Richard CumberlandSeptember’s hottie of the month is Richard Cumberland, an eighteenth-century dramatist. He was born in 1732 and died in 1811. Cumberland was one of the most productive and important playwrights of the late eighteenth-century. Best known for his sentimental comedy The West Indian, Cumberland also penned a number of other successful plays, including The Brothers (1769), The Fashionable Lover (1772), The Jew (1794), and The Wheel of Fortune (1795).

As the dates of these plays suggest, Cumberland’s career is often divided into two parts. After devoting the 1780s to writing relatively unsuccessful tragedies, musical theater, religious poetry, and novels, the successful production of The Jew began the later phase of his career. Indeed, this comedy brought international renown: it was produced throughout Europe and America, was revived in throughout the nineteenth century, and was even translated into Hebrew and Yiddish. The play was adapted in 2000 by New York playwright Robert Armin as Sheva, the Benevolent. I’m currently writing about The Jew, a play that I think is totally fascinating.

Scholars generally agree that Cumberland’s goal in writing The Jew was to bring greater tolerance of Jews to English society. He worked to do this by depicting the title character’s humanity in his play. In choosing the literary vogue of sentimentalism to achieve this goal, Cumberland departed from traditional representations of Jews as villainous usurers bent on the murderous destruction of Christians, an image made famous by Shakespeare’s Shylock in The Merchant of Venice and perpetuated in anti-Semitic treatises and a wide range of literary works throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Virulent anti-Semitism was further refueled by the Jewish Naturalization Bill of 1753, a Parliamentary effort to extend the possibility of English citizenship to Jews. The bill’s passage sparked a public debate about the status of Jews in England, a debate that largely revolved around anti-Semitic stereotypes of Jews as “dishonest, obstinate, blasphemous, clannish, ambitious, cunning, arrogant, traitorous, vengeful, and cruel,” to borrow the words of Roy S. Wolper. Because of the outcry against the bill, it was quickly rescinded by Parliament later the same year. Although the social discourse concerning the status of Jews in England quickly died down, the stereotypical portrayals of Jews remained a constant in the literature of the late eighteenth-century. In fact, even Cumberland participated in perpetuating these anti-Semitic images in his early works: The Fashionable Lover, for example, contains a Jewish character largely reminiscent of Shylock.

Cumberland’s use of sentimentalism in The Jew is therefore a significant revision of the period’s shared notions of the Jews. Indeed, Louis I. Newman maintains that “the entire trend of humanitarian radicalism which eventually accomplished the emancipation of English Jewry may be traced in great measure to Cumberland.” While Newman’s assertion is undoubtedly an exaggeration, Cumberland’s influence on subsequent depictions of Jewish characters can be certainly be felt in such works as Maria Edgeworth’s Harrington and Charles Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend as well as in Edmund Kean’s reinterpretation of Shylock as a sympathetic character in an 1814 production of The Merchant of Venice.

I’m currently writing an article on Cumberland that, after further work, will become a key chapter in my next book. Cumberland scholarship hasn’t been very plentiful in the past couple of decades, but I think he’s poised for comeback. Now that more scholars are writing about sentimentalism in the late eighteenth-century novel, it’s only a matter of time before they rediscover his work and begin applying all of the new critical perspectives to it.

I think The Jew is a fascinating play, and Cumberland is a fascinating historical figure. At some point, I think I’d like to write a book about him and his work, but I don’t think that will be the next one, unless somebody trumps me on my current research. Maybe being hottie of the month is all he needs to come back into critical fashion!

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