Little is known of Richard Brome’s personal life, including date and place of birth and death. The conventionally accepted estimate of his birth date is 1590, but evidence for the date is scanty: In 1591, a Richard Brome was listed as the son of Henry Brome in the St. James Clerkenwell parish register, and depositions in 1639 and 1640 Chancery Court suits identified a Richard Brome “aged 50 years or thereabouts.” Whether these records refer to Richard Brome the playwright is uncertain, since marriage and burial records of the period indicate several Richard Bromes in the London area alone. For the same reason, Brome’s marriage and family relationships cannot be clearly identified, though he did apparently marry and rear a family: In 1640, he complained that the Salisbury Court Theatre’s refusal to pay him caused him and his family to suffer hardship. His death can be pinned down only to the years 1652-1653.
Much more interesting information is available on Brome’s career as a playwright. The most interesting fact is that, before becoming a playwright, Brome was the servant of Ben Jonson, a leading playwright and the main theorist of Renaissance English drama. The introduction of Jonson’s comedy Bartholomew Fair (pr. 1614) refers to “his man, Master Broome, behind the arras,” and Jonson wrote a commendatory poem for Brome’s The Northern Lass that includes the following lines:
I had you for a servant, once, Dick Brome;And you performed a servant’s faithful parts.Now, you are got into a nearer room,Of fellowship, professing my old arts.And you do do them well, with good applause,Which you have justly gained from the stage,By observation of those comic laws Which I, your master, first did teach the age.You learned it well, and for it served your time A prenticeship: which few do nowadays. . . .
Similarly, Brome gratefully acknowledged Jonson’s influence and tutelage, proud to be one of the “Sons of Ben.”
How well Brome learned from his mentor is indicated by an incident that occurred in 1629. That year, Jonson’s The New Inn failed miserably at the Blackfriars Theatre. Shortly afterward, the same company and theater presented Brome’s The Love-sick Maid—to extraordinarily popular acclaim. Jonson was so upset that, in “Ben Jonson’s Ode to Himself,” he blasted popular taste in the theater, complaining that “Broom’s sweepings do as well/ There as his master’s meal.” Other Sons of Ben seconded their master with puns on Brome’s name and status and with allusions to the sweepings or dregs he was serving up. Apparently this incident ruffled Jonson and Brome’s relationship only briefly, however, since Jonson left out the snide allusion to Brome when he published his ode in 1631, and in 1632, Jonson wrote his commendatory verses to Brome’s The Northern Lass.
The coincidence of Jonson’s failure and Brome’s success in 1629 also indicates that Brome learned from other contemporary playwrights besides his mentor. Brome collaborated with Thomas Heywood and possibly with George Chapman, and a number of fellow dramatists, including James Shirley and John Ford, who wrote commendatory verses for Brome’s works. In addition, Brome’s work shows the influence of still other playwrights, such as John Fletcher, Francis Beaumont, and Philip Massinger. These collaborations, commendations, and influences confirm that, if Jonson was Brome’s mentor, Brome was also widely acquainted with other dramatists and their work.
Such a view of Brome is further supported by his associations with various companies and theaters. His early play with “Young Johnson,” A Fault in Friendship (now lost), was produced by the Prince’s Company, probably at the Red Bull Theatre. In 1628, Brome was listed with the Queen of Bohemia’s Players, who apparently toured the provinces and sometimes acted at the Red Bull Theatre in London (whether Brome was an actor for the company is in dispute). From 1629 to 1634, Brome wrote for the King’s Men , the leading troupe in London and also Jonson’s company, which produced Brome’s work at court and at the Globe and Blackfriars theaters. In 1635, Brome returned briefly to the Prince’s Company at the Red Bull, then signed a three-year contract to write for the King’s Revels (later Queen Henrietta’s Men) at the Salisbury Court Theatre. Brome found this association unsatisfactory—there was a dispute about proper payment—and did not sign a new seven-year contract with Salisbury Court Theatre when it was offered to him in 1638. Instead, in 1639 he moved over to write for Beeston’s Boys at the Cockpit Theatre—a happy association that continued until the end of Brome’s career.
Brome’s career ended abruptly, at its height, when the English Civil War started in 1642 and Parliament closed all the theaters. A creature of the theater, Brome lived on, sadly and in poverty, until 1652 or 1653. Appropriately, his last known literary effort involved a collection of elegies entitled Lachrymae Musarum.
The last of the Elizabethan writers of comedy, Richard Brome (brohm) had no contemporary chronicler, and he left few legal traces of his existence. Yet he was a friend of the great and near great. Originally, he was Ben Jonson’s servant—though it is not clear whether in a menial or secretarial capacity—and he rose from humble beginnings to a place of some prominence. He called himself a playmaker rather than a poet, and he was a writer of popular comedies, satires, masques, and nineteen or more romantic plays. Only five of his plays were published during his lifetime.
Brome wrote for such prominent companies as the King’s Men, the King’s Revels at Salisbury Court, and Beeston’s Boys at the Phoenix. His plays were repeatedly performed at the most popular theaters, and on several occasions he collaborated with other working dramatists (however, he disdained the courtly amateurs). Even after the Restoration, his plays continued to be revised and played. His comedies, like those of his mentor Jonson, contained much deft writing and satiric but accurate portrayals of the age. More important, his art anticipated the witty and bawdy comedy of manners and thus serves as a bridge between two great periods of comedy in the theater.
The facts of Brome’s biography remain scanty. He was probably an actor early in life, possibly in a company of strolling players. In 1628, he is listed among the members of the queen of Bohemia’s company, Lady Elizabeth’s Men. He was possibly married three times, and legal notices indicate that money was usually scarce with him. When Parliament closed the theaters in 1642, Brome was deprived of his livelihood, and he died impoverished ten years later.