Richard Brome (c.1590–1652) was one of London's leading playwrights in the reign of Charles I. Brome wrote or co-wrote 16 surviving plays, all comedies, of which perhaps the best known are The Antipodes (1636) and A joviall crew (1642). Brome is an early inheritor of Shakespeare, one of the most important and distinctive voices of the 1630s, and one of the most successful of all Renaissance playwrights on the post-Restoration stage.
The date of Brome's birth is unknown, and nothing is known of his family background beyond the fact that it was poor and unprivileged. He is first heard of working as a manservant to Ben Jonson, and is named as Jonson's servant in the Induction to Bartholomew fayre (1614). This reference is generally taken to indicate that Brome was working for Jonson by 1614, the date of Bartholomew fayre's first performance (although it has also been suggested that the reference might be an interpolation from as late as 1631, the date of that play's first publication). Brome was certainly working for Jonson by 1625, the date of John Fletcher's death: in his commendatory verses on the Beaumont and Fletcher folio (1647) he refers to having known Fletcher personally, and to how Jonson, then his master, praised Fletcher's work.
By 1628, Brome himself was involved in theatre. In that year he was named among the members of a new theatrical venture, Lady Elizabeth's Men. The company seems to have been a strange mix of veterans and new, untried, talent, and did not enjoy a particularly good reputation in the years that followed, but by 1629 Brome was with the King's Men, Shakespeare's former company and also the one for which Jonson himself was then writing. Jonson had written a new play for them, The new inn, which was badly received on its first performance. Shortly afterwards, Brome's play The love-sick maid, or the honour of young ladies was performed by the same company to extraordinary applause. Regrettably, The love-sick maid was never printed and is now lost.
Brome followed it, in 1629, with The northern lass, another very successful play performed by the King's Men. The northern lass revolves around Sir Philip Luckless, who wishes to marry Mistress Fitchow, a rich but domineering city widow. Luckless's friend, Tridewell, believes Luckless is making a mistake, and tries to dissuade Fitchow from going ahead with the marriage, only to fall in love himself with her independent spirit and resolve. Further confusion is added by the arrival of the northern lass herself, an innocent young girl from the north who has met Luckless briefly and fallen hopelessly in love with him; and of Constance Holdup, a London prostitute. Disguises, lies, and problems of mistaken identity multiply, until at last the knot is untied in a happy ending. As this summary suggests, The northern lass is a racy, well-plotted city comedy in what could broadly be called the Jonsonian humours tradition. But what gives it its particular appeal is something typical of much of Brome: the combination of theatrical energy with a more considered and ‘sentimental’ streak, represented in this play in the love-melancholy of the naive northern lass.
Jonson's anger at the failure of The new inne had bubbled over into a sarcastic reference, in his poem ‘Ode to himself’, to ‘Brome's sweepings’: but he seems quickly to have repented of this, and when The northern lass was printed in 1632, it bore commendatory verses by Jonson praising Brome's craftsmanship. But Brome inherits not merely the legacy of Jonson, but also that of many of the other leading Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights. Thomas Dekker called Brome his ‘son’; and Brome also has an interesting relation with Shakespeare, seen, for instance, in The queenes exchange (c.1634). The queenes exchange is not a city comedy but a historical tragicomedy, set in Anglo-Saxon England, centred upon a proposed marriage between the king of Northumbria and the queen of Wessex. It is full of echoes and semi-quotations of Shakespeare, especially of King Lear and Macbeth, as it explores, in effect, the prehistory of Britain. One such moment is when one of the characters has a miraculous vision confirming that the Wessexians will not permanently be shackled to the Northumbrians: ‘Enter six Saxon Kings ghosts crowned, with sceptres in their hands, etc. They come one after another to Anthynus; then fall into a dance; loud music; after the dance, the first leads away the second, he the third, so all: the last takes up Anthynus, and leaves him standing upright.’ This is both a knowing imitation of the vision-scene in Macbeth and also a remaking of it for an audience in Caroline England who were increasingly aware of the tensions involved in their ongoing relationship with the Scots.
Other Brome plays thought to date from the first phase of his career include The city wit (?1629), a lively comedy about a merchant ruined by his honesty who must turn trickster to regain his fortune; The novella (1632), a comedy set in Venice about a woman who appears to be a very expensive prostitute; and The witches of Lancashire (1634), also known as The late Lancashire witches. Co-written with Thomas Heywood, this dramatizes current events in the form of a series of alleged episodes of witchcraft that took place in Lancashire in 1633–34. In the hands of Brome and Heywood, the whole play is a balancing act: the witchcraft is both a sinister, demonic force, and also something playful, anarchic, and entertaining. According to one eyewitness of the early performances at the Globe in summer 1634, ‘it consisteth from the beginning to the end of odd passages and fopperies to provoke laughter, and is mixed with diverse songs and dances … it passeth for a merry and excellent new play’ (Berry 1984).
In summer 1635, Brome signed a contract binding him exclusively to one theatrical company: the King's Revels, under the leadership of the theatrical impresario Richard Heton. While the contract itself does not survive, a good account of it can be reconstructed from later legal action surrounding it. The contract required Brome to produce three plays a year for the company, and to refrain from doing any work for any other company. In return, he received a retainer of 15 shillings a week, and a day's takings for each new play he produced. Brome's contract is unique of its kind in early modern theatre history, and it serves as the basis from which one extrapolates about the usual terms and conditions of professional dramatists of the period – although recent work has suggested that one cannot assume that it was entirely typical of other contracts of the period, since the very fact that it resulted in legal action, and therefore survives, at least in summary, makes it unlike all the others.
