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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

§ 3. Richard Cumberland; The Brothers; The West Indian

Cumberland was the pioneer of the later sentimental comedy. He differed from his contemporaries in untying domestic tangles by drastic and, sometimes, almost tragic action; and, thus, he pointed the way to melodrama. Other dramatists of the sixties and seventies had failed to strike this vein because they confined the interest of the play to the correct and decorous society in which the chief characters moved. Cumberland saw that the leaven must come from without, and exposed the decadence of artificial civilisation by confronting it with the vigorous and earnest lives which men were leading away from London and county society. In The Brothers (1769), the scene opens on a bleak coast lashed by a furious storm; a privateer is wrecked, whose crew of sturdy, if theatrical, pirates includes young Belfield, who has been driven from his estate and sweetheart, and Violetta, who has been forsaken by her husband. Both are wronged by Belfield the elder who, now possessed of the neighbouring manor-house, is grinding the tenants and courting Sophia, his brother’s betrothed. The sudden arrival of the dispossessed heir and of the abandoned wife, the frustration of the villain’s designs, the reunion of the lovers after mutual misunderstandings, the contrast between the sea-rover, with his hardy companions, and the decadent gentry who have gathered round the manor-hall, supply the humour and sentiment which were then in fashion. It is undeniable that the characters do not really live, while the idea of a cadet turned Bohemian through a kinsman’s criminal selfishness must have been familiar to readers of Fielding and Smollett. Yet, The Brothers is noteworthy. Belfield the elder is a villain in his actions more than in his nature, and the good side of his character is gradually evolved as the play proceeds; his final humiliation has none of the bitterness of revenge; and, all through the play, one feels something of the health and freedom of the sea. The Brothers was produced in December, 1769, at Covent garden. In January, 1771, Garrick brought out at Drury lane The West Indian, in which the imagined freedom and sincerity of the plantations come into contact with city life. Stockwell, a prosperous business man and a member of parliament, has summoned his illegitimate son from the West Indies to London; but, before declaring his relationship, decides to watch his character in the disguise of a friend. The son, under the name Belcour, arrives among an outworn and artificial circle, composed of the penurious captain Dudley, lodging with his son and daughter at the house of the Fulmers (the husband a decayed literary man, the wife a procuress), and of Lady Rusport, his sister, an avaricious puritan, who refuses money to her brother and tries to thwart young Charles Dudley’s courtship of her step-daughter Charlotte. The intercourse between Stockwell and the son whom he may not own gives free play to the sentimentality which the age enjoyed; but the chief interest of the play centres in Louisa, Captain Dudley’s daughter. The West Indian sees her in the street, follows her home to the house of the Fulmers with tropical ardour and begins an irregular courtship which brings out the emotional elements of the play—the villainy of the Fulmers, who tell Belcour that Miss Dudley is only a mistress and fleece him; the sacredness of women’s honour; young Dudley’s jealousy for his sister’s good name, leading to a challenge; and the gradual development of Belcour’s character, impulsive and licentious on the surface, but showing itself full of courage and chivalry as the plot thickens. Cumberland was now rapidly making a name and a fortune. Late in the same year, he adapted Timon of Athens for the modern stage, by shortening the first four acts and rewriting the fifth, and, early in the next year, Garrick produced The Fashionable Lover, a purely domestic drama, reminiscent of Clarissa, of which the principal figure is the elegant and rather mournful Augusta Aubrey. Left to the care of a dishonest speculator, she is compromised by a nobleman, courted by an ardent and honourable lover and, finally, restored to happiness and affluence by the unexpected arrival of her father from abroad.