John Crowne 1641-1712
(Also Crown or Croune) English playwright, poet, and satirist.
Crowne's plays are interesting and important mainly because they offer a glimpse into the political vogue of the Restoration period. His comedies, particularly Sir Courtly Nice (1685), were often superlatively praised by contemporaries for their pleasing and skillful structure, and his 1675 masque Calisto was a courtly event of enormous grandeur. However, although many plays employ a subtle wit and capable dramatic organization notable in any period, critical attention in recent times focuses on Crowne's political themes and his significance as a representation of Restoration dramatic taste. Perhaps best understood as the efforts of a playwright seeking to please his court, Crowne's works also present some incisive satirical portraits of the major political figures of the English Restoration.
John Crowne was born in London, the son of William Crowne, a nobleman whose political skills enabled him to thrive during the period of the Commonwealth. The elder Crowne's influence with Oliver Cromwell resulted in his being awarded the patent to Nova Scotia, where he took his sons John and Henry in 1657. That same year Crowne enrolled at Harvard, but he returned to England with his father in 1661, at the time of the restoration of Charles II. Crowne remained in England, even after his father returned to America, and attempted to earn his living with his writing. His first published work, a prose romance called Pandion and Amphigenia (1665) was successful enough to attract the notice of several court writers. He continued trying to please the court with his first play, Juliana (1671). He based the play's hero on an ancestor of the Duke of Curland and dedicated the work to the Earl of Orrery. He then dedicated his second play, The History of Charles the Eighth of France (1671), to John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, which resulted in enough favor to grant him Rochester's recommendation to write a grandiose court masque, Calisto (1675). The success of this performance led to Crowne's further ingratiation with Charles II, and Crowne sought to use his influence with the king to regain his father's property in Nova Scotia, which had been lost in a series of incidents after Cromwell's protectorate fell. Crowne's petition for this land ran from 1679 to 1681, during which he wrote four plays and eight books, but ultimately the colonists in Nova Scotia prevailed with Charles and Crowne lost the property. This began a difficult time for the playwright, with England under threat of civil war, the theaters unpopular, and his patronage waning. He continued to write promonarchical plays satirizing Whig politicians, however, and was on the verge of securing a court office with Charles when, just days before the opening of Crowne's most popular and critically acclaimed comedy, Sir Courtly Nice (1685), the king fell ill and died, shattering Crowne's hopes of an early retirement. Crowne managed to gain favor with James II, but the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 left him trying to cater to a different court, with the Whigs in power and William of Orange on the throne. By 1697, misjudging what would please his sponsors and finding it very difficult to secure the interest of King William, Crowne felt financially insecure and renewed the petition for his father's lands in Nova Scotia. This failed once again, and by 1702, with Queen Anne's ascension, Crowne found himself in reduced circumstances. He managed to secure a fairly regular pension from Queen Anne, however, and retired to St. Giles Parish until his death in 1712.
Crowne's first work was the fashionable prose romance Pandion and Amphigenia, written to secure patronage and of little interest today. His career as a playwright began in 1671, when he wrote Juliana and The History of Charles the Eighth of France, both of which closely followed the conventions of typical Restoration drama, such as heroic couplets. In 1674 Crowne accepted the laureate John Dryden's invitation to co-write Notes and Observations on the Empress of Morocco, a satire of Thomas Shadwell's play, and also that year, translated Jean Racine's Andromache. Crowne was then commissioned to write a courtly masque entitled Calisto, a grandiose performance costing a fortune and placed at the forefront of London's fashionable community. He successfully presented this work to the popular taste of the court by altering Ovid's myth of a rape such that the main character is entirely chaste. Crowne next wrote the popular comedy The Country Wit (1676), which deals with a standard conflict of the time, that of an independent daughter desiring to choose her own husband. The Destruction of Jerusalem, parts 1 and 2 (1677) and The Ambitious Statesman (1679) succeeded because of their heroic and monarchical themes, and Crowne's 1680-81 plays based on Shakespeare's Henry VI, parts 2 and 3, as well as Thyestes (1680), allowed him to express the evils of civil war and other pro-Tory themes. Like City Politiques (1683), they subtly portray the stupidity and self-interest of politicians (whom the audience would have recognized as various Whigs of the time.) Crowne then wrote his most famous and popular comedy, Sir Courtly Nice, which became a staple of English drama for a hundred years because of its witty satire and sophisticated dramatic organization. The English Frier (1690), a satire against the preceding age, and Regulus (1692), a heroic tragedy, were the first plays Crowne wrote during the reign of William of Orange. The Married Beau (1694) earned more critical praise than these because it anticipated the styles of eighteenth-century comedy, but like the two preceding works, it failed to arouse the interest of the court. Generally considered past his peak by this time, Crowne wrote a final tragedy, Caligula (1698), which is somewhat bombastic and poorly structured.
As is clear from the criticism of contemporaries such as Gerald Langbaine, and from the high profile Crowne attained in such commissions as Calisto, the playwright was very well regarded during his lifetime. Some of Crowne's writings, including his later tragedies and his verse, have been decidedly unpopular at any time, but his comedies were regularly performed long after his death. With the advent of new dramatic standards and the declining interest in formulaic Restoration drama, Crowne's reputation declined and he began to hold less interest for critics. Maidment and Logan's 1874 memoir praises his comedic talents, however, and his works have retained an amount of critical interest and praise until today. Twentieth-century critics have been largely interested in the political world Crowne's plays depict and the degree to which they represent the dramatic appetite of Restoration audiences. Crowne's success in his own time is expressed by John Dennis, writing of Sir Courtly Nice: “And ‘tis my opinion, that the greatest Comick Poet that ever liv'd in any Age, might have been proud to have been the Author of it.”