Richard Cumberland Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Richard Cumberland is remarkable for the volume and variety of his literary output. Experimenting in several different genres, he earned a reputation in his day as a distinguished man of letters. Most of his works, however, have not survived.

Cumberland had early ambitions as a poet, his first publication being an imitation of Thomas Gray, An Elegy Written on St. Mark’s Eve (1754). He was to publish Odes in 1776, and a volume entitled Miscellaneous Poems two years later. A religious epic, Calvary: Or, The Death of Christ (1792) sold well, which encouraged him to collaborate with Sir James Bland Burgess in The Exodiad (1807). Cumberland rendered some fifty psalms into English meter in A Poetical Version of Certain Psalms of David (1801) and reflected on his life in verse in Retrospection (1811).

Cumberland also won renown as an essayist for his multivolume work The Observer, which first appeared in 1785, with editions following in 1788 and in 1798. It featured a discussion of the early Greek drama with some original translations (notably Aristophanes’ Nephelai (423 b.c.e.; The Clouds, 1708). Cumberland wrote pamphlets—defending his grandfather’s reputation, among other causes—and a religious tract. He entered the realm of art history with his Anecdotes of Eminent Painters in Spain During the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (1782) and published the first catalog of the paintings housed in the royal palace at Madrid.

The pathetic scenes that mark Cumberland’s drama are also found in his fiction: Arundel (1789), an epistolary novel of the form popularized by Samuel Richardson, and Henry (1795), a conscious imitation of Henry Fielding. Cumberland’s active involvement in the theater resulted in numerous prologues and epilogues as well as an edition of The British Drama with biographical and critical comments, published posthumously in 1817. In 1809, Cumberland also founded The London Review, which invited signed articles from contributors; it appeared only twice. His Memoirs of Richard Cumberland, Written by Himself (1806-1807), perhaps the most lasting of his nondramatic productions, preserved for posterity the record of his long and productive career.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Richard Cumberland is remarkable for his long and varied contribution to the theater. During his career, which spanned forty years, he wrote some fifty dramatic pieces, including musical comedies and operas, a masque, classical historical and domestic tragedies, translations and adaptations, farces, and occasional pieces. The genre in which he excelled was sentimental comedy, and for years he was the most successful writer in the field. His sentimental comedies held the stage against the masterpieces of Oliver Goldsmith and Richard Brinsley Sheridan. His very preeminence, however, made him vulnerable to attack, and unfortunately he has been handed down to posterity, through the eyes of his opponents, as “the Terence of England, the mender of hearts,” according to Goldsmith in “Retaliation” (1774).

Indeed, Cumberland is remembered primarily for his place in the debate between sentimental and laughing comedy . The issues were hotly contested: What is the primary purpose of the stage? Should comedy be realistic or idealistic? Should it ridicule vices and follies or present models worthy of imitation? Should playwrights appeal to the intellect or to the emotions? Should they aim to provoke superior laughter or sympathetic tears? Stated in these terms, the answers seem obvious, with the common verdict in favor of “true,” or laughing, comedy. One should not forget, however, the response of Cumberland’s contemporaries. In his day, he was enormously...

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(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Bevis, Richard. The Laughing Tradition. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1980. Focusing on the varieties of comic theater in the age of actor David Garrick, Bevis investigates the traditional critical dichotomy between an entrenched, uninspired sentimental mode and an upstart, imaginative laughing mode. He discusses Cumberland’s major comedies as a response to audience demands for “clean fun” and morally uplifting themes.

Campbell, Thomas J. “Richard Cumberland’s The Wheel of Fortune: An Unpublished Scene.” Nineteenth Century Theatre Research 11 (1983): 1-11. This article demonstrates what can happen to a play as it passes from text to performance. The omitted scene was probably cut by John Kemble, who played the comic lead of Penruddock in the first performance.

Detish, Robert. “The Synthesis of Laughing and Sentimental Comedy.” Educational Theatre Journal 20 (1970): 291-300. Detish argues that a proper reading of Cumberland’s most important play, The West Indian, requires a recognition of the tension between laughing comedy aggressively espoused by Oliver Goldsmith in the 1770’s and sentimental comedy dominant since the days of Richard Steele.

Dircks, Richard J. Richard Cumberland. Boston: Twayne, 1976. This full-length critical study of Cumberland’s life and works evaluates Cumberland’s little remembered novels and poems, as well as the more important plays, to present a complete picture of a writer who produced literature popular with contemporary audiences but uninspiring to, and not influential on, the next generation of authors.

Traugott, John. “Heart and Mask and Genre in Sentimental Comedy.” Eighteenth Century Life 10 (1986): 122-144. The author considers Cumberland’s The Jew among the worst sentimental comedies of the eighteenth century for its “genteel vulgarity.” In contrast to the plays of Oliver Goldsmith and Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Cumberland’s work coyly courts a sense of worldliness that it affects to scorn. Traugott offers on thematic grounds an explanation for the lack of reputation of Cumberland’s later plays.