September’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.