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...
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