John Crowne

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John Crowne wrote seven tragedies and five comedies, frequently repeating character types, plot devices, and thematic concerns from play to play. His method and his achievement can be best understood by a close analysis of three plays. The Destruction of Jerusalem by Titus Vespasian was his most popular tragedy and remains a good example of the peculiar type of Restoration tragedy called heroic drama. In Sir Courtly Nice, Crowne’s most successful comedy of wit, clever men and women of fashion compete with one another in wordplay and intriguing. City Politiques is unlike Crowne’s other comedies; it relies on farce and on the ridicule of specific contemporary personalities for its impact, but even the modern reader who does not understand the political allusions can appreciate Crowne’s ability to keep the stage filled with interesting characters and action.

The Destruction of Jerusalem by Titus Vespasian

Like Restoration tragedies in general, The Destruction of Jerusalem by Titus Vespasian interweaves complex love plots and complicated political plots. The complexities of love Crowne borrowed from the same source that all of his fellow dramatists used: French romances and tragedies of the early and middle 1600’s. The political complications Crowne took from the world around him. The restoration of the monarchy in 1660 had neither ended the competition for power between the king and Parliament nor stilled the loud debate over whether the English throne should be occupied by a Protestant or a Catholic monarch.

Crowne’s The Destruction of Jerusalem by Titus Vespasian was patterned after John Dryden’s The Conquest of Granada by the Spaniards, which had been a great success in the early 1670’s. Like Dryden, Crowne wrote his play in rhyming couplets (imitating the French tragedies that Charles II loved) and doubled the normal length to ten acts. In both plays, the action centers on several monarchs who are caught in a maze of political and romantic obligations. Finally, Crowne followed Dryden in using special stage effects to heighten the tension. If Crowne had lived three centuries later, he could have easily written scripts for cinema epics.

The action of The Destruction of Jerusalem by Titus Vespasian, Part I commences on the eve of Passover, 72 c.e. The city of Jerusalem awaits the arrival of a Roman army under Titus Vespasian. The city’s high priest and governor, Matthias, works to prepare the defenses, but he faces insubordination from John, leader of the Pharisee party, who believes that Matthias is secretly in the Romans’ pay. Matthias governs in place of the Jewish king, recently killed under mysterious circumstances. The dead monarch’s sister Berenice, appointed by the Romans to rule, has returned to the city in the hope of preventing resistance to the imperial army. Berenice’s heart, however, is not in her mission, because she is in love with Titus, the son of the Emperor Vespasian.

Also present in the city are two exiled monarchs, Phraartes and Monobazus, who have fallen in love with Jewish noblewomen. Phraartes, who believes that religion is a myth supporting the divine right of kings, loves Matthias’s daughter Clarona, a vestal virgin of the temple. Clarona is attracted to Phraartes but refuses to violate her vow of eternal virginity. Monobazus loves Berenice, but his ability to woo is inhibited by his secret knowledge that he is her brother’s murderer. Berenice, smitten by Titus, hardly notices Monobazus.

Though neither king makes progress in courting his beloved, both use their swords effectively. First they fight off the Edomites, a neighboring tribe invited by John to invade the city on the pretext of forestalling the Romans. Next they rescue Matthias when John...

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leads the Pharisees in open rebellion and captures the temple. Phraartes demands from Matthias Clarona’s hand in marriage as his reward. The high priest is willing if a legal loophole can be found that would release Clarona from her vows. As they deliberate his daughter’s fate, a messenger announces that the Roman army has made camp on nearby hills. On this ominous note, part I ends.

Part II opens with Titus pacing in his tent, torn between his love for Berenice and his duty to the empire. Titus’s second-in-command convinces him that duty is superior to love, and two allied kings convince Titus to conquer before the Jews can rally under a new leader. Berenice arrives at the Roman camp soon afterward, but after a long and passionate interview, Titus pushes her away.

