Sir John Vanbrugh Biography


(History of the World: The 17th and 18th Centuries)

Article abstract: The most versatile of the English gentlemen-amateurs, Vanbrugh has an equally distinguished reputation as a playwright and an architect, having produced two of the finest Restoration comedies and at least three of the finest English Baroque buildings.

Early Life

John Vanbrugh’s grandfather was a refugee from Catholic religious persecution in Flanders; he came to England during the reign of Elizabeth I and established himself as a merchant in the city of London. Vanbrugh’s father also went into business, first in London, and later as a sugar merchant in the city of Chester, where it is likely that Vanbrugh was educated at the distinguished local grammar school. His mother, Elizabeth, was the daughter of Sir Dudley Carrington, through whom there were connections of social and political importance; one of the uncles had been secretary of state and ambassador to Holland. Vanbrugh may have had some education on the Continent, and he may have been apprenticed to a London merchant for a time, but there is no certain evidence for either suggestion.

His first job of record was in the military, and he was commissioned in Lord Huntingdom’s Regiment of Foot but resigned later in the same year, 1686. In 1688, he was arrested in France. The reason for his internment has never been fully explained; he may have been spying for the British, or he may simply have been detained to be used as a pawn by Louis XIV to obtain release of a French national held by the British on an espionage charge. Whatever the case, he was eventually housed in the Bastille and was finally released in late 1692.

A genial, attractive, witty man, Vanbrugh was able to make his way through the labyrinth of London society and politics, and in 1693, he obtained a sinecure as auditor for the Southern Division of the Duchy of Lancaster. In 1695, he was back in the military as a captain of Marines in Lord Berkeley’s regiment. He seems never to have seen active combat service, and he was on half-pay by 1698, for all purposes virtually retired.

It was during the 1690’s that Vanbrugh was to become involved in the two arts of theater and architecture. He may have had some training in architecture in his early years on the Continent, although there is no proof of this. He did, however, start to write plays while in prison in France. If the military seemed to go only so far for him, he was not a man easily discouraged or without ambition, and in 1696, his life as an artist, if within gentlemanly restraints, began with some considerable success and promise.

Life’s Work

Vanbrugh came to the theater in the last decade of the Restoration period, which takes its name from the restoration of Charles II in 1660 to the throne, from which his father, Charles I, had been deposed in the 1640’s. The latter Charles, having lived so long in France and personally inclined to a life of pleasure, liked his theater to be lively and sexually improper. He was joined in this enthusiasm not only by his court but also by many of the members of the upper classes, tired of the rigorous religiosity of the Commonwealth period.

What they wanted to see were idealized mirror images of themselves on the stage: richly dressed, handsome men and women at the top of the social scale, talking smartly and often cruelly about success in society and in love. The fact that so many of their own marriages were loveless arrangements of money and class (as was the general custom of the time) intensified their skepticism about matrimony. Restoration comedy imitated life (if only a small part of it) and improved on it. In these plays, romantic feeling was less important than is usually the case in comedies. If the handsomest man could be expected to gain the prettiest woman, it did not necessarily follow in a Restoration comedy that they would marry or that they could marry, since marital infidelity was a part of the game. The touchstone of success, aside from sex appeal, was intelligence: The wittiest man won the wittiest woman. Those who knew how to use society for their own ends, within certain severely limited bounds of honor, won out in this world of smart-set smart talk.

There was considerable criticism of the Restoration comedy of manners, not simply from the Puritans, who saw the theater as a symbol of the ungodliness of the Stuart regime, but also among some members of the ruling majority, who saw the theater as going too far in its celebration of the conjunction between high intelligence and high life. Some authors attempted to assuage the moralist attacks by bringing some genuine feeling into the plays of social and sexual impropriety, but Vanbrugh eschewed such sentimentality in his work, which suggested that the rare individual might try to be sexually faithful, and might even succeed in doing so, but that their example had little effect on others.

His first play, The Relapse: Or, Virtue in Danger (1696), was a continuation of a play written earlier by Colley Cibber, the actor-manager, titled Love’s Last Shift (1696). Cibber had taken the leading part in his own work, and he returned to the same part in Vanbrugh’s exploration of the simple proposition that man, however he tried, was doomed to fail in any attempt to be faithful to one woman, however much he loved her. Vanbrugh’s best play, The Provok’d Wife (1697), was, in fact, the work with which he had occupied himself while in prison and underlined the impossibility of marital fidelity in the sophisticated world of the London upper-middle class. Vanbrugh became a specific target for Jeremy Collier, the cleric determined to clean up the London stage, whose essay A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of English Stage (1698) became the focus for social concern about the stage. Vanbrugh attempted to answer the charges, but he never really reformed his work or seriously intended to do so. He was involved in the adaptation of several French comedies throughout the 1690’s and the first decade of the eighteenth century, during which he tried, with limited success and regular disaster, to run theaters and theater companies in collaboration with other theatrical figures. He was one of the first promoters of the opera in England, which also proved to be, on its first appearance, too new for London audiences.

The Relapse and The Provok’d Wife were to join that small group of Restoration comedies which were to be revived over and over, and which are still played regularly in theaters all over the world, enchanting audiences with their splendid flights of saucily improper, brightly intelligent dialogue, and with their canny insights into the waywardness of human sexuality. The idea might be, as critics have always claimed, a thin one, but it has a galvanic kernel of truth about it—one which Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was to use much later in the eighteenth century in his opera Così fan tutte (1786), proving, as the Restoration playwrights had, that art is often a matter of execution, how it is done, rather than a matter of content, what is being done.

By the late 1690’s, Vanbrugh had firmly established himself at the center of London life, not only as a theatrical figure but also as a member of the Whig political and social hierarchy which was to provide him with modest political rewards, leading ultimately to his being the first man knighted by George I on his accession...

(The entire section is 3066 words.)