Richard Cumberland, Comic Force, and Misanthropy


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

In 1775 Richard Cumberland published an ill-natured dedication with his comedy The Choleric Man, prompting Arthur Murphy to say, at the end of a severely unfavorable criticism of the principal character, that the true idea of a choleric man was to be found in the dedication.1 That this dedication should be a sample of Cumberland at his thorniest is especially ironic, since his chief concern was a theory of comedy to support his own benevolent comedies. He was replying to the charge that his comedy was (without acknowledgement) based on Shadwell's Squire of Alsatia, and above all, to what he saw as an attack on him in "An Essay on the Theatre, or a Comparison between Laughing and Sentimental Comedy," published in the Westminster Magazine, 1 January 1773. Both the tone of the dedication and Cumberland's unconvincing denial that he had borrowed from Shadwell provided Sheridan with material for his devastating portrait of Cumberland as Sir Fretful Plagiary in The Critic. The reply to "An Essay on the Theatre," however, was much more than a demonstration of spleen and wounded vanity. It was a serious attempt to challenge certain widely accepted ideas about the development and the nature of comedy.

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