Inside Jerusalem, conditions worsen as food supplies dwindle. John continues his efforts to kill or capture Matthias. Phraartes is wounded in a second skirmish against the Pharisees. As Clarona binds his wound, she admits her love and hints that if the two of them can save the city, she might renounce her vow. In the meantime, the Jews lose an ally: Monobazus follows Berenice to the Roman camp.

Phraartes departs in search of food supplies. Returning with some provisions, he finds Matthias again in the hands of the Pharisees and once more rescues him. Phraartes now promises Clarona that he will bring in his own Parthian troops to save the city. Titus acts to counter Phraartes’ plans even though Berenice attempts to distract the Roman general by threatening to kill herself if her love is not requited. With a heavy heart, Titus chooses duty over love. Berenice fails to carry out her threat.

Monobazus, now ashamed of his beloved and his love, returns to join Phraartes in the city’s defense. The two kings find the temple desecrated by John’s forces and discover Matthias and Clarona mortally wounded. After his beloved dies in his arms, Phraartes decides to give up his life fighting the invaders. Monobazus decides to do the same after passing up the chance to flee the doomed city. They die like brothers, side by side in combat.

Titus enters the city in triumph and spares the survivors. Berenice visits him one last time, and when he again refuses to return her love, she goes into permanent and secret exile. As the play ends, Titus stands alone onstage, still agonizing over whether duty can be worth such a sacrifice.

It is easy to discern political themes in the play in which the Restoration audience could see their own concerns reflected. The Jews face aggression from the greatest power in the world, Rome, just as England feared domination by neighboring France, which, under Louis XIV, was Europe’s most powerful nation. The Jewish resistance against the invader is hampered by internal dissension, just as Charles’s policies were hampered by opposition from anti-Royalist groups.

The most important political theme centers on the rulers in the play: Phraartes, Monobazus, Matthias, and Titus. The hero is not any of these but rather the institution of kingship itself. The four represent facets of Charles II, his life, his obligations, and his privileges. Phraartes and Monobazus are kings in exile, echoes of the Charles who was in exile in the 1650’s. Although they have no kingdoms that obey them, Phraartes and Monobazus speak and act with a natural and convincing authority; clearly, they believe that the authority of kingship flows from divine approbation rather than from popular will. Matthias represents the besieged ruler who struggles bravely against the odds when domestic rebels join foreign enemies in threatening the state. Titus shows the personal sacrifice that kingship demands: For the good of the state, he must deny the longings of his own soul and reject the woman he loves. There is not a consistent political allegory in the play; rather, Crowne presents several vantage points from which to survey the character of a king.

All of the rulers speak eloquently about political obligation: Their diction is elegant and their imagery rich in metaphor. Phraartes and Titus speak with the same poetic force about love. Phraartes with Clarona and Titus with Berenice engage in lengthy debates that reveal the depth of their commitment. What makes the lovers’ anguish such good stage business is that each pair is caught in an inescapable dilemma: Clarona has made eternal vows to a religion Phraartes despises; Berenice and Titus must be traitors in order to be lovers. As Crowne devises the situations, lifelong doubt, exile, or death are the only solutions.

Spectacular staging heightens the emotional impact of the play’s political themes and romantic dilemmas. An angel appears against the ceiling of the temple to prophesy the doom of the city, and the ghost of Herod walks abroad to do the same. The laments of enslaved citizens and dying warriors are heard offstage, and there is an abundance of swordplay, chases, and stabbings onstage. In the tenth act, the temple catches fire, and Phraartes and Monobazus (seen in silhouette) fall from a prominent battlement as they are fighting Romans. The stage itself is an ambitious multilevel setting from which Matthias can look down at rebel Pharisees, the exiled kings can glare down at invaders, and the nightdress-clad Clarona can gaze down at her lover. No wonder The Destruction of Jerusalem by Titus Vespasian was Crowne’s greatest success in the 1670’s.

