Sir John Vanbrugh Additional Biography


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Sir John Vanbrugh’s parents were Giles Vanbrugh, a prosperous London sugar refiner, and Elizabeth Barker Carleton, a wealthy heiress and widow. His exact birth date is not known; however, he was baptized January 24, 1664. Vanbrugh was probably educated at the King’s School in Chester, and, in 1683, he visited France, possibly to study architecture. He did not immediately start his architectural career but obtained a commission in the earl of Huntingdon’s Regiment of Foot. He resigned this commission in August of the same year, and his whereabouts for the next five years are uncertain. In September, 1688, Vanbrugh was arrested in France for his support of William of Orange. He remained imprisoned in France on charges of...

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(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

John Vanbrugh (VAHN-bruh) excelled in two art forms: playwriting and architecture. His father was a London merchant, his mother a daughter of Sir Dudley Carleton. Little is known of the events of Vanbrugh’s early life before he became associated with the theater, except that he reportedly studied architecture in France from 1683 to 1685. He was commissioned as an officer in the British army in 1686 and served for several years. While in France in 1690 he was imprisoned for several months in the Bastille as a suspected English spy. His first play to be published, The Relapse, was an original work produced in 1696. The Provok’d Wife, another original play, was presented in 1697 but had probably been written about 1691. Other plays which he wrote or cowrote were adaptations from earlier English or continental dramatists.

The Relapse was a sequel to Colley Cibber’s Love’s Last Shift (1696). Like other dramatists of the 1690’s, Vanbrugh depended on comedy of manners, sex, and lively action to carry along his plays. Social problems are introduced into the plays at times, but usually just for the purpose of making some cynical humor out of them. Notable in The Relapse is the sudden conversion of a debauched and faithless husband to marital constancy; such a reformation at the end of an immoral play was the dramatist’s reply to charges hurled at the stage at the time that it was presenting immorality. Vanbrugh’s plays, popular during his lifetime, were published in a collected edition in 1730, just four years after his death. On the side of notoriety rather than fame, Vanbrugh was one of the dramatists attacked for immorality by Jeremy Collier in his Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage (1698). Vanbrugh’s published replies to Collier’s attacks reveal a sophisticated understanding of comic theory.

As an architect, Vanbrugh designed Castle Howard, the Haymarket Theater, Blenheim Palace, and (with Nicholas Hawksmoor) the Clarendon Building at Oxford. Vanbrugh was knighted in 1723. He was married in 1719 to Henrietta Yarborough; they had several children, of whom a boy and a girl survived. Vanbrugh’s personality and well-constructed, good-humored plays continue to hold interest for many readers and playgoers in modern times.