Richard Cumberland Critical Essays


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Richard Cumberland took seriously his role as moralist and reformer and set himself a novel didactic task: “I thereupon looked into society for the purpose of discovering such as were the victims of its national, professional or religious prejudices; . . . and out of these I meditated to select and form heroes for my future dramas.”

The West Indian

In his popular play The West Indian, he defends the character of a Creole. The basic plot is a familiar testing device, set up in the opening scene. Stockwell awaits the arrival from Jamaica of his unacknowledged son; he decides to defer acknowledgment of their relationship until he has had an opportunity to evaluate the young man’s behavior. Should his son, Belcour, satisfy this scrutiny, Stockwell will reward him with legitimacy, a fortune, and a place in English society.

Interest in Belcour is awakened before his entrance and increased by the parade of black porters. Nor is he likely to disappoint expectations; he enters breezily, complaining of the rapacious mob at the waterside. As a stranger to English society, he is able to view it objectively and provide satiric commentary. Moreover, as a “child of nature,” his viewpoint should be a healthy corrective. Generous and honorable himself, he does not suspect duplicity in others; while this makes him an easy dupe of the scheming Fulmers, it redounds to his credit as a proof of his innocence.

Belcour’s lack of guile is an endearing trait: The candor with which he acknowledges his faults to Stockwell disarms reproof, and his ingenuous confession to Charlotte of the loss of her jewels wins an easy forgiveness. This West Indian shows the human heart in its natural state—impulsive, mercurial, and uncontrolled. He himself bemoans the violence of his passions, blaming them on his tropical constitution. He is driven by his powerful urges. Inflamed by the beauty of Louisa Dudley, he sacrifices every other tie to possess her. Plunging headlong into error, he is chastened by the mischief that ensues. Like so many other libertines, Belcour is reclaimed by a virtuous woman. Kneeling at her feet, he pledges his love, grounded now on principle. In their union, the ideal of a feeling heart tempered with reason will be achieved.

Belcour is valued above all for his benevolence. A creature of instinct, his first impulse on hearing of distress is to relieve it. His follies and virtues proceed from the same source—a warm heart. He reflects the fundamental belief of sentimental drama in the natural goodness of people and contradicts the orthodox Christian view of human beings’ sinfulness. Sympathy with one’s fellow creatures is the moral touchstone for all the characters in the play—a quality conspicuously lacking in Lady Rusport, who represents the Puritan position. She was taught never to laugh; she abhors the playhouses; and she upholds the letter of the law over the spirit of charity. She is rightfully excluded from the happy ending.

Cumberland’s fallible but generous hero, who would not be out of place in a laughing comedy, resembles Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones and Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s Charles Surface. The play abounds with high spirits; besides the amusing peccadilloes of Belcour, there is a subplot involving the lively Charlotte Rusport. She is unexpectedly forthright, avowing her love for Charles although uncertain of its return. This reversal of roles, in which a lady takes the active part in the wooing, is frequently seen in Cumberland’s plays. Charlotte’s witty repartee, directed even at the sentimental heroine, prevents Louisa’s distresses from appearing too pathetic.

A similar defusing of sentiment is accomplished by Major O’Flaherty. He is a stage Irishman with a difference; while retaining some national traits, he has many admirable qualities, showing courage, loyalty, and generosity. It is he, after all, who discovers and delivers the will that brings about the happy reversal of fortune. His joyful exuberance animates this otherwise tearful scene. He punctures the Dudleys’ formal rhetoric with irreverent comments, undercuts Lady Rusport’s tirade, and interrupts the highly emotional father-son reunion.

In The West Indian, Cumberland skillfully blends comic and sentimental elements. It is unique in this regard; more often, his plays are thoroughly imbued with sentiment. The Fashionable Lover, for example, shows more clearly what is meant by the “tearful Muse.”

The Fashionable Lover

The opening of The Fashionable Lover is reminiscent of a comedy of humors, in which each character appears onstage to exhibit his or her particular foible. A Scotsman complains of extravagance to a foppish French valet; a railing misanthrope irritates a dissolute aristocrat; and a musty Welsh antiquary squares off with a vulgar merchant. The tone is one of satire until the introduction of the sentimental plot. This involves a poor orphan, surprised by the rakish lord into a compromising situation. Wherever Miss Augusta Aubrey turns in her hapless state, tears are sure to follow.

Cumberland aims to inspire pity through the picture of virtue in distress. He presents characters in a middle walk of life, with whose problems the audience can identify. The appeal to the heart is beneficial and instructive; it enlarges one’s sympathies and strengthens one’s affections. To evoke this response, Augusta is cast on the world bemoaning her hard lot. Nor is she likely to minimize her sorrows: “I have no house, no home, no father,...

(The entire section is 2293 words.)