Cumberland wrote much but has been remembered most for his plays and memoirs. The collection of essays and other pieces entitled The Observer (1785), afterward republished with a translation of The Clouds, was included among The British Essayists.
He is said to have joined Sir James Bland Burges in an epic, the Exodiad (1807), and in a novel, John de Lancaster. Besides these he wrote the Letter to the Bishop of Oxford in vindication of his grandfather Bentley (1767); another to Richard Watson, Bishop of Llandaff, on his proposal for equalizing the revenues of the Established Church (1783); a Character of Lord Sackville (1785), whom in his Memoirs he vindicates from the stigma of cowardice; and an anonymous pamphlet, Curtius rescued from the Gulf, against the redoubtable Dr Parr. He was the author of a version of 50 of the Psalms of David; of a tract on the evidences of Christianity; and of other religious pieces in prose and verse, the former including "as many sermons as would make a large volume, some of which have been delivered from the pulpits." Lastly, he edited a short-lived critical journal called The London Review (1809), intended to be a rival to the Quarterly, with signed articles.
His plays, published and unpublished, totaled fifty-four. About 35 of these are regular plays, to which have been added four operas and a farce; about half are comedies. His favorite mode was the "sentimental comedy," which combines domestic plots, rhetorical enforcement of moral precepts, and comic humor. He weaves his plays out of "homely stuff, right British drugget," and eschews "the vile Gallic stage"; he borrowed from the style of sentimental fiction of Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding and Laurence Sterne.
His favorite theme is virtue in distress or danger, but assured of its reward in the fifth act; his most constant characters are men of feeling and young ladies who are either prudes or coquettes. Cumberland's comic talents lay in the invention of characters taken from the "outskirts of the empire," and intended to vindicate the good elements of the Scots, Irish, and colonials from English prejudice. The plays are highly patriotic and adhere to conventional morality. If Cumberland's dialogue lacks brilliance and his characters reality, the construction of the plots is generally skilful, due to Cumberland's insight into the secrets of theatrical effect. Though Cumberland's sentimentality is often wearisome, his morality is generally sound; that if he was without the genius requisite for elevating the national drama, he did his best to keep it pure and sweet; and that if he borrowed much, he borrowed only the best aspects of other dramatists' work.
His first play was a tragedy, The Banishment of Cicero, published in 1761 after David Garrick rejected it; this was followed in 1765 by a musical drama, The Summer's Tale, subsequently compressed into an afterpiece Amelia (1768). Cumberland first essayed sentimental comedy in The Brothers (1769). This play is inspired by Henry Fielding's Tom Jones; its comic characters are the jolly old tar Captain Ironsides, and the henpecked husband Sir Benjamin Dove, whose progress to self-assertion is genuinely comic. Horace Walpole said, that it acted well, but read ill, though he could distinguish in it "strokes of Mr Bentley."
The epilogue paid a compliment to Garrick, who helped the production of Cumberland's second comedy The West-Indian (1771). Its hero, who probably owes much to the suggestion of Garrick, is a young scapegrace fresh from the tropics, "with rum and sugar enough belonging to him to make all the water in the Thames into punch,"—a libertine with generous instincts, which prevail in the end. This early example of the modern drama was favorably received; Boden translated it into German, and Goethe acted in it at the Weimar court. The Fashionable Lover (1772) is a sentimental comedy, as is The Choleric Man (1774), founded on the Adelphi of Terence. Cumberland published his memoirs in 1806-07. George Romney, whose talent Cumberland encouraged, painted his portrait, which is in the National Portrait Gallery.
Among his later comedies were:
- Calypso (1779)
- The Natural Son (1785), in which Major O'Flaherty who had already figured in The West-Indian, makes his reappearance
- The Country Attorney (1787)
- The Impostors (1789), a comedy of intrigue
- The School for Widows (1789)
- The Box-Lobby Challenge (1794), a protracted farce
- The Jew (1794), a drama, highly effective when the great German actor Theodor Döring played "Sheva"
- The Wheel of Fortune (1795), in which John Philip Kemble found a celebrated part in the misanthropist Penruddock, who cannot forget but learns to forgive (a character declared by August von Kotzebue to have been stolen from his Menschenhass und Reue), while Richard Suett played the comic lawyer Timothy Weasel
- First Love (1795)
- The Last of the Family (1797)
- The Village Fete (1797)
- False Impressions (1797)
- The Sailor's Daughter (1804)
- Hint to Husbands (1806), which, unlike the, rest, is in blank verse.
The other works printed during his lifetime include:
- The Note of Hand (1774), a farce
- The Princess of Parma (1778)
- Songs for a musical comedy, The Widow of Delphi (1780)
- The Battle of Hastings (1778), a tragedy
- The Carmelite (1784), a romantic domestic drama in blank verse, in the style of John Home's Douglas, furnishing some effective scenes for Sarah Siddons and John Kemble as mother and son
- The Mysterious Husband (1783), a prose domestic drama
- The Days of Yore (1796), a drama
- The Clouds (1797)
- Joanna of Mondfaucon (1800)
- The Jew of Mogadore (1808)
His posthumously printed plays (published in 2 vols. in 1813) include:
- The Walloons (comedy, acted in 1782)
- The Passive Husband (comedy, acted as A Word for Nature, 1798)
- The Eccentric Lover (comedy, acted 1798)
- Lovers' Resolutions (comedy, once acted in 1802)
- Confession, a quasi-historic drama
- Don Pedro (drama, acted 1796)
- Alcanor (tragedy, acted as The Arab, 1785)
- Torrendal (tragedy)
- The Sibyl, or The Elder Brutus (afterwards amalgamated with other plays on the subject into a very successful tragedy for Edmund Kean by Payne)
- Tiberius in Capreae (tragedy)
- The False Demetrius (tragedy on a theme which attracted Schiller)
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