Sir Courtly Nice

Among his comedies, Sir Courtly Nice was Crowne’s most popular play, and it has retained its reputation as his best. Like other Restoration comedies of wit, it combines a love plot with social commentary. Its themes are love, marriage, and independence: Sir Courtly Nice’s dual heroines struggle to achieve the third without sacrificing the first two.

Violante, in love with Lord Bellguard, hesitates to marry him because of his treatment of his unmarried sister Leonora. Bellguard has set a maiden aunt and two eccentric kinsmen (the religious fanatic Testimony and the antireligious zealot Hothead) to watch over the girl. These three sentinels hinder Leonora’s romance with Farewel, the son of a rival noble family. Bellguard is cautious because he thinks that all women are promiscuous by nature. Violante and Leonora decide to teach Bellguard a lesson.

Violante asks Farewel to help, and he suggests that they employ Crack, a poor but ingenious scholar expelled from the university for studying magic. Their first victim is Surly, a cynical and unpleasant man in love with Violante. She promises to respond to Surly’s awkward advances if he chases away Bellguard’s choice of suitor for Leonora, Sir Courtly Nice. Meanwhile, Crack, disguised as a traitor, gains access to Leonora and gives her a locket containing Farewel’s picture.

Surly visits Sir Courtly, a man of elegant, even fastidious, manners. Arriving drunk, Surly annoys Sir Courtly by announcing his intention to woo Leonora. Surly annoys him to an even greater extent when he exhales his foul-smelling breath.

Bellguard meanwhile finds Farewel’s picture in Leonora’s possession and accuses her of being a wanton. With the sentinels in an uproar over the accusation, Crack enters in a new guise and manages to right the situation. Pretending to be Bellguard’s crazy but rich cousin, Sir Thomas Calico, he provides Leonora with an absurd alibi. Bellguard, deferring to the wisdom of the wealthy, accepts the lame excuse. Crack tells Leonora that Farewel will visit her that night.

Sir Courtly comes courting. Leonora’s aunt wishes to remain behind to supervise the lovers, but Bellguard escorts her out of the room. Leonora listens to Courtly’s smug and silly avowals of love and responds mockingly. Surly interrupts to woo Leonora himself and to taunt Courtly. Against his will, Courtly timorously challenges Surly to a duel in order to save face.

Meanwhile, Crack sneaks Farewel into Leonora’s room. Her aunt discovers his presence, and an alarmed Bellguard hunts for the intruder throughout the house. Crack comes to the rescue again by declaring that it was he who let Farewel, whom he identifies as his future brother-in-law, into the house. Bellguard is willing to forgo suspicion if Leonora promises to listen once more to Courtly’s proposal. She tries, but she indignantly leaves the room as Courtly professes love and offers marriage as he stands gazing fondly at himself in a mirror. The aunt, entering the room and seeing no other woman, takes Courtly’s words as applying to herself. When she loudly accepts, Courtly is too preoccupied to notice her misinterpretation.

Leonora takes her fate into her own hands, leaving Bellguard’s house to marry Farewel. Violante praises her friend’s love and brave spirit, contrasting it with the aunt’s betrayal of trust at the first opportunity. Bellguard is finally convinced that not all women need close supervision. As a final test, Violante teases Bellguard by flirting with Surly. When Bellguard responds with passionate declarations rather than jealous accusations, Violante knows she has a man on her terms. No longer afraid that Bellguard will try to control her as he did Leonora, Violante agrees to become his wife.

Crowne wrote Sir Courtly Nice as an adaptation of a Spanish comedy, No puede ser: O, No puede ser guardar una mujer (1661), by Agustín Moreto y Cabaña. Charles II himself suggested the adaptation to Crowne, who revised the original to suit an English audience and his own dramatic skills. The Spanish play had used the framing device of a debate about the nature of women that leads to a wager. Crowne abandoned that device and began his comedy in medias res. One of Crowne’s favorite techniques was to multiply character types. In Sir Courtly Nice, he uses not one eccentric kinsman but two and has Crack appear in a variety of disguises. The effect is a more lively play; more characters enter and leave the stage than in most comedies.

