The following biography is reprinted from A Complete Manual of English Literature. Thomas B. Shaw. New York: Sheldon & Company, 1867.
Sir John Vanbrugh (1666-1726) was the son of a rich sugar-baker in London, probably, as his name indicates, of Dutch descent; and was born, it is not quite certain whether in France or England, in 1666. He unquestionably passed some part of his youth in the former country; and he united in his own person the rarely combined talents of architect and dramatist. As an architect he is one of the glories of the English school of the seventeenth century; and to his picturesque imagination we owe many works which, though open to criticism on the score of irregularity and a somewhat meretricious luxuriance of style, will always be admired for their magnificent and princely richness of invention. Among the most remarkable of these are Castle Howard and Blenheim, the latter being the splendid palace constructed at the national expense for the Duke of Marlborough. While engaged in this work Vanbrugh was involved in violent altercations with that malignant old harpy, the Duchess Sarah; and his account of the quarrel is almost as amusing as a scene in one of his own comedies. Vanbrugh was appointed King-at-Arms, and was employed, both in this function and as an architect, in many honorable posts. Thus he was deputed to carry the insignia of the Garter to the Elector of Hanover, and was afterwards knighted by that prince when he became King of England as George I, who also appointed him comptroller of the Royal Works. He died in 1726, just before the close of that reign.
Vanbrugh's comedies, the production of which commenced in 1697, are The Relapse, The Provoked Wife, Æsop, The Confederacy, and the first sketch of The Provoked Husband, left unfinished, and afterwards completed by Colley Cibber. Vanbrugh's principal merit is inexhaustible liveliness of character and of incident. His dialogue is certainly less elaborate, less intellectual, and less highly finished than that of Wycherley: but he excels in giving his personages a ready ingenuity in extricating themselves from sudden difficulties; and one great secret of the comic art he possesses to a degree hardly surpassed by Molière himself, viz., the secret depending upon skilful repetition--an infallible talisman for exciting comic emotions. His fops, his booby squires, his pert chambermaids and valets, his intriguing ladies, his romps and his blacklegs are all drawn from the life, and delineated with great vivacity; but there is a good deal of exaggeration in his characters, an exaggeration which we easily pardon in consideration of the amusement they afford us and the consistency with which their personality is maintained--the more easily perhaps, as these types no longer exist in modern society, and we look upon them with the same sort of interest as we do upon the quaint costumes and fantastic attitudes of a collection of old portraits. In The Relapse, Lord Foppington is an admirable impersonation of the pompous and suffocating coxcomb of those days. Sir Tunbelly Clumsy, the dense, brutal, ignorant country squire, a sort of prototype of Fielding's Western, forms an excellent contrast with him, and in Hoyden Vanbrugh has given the first specimen of a class of characters which he drew with peculiar skill, that of a bouncing rebellious girl, full of animal spirits and awaiting only the opportunity to break out of all rule. A variety of the same character is Corinna in The Confederacy, with the difference that Hoyden has been brought up in the country, while Corinna, in spite of her inexperience, is already thoroughly corrupted, and, as she says herself, "a devilish girl at bottom." The most striking character in The Provoked Wife is Sir John Brute, whose drunken, uproarious blackguardism was one of Garrick's best impersonations. The Confederacy is perhaps Vanbrugh's finest comedy in point of plot. The two old usurers and their wives, whose weakness is played upon by Dick Amlet and his confederate sharper Brass, Mrs. Amlet, the marchande de la toilette, the equivocal mother of her graceless scamp, Corinna, and the maid Flippanta--all the dramatis personæ are amusing in the highest degree. We feel indeed that we have got into exceedingly bad company; for all the men are rascals, and the women no better than they should be; but their life and conversation, "pleasant but wrong," are invariably animated and gay: and perhaps the very profligacy of their characters, by forbidding any serious sympathy with their fate, only leaves us freer to follow the surprising incidents of their career. The unfinished scenes of the comedy left by Vanbrugh, and afterwards completed under the title of The Provoked Husband, promised to be elaborated by the author into an excellent work. The journey to London of the country squire, Sir Francis Wronghead, and his inimitable family, is worthy of Smollett himself. The description of the cavalcade, and the interview between the new "Parliament-Man" in search of a place and the minister, are narrated with the richest humor. All the sentimental portions of the piece, the punishment and repentance of Lady Townley, and the contrast between her and her "sober" sister-in-law Lady Grace, were the additions of Colley Cibber, who lived at a time when the moral or sermonizing element was thought essential in comedy. This part of the intrigue, however, had the honor of being the prototype of Sheridan's delightful scenes between Sir Peter and Lady Teazle in The School for Scandal. In brilliancy of dialogue Vanbrugh is inferior to Wycherley; but his high animal spirits, and his extraordinary power of contriving sudden incidents, more than compensate for the deficiency. In Vanbrugh perhaps there is more of mind, but less of intellect.
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