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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

XII. The Georgian Drama

§ 16. Cumberland’s Jew

Cumberland, who had really been the first to influence the closing phase of this period of dramatic history, continued unceasingly to supply the theatre. His prolific industry produced nothing more noteworthy than The Jew (1794), a rehabilitation of that nation, in which Sheva, after a display of Hebrew frugality, suddenly shows Christian loving-kindness, and saves Sir Stephen Bertram’s family from disunion by an unexpected act of generosity.

Bad as all these playwrights are, it is surprising that their work was no poorer. Throughout the period, the men who wrote for the theatre were gradually finding themselves enslaved to the demoralising exigencies of stage-carpentry and scenic display. This influence, at once the effect and the cause of dramatic decadence, began to appear as early as 1656 in The Siege of Rhodes, and, when Jeremy Collier shamed the theatre out of its chief source of amusement, managers availed themselves of “foreign monsters,” such as French dancers and posture-makers, in order to retain the patronage of the old school. Henceforth, the stage never recovered its inspired simplicity. By the second half of the eighteenth century, spectacles were one of the chief attractions of the theatre. In 1761, Walpole describes how Garrick exhibited the coronation with a real bonfire and a real mob, while Rich was about to surpass this display by introducing a dinner for the knights of the Bath and for the barons of the Cinque ports. In 1772, the English Roscius was represented on the title-page of a pamphlet treading on the works of Shakespeare, with the subjoined motto:

  • Behold the Muses Roscius sue in vain,
  • Tailors and carpenters usurp the reign;
  • and, in 1776, Colman, at the request of Sheridan, produced New Brooms, an ironical commendation of the opera’s popularity. In 1789, stage-managership was so far an attraction in itself that the same Colman was content to portray, not the manners of his age, but Hogarth’s print of the Enraged Musician, under the title Ut Pictura Poesis. In 1791, Cymon, though an execrable play, was revived and had a run of thirty or forty nights, because the piece concluded with a pageant of a hundred knights and a representation of a tournay. In 1794, Macbeth was staged with a lake of real water. By the end of the century, the theatre-going public had so far lost the dramatic sense that the audiences of Bristol and Bath clamoured for the contemptible witches’ dance which Kemble had suppressed in his rendering of Macbeth, and London society made a fashionable entertainment out of “Monk” Lewis’s pantomimic melodramas and a little boy’s ludicrous appearance in great tragic rÔles.