Crowne’s strength was not in the creation of memorable leading characters but in forming a cast with several strong roles. Indeed, the enduring popularity of Sir Courtly Nice can in part be attributed to its appeal to acting companies. There are numerous good parts, and even the smaller roles add distinctively to the whole. The play depends for success not on one or two stars but on the successful interaction of the company. Crowne worked closely with actors and actresses, often tutoring them about the way he imagined his characters being played. Sir Courtly Nice is an actor’s play as much as it is the author’s play.

All of Crowne’s characters are strong. Violante and Leonora are atypical Restoration heroines who possess more initiative and spirit than women—real or fictitious—were allowed in the seventeenth century. Testimony and Hothead are bold caricatures of mentalities that were powerful and respected in the age. Sir Courtly is a magnificent fop whose folly is not exposed by others so much as it is revealed by his own actions; his every mannerism betrays the narcissism that leads to his comeuppance in the mirror scene. Surly is a delightful foil to Courtly—one of the crudest of numerous ill-mannered Restoration rakes. These characters interact in a comedy that is always funny, though not always kind. Their story is one that does not pale, the perennially interesting tale of young lovers who must use ingenuity to circumvent the objections of the older generation—or of their peers who prematurely think like the older generation.

City Politiques

Crowne’s other important play, City Politiques, does not fit into any established genre of comedy. It is too politically oriented to be a romantic comedy; it has too many scenes of farce to be a comedy of wit or a comedy of manners. It is a play of its time, when a playwright employed his dramatic skills on behalf of his patron or of his party. The years from 1678 to 1682 were a time of serious political crisis in England, and when King Charles emerged victorious from that crisis, Crowne celebrated the triumph with a satiric production that ridiculed the Whigs, the enemies of royal rule. City Politiques laughs at the issues and personalities of the Popish Plot from the safe vantage of hindsight.

The Popish Plot crisis began in 1678 when a former clergyman, Titus Oates, claimed that he had uncovered a plan by which English Catholics, the pope, and the French king intended to assassinate the Protestant Charles II and replace him with his Catholic brother, James. On the sworn testimony of Oates and several others, thousands of Catholics were implicated and arrested; two dozen were put to death. Charles’s opponents united to campaign for the Exclusion Bill, which would remove the incentive for a plot by barring James from the succession. Charles opposed the measure, but for the next two years, both Parliament and the city of London were dominated by the bill’s supporters. With many of his nobility and the country’s major city hostilely disposed, Charles’s reign became difficult. In 1681, after much of Oates’s testimony had been discredited, the king dissolved the Whig-dominated Parliament. By 1682, the Whig control of London had collapsed, and many leaders of the party fled the country. Except for the emotional scars, the crisis was over.

City Politiques, a series of connected sketches more than a coherent play, ridicules the assumptions and practices of the Whigs during the Popish Plot. It shows ambitious statesmen relying on false oaths to gain selfish ends, citizens defying authority under the cover of respectability but actually motivated by mere whimsy, and lawyers using the laws against the source of all law, the king. Contemporaries delighted in drawing connections between the characters Crowne put on the stage and the actual persons who had important roles in the plot. Modern readers do not enjoy such identifications long after the fact, but they can enjoy Crowne’s clever dramatization of humankind’s less respectable motives for action.

The action of City Politiques occurs in Naples, where the rakish nobleman Florio plans to seduce Rosaura, the young second wife of the newly elected Podesta (mayor of the city). To attain his goal Florio pretends to be a supporter of the Podesta; he also pretends to be incapacitated by venereal disease. In the course of his scheme, Florio befriends the Podesta’s son, Craffy, who confides one day that he is in love with his stepmother. When Florio threatens to tell the Podesta, Craffy replies that he will get a dozen paid informants to swear that Florio is the woman’s lover.

