Richard Cumberland was born on February 19, 1732, in the Master’s Lodge at Trinity College, Cambridge, into a family of clergymen and scholars of whom he was justly proud. His father, Denison Cumberland, later bishop of Clonfert and Kilmore, was descended from the bishop of Peterborough, who wrote an influential treatise in refutation of Thomas Hobbes, De Legibus Naturae, Disquisito Philosophica (1672). Cumberland’s mother, Joanna, was the daughter of the famous classics scholar Richard Bentley. Cumberland cherished fond memories of this learned man and upheld Bentley’s reputation all his life.
At the age of six, Cumberland was sent to school at Bury St. Edmunds, where, encouraged by headmaster Arthur Kinsman, he stood first in his class. In 1744, he entered Westminster School contemporaneously with Warren Hastings, George Colman, and William Cowper. In Cumberland’s school days, an interest in the drama was awakened by his mother’s reading of William Shakespeare; on an early trip to the theater, he was much impressed by the innovative acting of the young David Garrick.
In 1747, Cumberland was admitted to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he enjoyed the quiet life of study and intellectual exertion. He took his bachelor of arts degree in 1751 with high honors and was elected to a fellowship two years later. He felt drawn to an academic or clerical career and relinquished his calling with some regret when more worldly prospects presented themselves.
The great Whig Sir George Montagu Dunk, second earl of Halifax, out of gratitude to Cumberland’s father, offered to take Cumberland as his private secretary. Cumberland moved to London to take up the post, which gave him the opportunity to move in political circles. In 1759, he married Elizabeth Ridge, with whom he was to have four sons and three daughters. Fortunately for his growing family, he was appointed the Crown Agent for Nova Scotia and Provost Marshal of South Carolina, which added to his income.
Cumberland accompanied Lord Halifax to Ireland in 1761 as Ulster secretary. This experience was later to bear fruit in Cumberland’s drama, when he brought original Irish characters to the stage. The relationship with his patron cooled on Cumberland’s refusal of a baronetcy, and when Halifax became secretary of state in 1762, he appointed a rival as under secretary. Cumberland was forced to accept a minor position as clerk of reports on the Board of Trade.
With little to do and in need of money, Cumberland began in earnest his career as a dramatist. His first play, The Banishment of Cicero, was refused, but in 1765, The Summer’s Tale was produced, a musical comedy imitative of Isaac Bickerstaffe. This provoked a charge from which Cumberland was often to suffer, that of plagiarism, and he turned his efforts to a genre more conducive to his talents, that of sentimental comedy. In 1769, The Brothers played at Covent Garden to great applause.
An unexpected compliment to Garrick in the epilogue won Garrick’s friendship and led to a very productive association between the two. As actor-manager of Drury Lane Theatre until 1776, Garrick produced several of Cumberland’s plays, which benefited from Garrick’s expert knowledge of stagecraft. Their first effort was also the most successful: The West Indian, which appeared in 1771, enjoyed an extraordinary first run of twenty-eight nights, was frequently revived and held the stage to the end of the century. When his third comedy, The Fashionable Lover, also won favor, in 1772, Cumberland was established as the leading dramatist of the sentimental school.
Cumberland’s preeminence in the theater won for him his entrée into the leading social and literary circles of the time. At the British Coffee House, he met Samuel Johnson, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Edmund Burke, and Samuel Foote. He patronized the painter George Romney. He dined at Elizabeth Montagu’s (“Queen of the Blues”); he knew Hester Thrale and irritated Horace Walpole. As to the latter, although Cumberland moved in society with ease, proud of his dignified position as “gentleman playwright,” he had a temperament that provoked as much enmity as friendship.
Most unsatisfactory were his relationships with fellow dramatists, for Cumberland was reputed to be envious of all merit but his own. His discomfiture at the success of Sheridan’s The School for Scandal (pr. 1777) was widely reported. As the most popular exponent of sentimental comedy, Cumberland was vulnerable to attack by those who preferred laughing comedy, and when Goldsmith’s famous essay on the subject, “An Essay on the Theatre,” appeared in 1773, Cumberland took it as a personal affront. He replied in a vitriolic preface to his (appropriately entitled) play The Choleric Man. Proud of his accomplishments though professing humility and sensitive to criticism though pretending to lofty indifference, he exasperated even Garrick, who called him a “man without a skin.” Cumberland was identified by contemporaries as the original of Sheridan’s caricature in The Critic (pr. 1779) and was known as Sir Fretful Plagiary.
Cumberland’s literary career was interrupted in 1780 by involvement in political affairs. He had been appointed Secretary to the Board of Trade in 1775 through the interest of his patron and friend Lord George Germain. For this nobleman, then colonial secretary, Cumberland undertook a secret mission to Spain to arrange a separate peace treaty. When negotiations failed in 1781, Cumberland was recalled and was treated ungratefully by the government, which refused to reimburse him for his expenses. Moreover, he lost his post when the Board of Trade was abolished in 1782. Disappointed and in need of money, Cumberland retired to Tunbridge Wells, where he tried through unceasing literary activity to recoup his fortunes.
The first work produced after Cumberland’s return, The Walloons, a play with a strong Spanish flavor, failed to please, but he had more success with a domestic tragedy, The Mysterious Husband, in 1783. The Carmelite, staged in 1784 with an impressive gothic setting, displayed the extraordinary talents of actress Sarah Siddons as the heroine. Cumberland won little approval for his next few ventures, and it was not until 1794 that he again found his audience.
The Box-Lobby Challenge, produced early that year, was amusing fare, and a few months later The Jew was widely acclaimed. For the title role of the latter, Cumberland created a sympathetic character whose apparent avarice cloaked benevolent actions. Another powerful figure animated The Wheel of Fortune in 1795, giving actor John Philip Kemble one of his favorite roles. First Love, in the old vein of sentimental comedy, also won favor. These plays briefly restored Cumberland to his former popularity, but in the years to come, he was unable to match their success. He continued to write prolifically up to his death but for the most part failed to suit the taste of the audience and complained of the degeneracy of the stage.
Perhaps for this reason, Cumberland turned to other channels, and the years of his retirement saw a tremendous outpouring of fiction, poetry, and prose. This unremitting literary activity was at least partly a result of financial pressure. Toward the end of his life, his unfortunate situation attracted notice as one unworthy of a venerable man of letters.
By 1800, Cumberland had outlived his own generation and was viewed by his younger contemporaries as a figure from another era. He enjoyed his position as elder statesman and was accorded respect for his age and accomplishments. He liked to encourage young writers of talent, entertaining them with anecdotes of his own younger days. Always staunchly patriotic, he raised a corps of volunteers to meet the threat of a Napoleonic invasion; two of his sons died serving their country. At his death, at the age of seventy-nine, Cumberland left a modest estate to his youngest daughter. He lies buried in the Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey.