Colman, Charles Churchill and William Cowper At the age of fourteen, Cumberland went to Trinity College, Cambridge, where in 1750 he took his degree as tenth wrangler[1] In his beginning writing, he was influenced by Edmund Spenser; his first dramatic effort was modeled after William Mason's Elfrida and called Caractacus

Political and diplomatic career

He had begun to read for his fellowship at Trinity when the Earl of Halifax who had been made President of the Board of Trade in the Duke of Newcastle's government offered him the post of private secretary Cumberland's family persuaded him to accept, and he returned to the post after his election as fellow It left him time for literary pursuits, which included a poem in blank verse about India

Cumberland resigned his fellowship when he married his cousin Elizabeth Ridge in 1759, after having been appointed through Lord Halifax as "crown-agent for Nova Scotia"[citation needed]

In 1761 Cumberland accompanied his patron Lord Halifax to Ireland Halifax who had been appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and Cumberland the post as Ulster secretary He was offered a baronetcy, which he declined When in 1762 Halifax became Northern Secretary, Cumberland applied for the post of under-secretary, but could only obtain the less prestigious clerkship of reports at the Board of Trade under Lord Hillsborough

When Lord George Germain in 1775 acceded to office, Cumberland was appointed secretary to the Board of Trade and Plantations, a post he held till Edmund Burke's reforms abolished it in 1782

Mission to Madrid

In 1780, he was sent on a confidential mission to Spain to negotiate a separate peace treaty during the American War of Independence in an effort to weaken the anti-British coalition Although he was well received by King Charles III of Spain and his minister Count Floridablanca, the question of dominion over Gibraltar prevented resolution Recalled by the government in 1781, Cumberland was refused repayment of his expenses, although his advance was insufficient He was £4500 out-of-pocket and never recovered his money Soon after this, Cumberland lost his office in Burke's reforms, and retired on an allowance of less than half-pay In 1785 he wrote a defence of his former superior, Character of the late Lord Viscount Sackville

He took up residence at Tunbridge Wells; but during his last years he mostly lived in London, where he died He was buried in Westminster Abbey, after a short oration by his friend Dean Vincent

Writing career

Cumberland wrote much but has been remembered most for his plays and memoirs The existence of his memoirs is largely due to his friend, the critic Richard Sharp, Conversation Sharp who together with Samuel Rogers and Sir James Burges Sir James Lamb, 1st Baronet gave considerable support to the endeavor[2] The collection of essays and other pieces entitled The Observer 1785, afterward republished with a translation of The Clouds, was included among The British Essayists

He is said to have joined Sir James Bland Burges in an epic, the Exodiad 1807, and in a novel, John de Lancaster Besides these he wrote the Letter to the Bishop of Oxford in vindication of his grandfather Bentley 1767; another to Richard Watson, Bishop of Llandaff, on his proposal for equalizing the revenues of the Established Church 1783; a Character of 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 the author of a version of 50 of the Psalms of David; of a tract on the evidences of Christianity; and of other religious pieces 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 a short-lived critical journal called The London Review 1809, intended to be a rival to the Quarterly, with signed articles

His plays, published and unpublished, totaled fifty-four About 35 of these are regular plays, to which have been added four operas and a farce; about half are comedies His favorite mode was the "sentimental comedy," which combines domestic plots, rhetorical enforcement of moral precepts, and comic humor He weaves his plays out of "homely stuff, right British drugget," and eschews "the vile Gallic stage"; he borrowed from the style of sentimental fiction of Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding and Laurence Sterne

His favorite theme is virtue in distress or danger, but assured of its reward in the fifth act; his most constant characters are men of feeling and young ladies who are either prudes or coquettes Cumberland's comic talents lay in the invention of characters taken from the "outskirts of the empire," and intended to vindicate the good elements of the Scots, Irish, and colonials from English prejudice The plays are highly patriotic and adhere to conventional morality If Cumberland's dialogue lacks brilliance and his characters reality, the construction of the plots is generally skilful, due to Cumberland's insight into the secrets of theatrical effect 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, he borrowed only the best aspects of other dramatists' work