The Podesta and his followers, openly called Whigs, celebrate his election by acting rudely to the royal governor. When the governor refuses their request to have the Podesta knighted, the mayor vows to gain revenge by fomenting rebellion. One of his supporters is the lawyer Bartoline, who has recently married a much younger woman, Lucinda. Her beauty immediately attracts the eye of another rake, Artall, who disguises himself as Florio. Thinking “Florio” a dying man, Bartoline leaves Lucinda with him while he goes about the Podesta’s business. Artall uses the opportunity to teach her the difference between a virile nobleman and an impotent lawyer.

The Podesta continues to harass the governor. He calls the citizens to arms by spreading rumors that a foreign army is poised to invade, and he hires Bartoline to prepare a false indictment against the governor. Bartoline, however, is playing a double game: At the same time he helps the Podesta indict the governor, he is helping the governor press charges against the Podesta and his followers. Florio meanwhile harasses the Whigs by publishing a mock proclamation against them.

Florio goes to Rosaura’s apartment. A drunken Craffy interrupts their assignation, attempting to seduce Rosaura while Florio pretends to be the Podesta asleep on the couch. When the real Podesta enters the house, Rosaura tricks Craffy into attacking his father while Florio escapes. Father and son wrestle each other to the ground before realizing their mistake.

Later, Artall again tricks Bartoline. Hoping that the dying Florio (Artall in disguise) will include Lucinda in his will, Bartoline allows his wife to visit Florio’s bedroom. At the same time, Craffy discovers the real Florio making love to Rosaura in a nearby room. Craffy calls the Podesta, but the mayor is assured by Bartoline that Florio is with Lucinda and must not be disturbed. Thus, the two rakes complete the double cuckolding while Craffy is deemed mad. Afterward, “Florio” brazenly carries Lucinda from her husband’s house while Bartoline watches helplessly.

Florio plays one more trick on the Podesta. His servant Pietro pretends to be a Spanish nobleman with influence on the governor. Pietro promises to help the Podesta become lord treasurer if he will betray his followers, and the Podesta enthusiastically agrees. When the governor arrives at the mayor’s house, however, it is with a warrant, not a knighthood, in hand. The Podesta is under arrest for causing false alarms among the citizens. Bartoline, too, is under arrest: To gain revenge on “Florio,” he paid several informants to accuse him of treason. When he identifies Artall as Florio, Bartoline is arrested for harassing an innocent bystander. The governor concludes the play by warning everyone to leave politics to those properly in authority.

City Politiques shows that once a citizen has broken faith with his legitimate ruler, he can expect no one to keep faith with him. After the Podesta begins to plot against the governor, his son attempts to steal his wife, his best friend succeeds in seducing her, and his lawyer tries to frame him. Likewise, if a man has betrayed his ruler, he will betray anyone, as the Podesta plans to betray his followers. Political rebellion leads to the loss of fidelity at all levels of society.

Phrased this way, the theme of City Politiques is indeed serious, but its onstage execution is humorous. Florio and Artall are witty seducers, as anxious to puncture the husband’s pomposity as to enjoy the wife. Craffy is a zany and incompetent would-be rake, so infatuated with Rosaura that he talks to himself about his passion even in his father’s presence. Bartoline lisps peculiarly and gratingly, making numerous inadvertent puns. The stage business is as inventive as the characters’ speaking habits. Craffy’s wrestling match with his father wrecks the entire room; the dual cuckolding unfolds daringly and rapidly.

Proof that Crowne’s satire struck home was his fate after the play opened: Outraged Whigs assaulted him on the street. Whatever pains Crowne suffered on that occasion must have been eased by his knowledge that the play was a success. London audiences relished his satiric depiction of those who, only months before, had been powerful and feared enemies.


Crowne, John