Richard Brome c. 1590-c. 1652
A popular Caroline dramatist, Brome was the author, singly or in collaboration, of at least twenty–three plays, sixteen of which survive. A former servant of Ben Jonson, Brome was greatly influenced by his master in his inclusion of “humors” characters, realistic elements, and satiric comment in his comedies. He was unique, however, in his belief in the therapeutic value of comedy; his two best plays, The Antipodes (1638) and A Jovial Crew (1641), demonstrate his conviction that mirth is a curative for the condition of melancholy.
Not much is known about Brome's personal life. It is generally accepted that he was born around 1590, probably outside of London. The earliest extant reference to Brome places him as Ben Jonson's servant; the Induction to Jonson's Bartholomew Fair (1614) characterizes “Master Broome” as Jonson's “man.” Moreover, in Jonson's verses, dedicated “To my old Faithfull Seruant: and (by his continu'd Vertue) my louing Friend: the Author of this Work, M. Richard Brome,” included in the 1629 publication of Brome's The Northern Lass, the elder playwright stated: “I had you for a Servant, once, Dick Brome; / And you perform'd a Servants faithful parts.” Brome himself acknowledged the relationship in his verses included in the 1647 folio edition of the plays of Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, when he referred to “the Master of his Art and Me, / Most knowing Jonson.” Advancing from servant to protégé of Jonson, Brome became known as one of the so-called “Sons of Ben,” a group of active professional writers whose works were composed in a style clearly influenced by Jonson. It is believed that Brome's first play (now lost), A Fault in Friendship, (1623) was a collaboration with Jonson. Later, an angry Jonson, bitter over the success of one of Brome's plays just weeks after one of his own had failed at the same theater, disparaged his pupil in his Ode to Himself (c. 1629): “Broomes sweeping doe as well / There as his Masters Meale.” The two evidently reconciled, for the reference to Brome was deleted from later versions of the poem. Brome testified to Jonson's influence in the Prologue appended to the 1637 revival of The City Wit (c. 1629) asserting that the play “bore just judgement, and the seal of Ben.” As a professional playwright, Brome wrote for a variety of acting companies, including the King's Men, formerly Shakespeare's acting troupe. After the closing of London's theaters in 1642, Brome wrote very little. He died around 1652-53. He wrote a dedication for the 1652 publication A Jovial Crew, but the address to the readers in the 1653 printing of Five New Playes stated that Brome was dead.
Many of Brome's works are city comedies, a genre, pioneered by Jonson, of realistic, satirical plays presenting a view of middle- and lower-class life in London. Brome's plays lack the sustained satirical edge possessed by those of his mentor, however; rather they reflect the playwright's optimistic view of life and his attempts to use theater as a cure for misery. From his earliest surviving play, The City Wit, and The Sparagus Garden (1635), to his latest and most successful works, The Antipodes and A Jovial Crew, Brome again and again employed theatrical devices such as disguise, role playing, and a play-within-the-play to effect positive outcomes. In The City Wit Crasy, a bankrupt businessman who has failed because he is honest, and who as a result is dismissed as a fool, assumes a number of diguises in order to outwit the members of the society that cast him out. The Sparagus Garden presents a pair of young lovers whose parents oppose their marriage. The lovers and their friends use their knowledge of theater to overcome the parents' opposition. In The Antipodes Peregrine is cured of his melancholy—brought about his unfulfilled desire to travel—by means of a play-within-the-play, with which he is duped into believing that he is has actually travelled to the topsy-turvy land of the Antipodes. His recognition of the absurdities he encounters restores his mental balance. A Jovial Crew features a complex plot that includes several levels of deception and playacting, and also includes a play-within-the-play. Patrico orchestrates an elaborate ruse to cure Oldrents of his melancholy. Oldrents' daughters transform themselves into beggars, and they later stage, with the assistance of Patrico, a play called The Merry Beggars, the action of which mirrors that of the larger play. After these departures from everyday life, the return to reality at the end of A Jovial Crew cures everyone of their dissatisfactions. These and numerous other devices throughout Brome's body of work demonstrate his belief in the therapeutic value of theater and his conviction that mirth and comedy, combined with a healthy dose of realism, can overcome the miseries of an imperfect world.
During his lifetime, Brome was a successful playwright, and A Jovial Crew was one of the most popular plays in the Caroline period. In addition to the support and tutelage of Ben Jonson, Brome received praise in the form of commendatory verses from such contemporaries as Thomas Dekker, John Ford, James Shirley, and others. The accolades of Brome's colleagues carried little weight with later critics, however. Herbert F. Allen, among others, regarded the work of Brome and his contemporaries as “decadent”: markedly inferior to that of their predecessors, including Shakespeare and Jonson. Allen dismissed Brome's plays as predictable and derivative. Clarence Edward Andrews similarly considered Brome decadent, but he conceded: “If we compare him with the very numerous tribe of Caroline imitators, he stands out as a figure of real importance.” Algernon Charles Swinburne also found Brome superior to his contemporaries and declared: “One of the most fanciful and delightful farces in the world is The Antipodes.” Joe Lee Davis further rehabilitated Brome's reputation when he discerned in The Antipodes a demonstration of a sophisticated theory of comic catharsis formulated by the playwright. Subsequent commentators have increasingly accorded Brome a greater measure of respect and have acknowledged the depth and complexity of his comedies. Several critics have noted the specificity of Brome's references to actual places and events. In his examination of topical allusions in four of Brome's plays, R. J. Kauffmann characterized the works as the “newspapers” of the day and stressed how “socially engaged” they were. Catherine M. Shaw also analyzed Brome's use of “realistic London references” and the social satire directed at his contemporaries. Ira Clark observed Brome's “persitent concern with Caroline sociopolitics,” arguing that the playwright “presented pressing issues in a pressing time.” Among the studies that have focused on other dimensions of Brome's plays are Shaw's discussion of the playwright's satirizing of conventional dramatic forms in several of his comedies and R. W. Ingram's analysis of his effective use of music.