John Crowne was one of many playwrights who flourished in the small but intense theatrical world of Restoration London. In some ways, he is the archetypal dramatist of the time. He wrote to gain royal favor and to advance socially; he wrote in several genres to satisfy the taste of his aristocratic audience: court masques, historical tragedy, heroic tragedy, comedy of wit, and tragicomedy. Crowne’s plays commented, directly and indirectly, on contemporary political and social issues. Despite the attention to relevance, Crowne patterned his plays on the best models: Seneca, William Shakespeare, and Jean Racine in tragedy; Lope de Vega Carpio and Molière in comedy. That Crowne’s career spanned a quarter of a century suggests that he was popular and skillful and an important playwright.
From the dramatic variety of the time, two genres emerge as characteristically Restoration. The first is heroic tragedy . John Dryden was the preeminent practitioner of the form in plays such as All for Love: Or, The World Well Lost (pr. 1677) and The Conquest of Granada by the Spaniards (part I, pr. 1670, part II, pr. 1671). Crowne is somewhat beneath Dryden’s level of achievement. Lacking Dryden’s skill in poetry and subtlety in psychological conflict, Crowne successfully created larger-than-life heroes and placed them amid spectacular action.
The second genre is the comedy of wit . Here again, Crowne ranks immediately below the best writers, such as Sir George Etherege and William Wycherley. Though somewhat weak in plotting, Crowne excelled in creating ingenious situations, introducing farcical stage business, and portraying eccentric dramatis personae—the sort that good character actors very much like to play.
Though his tragedies are badly outdated by their idealism about monarchy and their relevance to Restoration politics, his comedies are less so. Several were revived occasionally in the 1700’s. The gem among them is Sir Courtly Nice, which remained a staple of the eighteenth century theater and is refreshingly amusing still.
Canfield, J. Douglas. “Regulus and Cleomenes and 1688: From Royalism to Self-Reliance.” Eighteenth Century Life 12 (November, 1988): 67-75. Crowne’s tragedy Regulus shows a Royalist perspective on the Revolution of 1688. The play draws a parallel between Great Britain and ancient Carthage, suggesting that by banishing warriors loyal to the rightful rulers, rebel leaders invite divine vengeance on the kingdom. Crowne argues dramatically that faithfulness is the most important virtue in a nation’s political life.
Canfield, J. Tricksters and Estates: On the Ideology of Restoration Comedy. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1997. Canfield includes considerable discussion of lesser Restoration comedy dramatists such as Crowne, as well as the masters.
Cordner, Michael. “Marriage Comedy After the 1688 Revolution: Southerne to VanBrugh.” Modern Language Review 85 (April, 1990): 273-289. Crowne’s The Married Beau is one of many comedies of the time whose plot concerns the marital disharmony following a wife’s discovery of her husband’s real or supposed adultery. Unlike Restoration wives who repaid infidelity with infidelity, postrevolutionary wives remained determinedly virtuous. In a new age, dramatists unhesitatingly changed the convention of Restoration comedy.
Kaufman, Anthony. “Civil Politics—Sexual Politics in John Crowne’s City Politiques.” Restoration: Studies in English Literary Culture, 1660-1700 6 (Fall, 1982): 72-80. Kaufman examines how the games of seduction and sexual competitiveness that form the plot of Crowne’s most famous comedy are a metaphor for the political struggle between Whigs and Tories during the Popish Plot and Exclusion crisis of 1678-1682.
Murrie, Eleanor Boswell. The Restoration Court Stage, 1660-1702, with a Particular Account of the Production of “Calisto.” 1932. Reprint. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1966. Part 3 of this study of plays performed at Charles II’s court focuses on the production of Crowne’s masque Calisto. It reports in fascinating detail the information that has survived about the performance: the lists of ladies and gentlemen of the court who performed in minor roles and in the chorus, the cost of the elaborate sets, the ushers’ instructions for seating the audience, and the costumes worn by the royal princesses who took the leading roles.
Owen, Susan J. Restoration Theatre and Crisis. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1996. Owen examines the connection between politics and drama, devoting a chapter to Crowne and discussing The Ambitious Statesman.
White, Arthur Franklin. John Crowne: His Life and Dramatic Works. Cleveland, Ohio: Western Reserve University Press, 1922. This classic study examines the life and works of Crowne.