His first play was a tragedy, The Banishment of Cicero, published in 1761 after David Garrick rejected it; 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 This play is inspired by Henry 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 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 Its hero, who 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 prevail in the end This early example of the modern drama was favorably received; Boden translated it into German, and Goethe acted in it at the Weimar court The Fashionable Lover 1772 is a sentimental comedy, as is The Choleric Man 1774, founded on the Adelphi of Terence Cumberland published his memoirs in 1806-07 George Romney, whose talent Cumberland encouraged, painted his portrait, which is in the National Portrait Gallery

Among his later comedies were:

  • Calypso 1779
  • The Natural Son 1785, in which Major O'Flaherty who had already figured in The West-Indian, makes his reappearance
  • The Country Attorney 1787
  • The Impostors 1789, a comedy of intrigue
  • The School for Widows 1789
  • The Box-Lobby Challenge 1794, a protracted farce
  • The Jew 1794, a drama, highly effective when the great German actor Theodor Döring played "Sheva"
  • The Wheel of Fortune 1795, in which John Philip Kemble found a celebrated part in the misanthropist Penruddock, who cannot forget but learns to forgive a character declared by August von Kotzebue to have been stolen from his Menschenhass und Reue, while Richard Suett played the comic lawyer Timothy Weasel
  • First Love 1795
  • The Last of the Family 1797
  • The Village Fete 1797
  • False Impressions 1797
  • The Sailor's Daughter 1804
  • 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 Princess of Parma 1778
  • Songs for a musical comedy, The Widow of Delphi 1780
  • The Battle of Hastings 1778, a tragedy
  • The Carmelite 1784, a romantic domestic drama in blank verse, in the style of John Home's Douglas, furnishing some effective scenes for Sarah Siddons and John Kemble as mother and son
  • The Mysterious Husband 1783, a prose domestic drama
  • The Days of Yore 1796, a drama
  • The Clouds 1797
  • Joanna of Mondfaucon 1800
  • The Jew of Mogadore 1808

His posthumously printed plays published in 2 vols in 1813 include:

  • The Walloons comedy, acted in 1782
  • The Passive Husband comedy, acted as A Word for Nature, 1798
  • The Eccentric Lover comedy, acted 1798
  • Lovers' Resolutions comedy, once acted in 1802
  • Confession, a quasi-historic drama
  • Don Pedro drama, acted 1796
  • Alcanor tragedy, acted as The Arab, 1785
  • Torrendal tragedy
  • 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 tragedy
  • The False Demetrius tragedy on a theme which attracted Schiller


Aristophanes' Clouds 1798 William Shakespeare's Timon of Athens 1771 Philip Massinger's The Bondman and The Duke of Milan both 1779


  • Arundel 1789
  • Henry 1795 - was printed in Ballantyne's Novelists' Library 1821,
  • John de Lancaster 1809


  1. ^ "Cumberland, Richard CMRT747R" A Cambridge Alumni Database University of Cambridge 
  2. ^ 'The Memoirs of Richard Cumberland', pub Parry & McMillan, 1856 pps 318-319


  • Critical Examination of Cumberland's works 1812 and a memoir of the author based on his autobiography, with some criticism, by William Madford, appeared in 1812
  • George Paston's Little Memoirs of the Eighteenth Century 1901 includes an account of Cumberland
  • Hermann Theodor Hettner assessed Cumberland's position in the history of the English drama in Litteraturgesch d 18 Jahrhunderts 2nd ed, 1865, i 520
  •  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Ward, Adolphus William 1911 "Cumberland, Richard dramatist" In Chisholm, Hugh Encyclopædia Britannica 7 11th ed Cambridge University Press pp 622–623 

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