THE persistent influence of sentimentalism on eighteenth-century drama is conspicuous in the Garrick era. Especially during the last decade of David Garrick's leadership of the Drury Lane Theatre, sentimental comedy found fullest expression and encountered strongest opposition. From Colley Cibber and Richard Steele, succeeding playwrights had inherited the general type of sentimental comedy exemplified in The Careless Husband and The Conscious Lovers, and had further exploited moralized sentimentality in dramatic theme and diction. Of the later exponents of this prevalent type of sentimental comedy, two are outstanding -- Hugh Kelly and Richard Cumberland. Kelly's False Delicacy ( 1768) and Cumberland's The West Indian ( 1771) are excellent examples of the popular dramatic mode.
HUGH KELLY ( 1739-1777), son of a Dublin tavern-keeper who had early apprenticed him as a staymaker, came to London in 1760 to try his hand at literature. For some years he lived the life of a literary hack, and among varied ventures gained some experience as theatrical critic and attracted the notice of David Garrick. With Garrick's encouragement he wrote his first comedy, False Delicacy, produced at Drury Lane on January 23, 1768. Fortified with prologue and epilogue by Garrick, and further profiting from the manager's theatrical experience and prestige, False Delicacy caught immediately the popular fancy for sentimental comedy and won for Kelly instant and extravagant favor. Six days later, the belated offering at Covent Garden of Oliver Goldsmith's first comedy, The Good-Natured Man, found the force of its novel challenge blunted by Kelly's triumph already achieved under Garrick's guidance at Drury Lane. For the time being, victory seemed to rest with the popular favorite, and the advent of another sentimental dramatist, Richard Cumberland, further strengthened the cause.
RICHARD CUMBERLAND ( 1732-1811), born in the master's lodge at Trinity College, Cambridge, schooled at Westminster, graduated at Cambridge with mathematical honors, and early elected to a fellowship at Trinity College, held various posts under Lord Halifax and seemed headed for further political advancement. Disappointed, however, by his failure to secure a coveted undersecretaryship when Lord Halifax became Secretary of State, Cumberland entered seriously on the career of dramatist to which his early interest and some actual experimentation in playwriting naturally inclined him. His first regular and considerably successful comedy, The Brothers ( 1769), was followed by his most popular sentimental comedy, The West Indian ( 1771). Though the earlier comedy had been staged at Covent Garden Theatre, Garrick, susceptible to the personal flattery included in its epilogue, took up Cumberland and secured for The West Indian a theatrical triumph at Drury Lane. It ran for twenty-eight nights, sold rapidly in various editions, and established Cumberland as a popular playwright and well-known figure in London literary circles. Henceforth he shared with Hugh Kelly the leadership in sentimental drama, and presently bore with him the brunt of the insurgent attack already launched by Oliver Goldsmith and soon to be powerfully supported by Richard Brinsley Sheridan.
False Delicacy and The West Indian are alike 'genteel' comedies, in which the delicate distresses of sentimental lovers are showered with a wealth of moral aphorisms all along the path that leads