For the King's Revels, Brome wrote The Sparagus Garden (1635), a comedy of intrigue, mistaken identity, and marriage set in a London pleasure-garden where a cross-section of London society – plus an interloper from Somerset – meet and mingle. The insistently specific detail of the setting means that the play can be described as ‘place-realism’ comedy, a genre that flourished in the 1630s. Brome, in particular, is fascinated by the possibilities of place-realism, representing specific London locations, streets, and taverns throughout his career, and using it as the organizing principle of other plays including The weeding of Covent-Garden (c.1632) and The new academy, or new exchange (1636). But in The Sparagus Garden in particular, this journalistic reportage coincides with a surrealist streak, as the phallic asparagus becomes a symbol of social climbing and sexual desire, and is said to possess near-miraculous medicinal powers. The Sparagus Garden itself, a site both of Edenic plenty and potentially of Edenic sin, becomes symbolic of the whole garden of England. Brome later claimed that the play had earned the King's Revels company £1,000 in takings. Also from this part of his career is The queen and concubine (1635), Brome's most sustained experiment in ‘serious’ tragicomedy, describing the saint-like patience of Eulalia, a queen of Sicily falsely accused of adultery and sent into internal exile.
In May 1636, plague broke out in London, and the city authorities closed the theatres, as was usual in such cases. Early on in the closure, the King's Revels company ceased to pay Brome the weekly retainer to which he was entitled under his contract. Short of money, Brome ended up breaching the terms of his contract by writing a play for another company entirely, Christopher and William Beeston's company at the Cockpit theatre. Although professional theatre was still banned because of the plague, the Beestons were staging performances of plays, or rather (as they claimed) rehearsals at which an audience happened to be present. In these unpropitious and illicit circumstances, Brome wrote for the Beestons what is often thought to be his masterpiece: The Antipodes.
The Antipodes concerns a young man, Peregrine, who has been driven mad by reading the works of the medieval traveller Sir John Mandeville, to the point where he is so distracted by thoughts of travel that he has not even consummated his marriage. In desperation, his father brings him to the London house of an eccentric nobleman, Letoy, who keeps a company of players. There, the psychiatrist Dr Hughball resolves to drug Peregrine and create an immersive illusion around him with the help of the players, making him think he has actually travelled to the other side of the world so that he can act out and neutralize his fantasies of travel. Thus, most of The Antipodes is a play-within-a-play, as Peregrine travels to a world where everything is the opposite of normal: the mice chase the cats, the young are prim and pious while the old behave disgracefully, and the lawyers are honest. Peregrine is delighted and throws himself into the illusory world while the players scramble and improvise to keep up. Soon he has killed the local monsters and crowned himself king of the Antipodes, while the onstage audience, watching his delusions and conducting intrigues with one another as they do so, struggle with their own demons of jealousy and desire. The Antipodes is a play which taps a particularly rich vein of the Caroline subconscious, a travel play with a colonialist slant which is also a satire on the state of Britain and yet also a meditation on metadrama. In its imagination, energy, and originality, it is often reckoned to be Brome's best play.
The plague closure continued for almost 18 months, and Brome continued to be in dispute with his employers. During the closure Brome wrote The English moor, a comedy in which a jealous London usurer makes his wife disguise herself as a black maidservant. Although relatively little is known about it compared to The Antipodes, The English moor, too, explores the nexus of sexual desire, the geographically and racially exotic, and theatrical illusion. The two plays could be considered companion pieces.
The theatres reopened in October 1637. The King's Revels, now renamed Queen Henrietta's Men, started performing again, and Brome resumed his writing career with them. As well as The English moor, to this period belong Brome plays including The demoiselle (1637–39), a city comedy critiquing law and lawyers; The love-sick court (1638), a satire on Neoplatonic tragicomedy; a lost play, The Florentine friend (1638); and The madd couple well matcht (1639), a city comedy featuring a debauched rake-hero who utterly refuses to reform himself as required by the usual conventions of plays about prodigals. The Antipodes was also performed by Queen Henrietta's Men during this period, as well as a revival of Thomas Goffe's pastoral The careles shepherdess. This last item was accompanied by a ‘Praeludium’, an extended comic sketch in which different character types argue over what sort of drama they prefer, and it is generally thought that Brome, as the company's retained professional dramatist, was the author of this lively reflection on the current state of theatre.
By Easter 1639, Brome's relationship with Heton's company, long strained, had become unworkable. Brome left Salisbury Court and started working, instead, for William Beeston. His erstwhile employers made a bill of complaint against him for breach of contract, to which Brome's lawyer wrote a rebuttal, arguing that he owed them nothing. These documents still exist in the National Archives, Kew, and are the source from which our knowledge of Brome's contract derives.
Writing for Beeston, Brome again found his career disrupted by events outside his control. Caroline courtiers were becoming increasingly interested in the power of public drama, and a number of them had written plays for the professional theatre, giving them over for free or even paying for their performance. Throughout the prologues and epilogues of Brome's plays, such courtier playwrights are a frequent target. Even worse, Sir John Suckling – a particular bête noire of Brome's – and his friend William Davenant were looking to gain control of an entire theatre. In summer 1640, they succeeded by gaining a royal warrant giving them control of William Beeston's, and Beeston was briefly imprisoned: it is not clear how long it was before Beeston got his theatre back, possibly as late as May 1641 when both Suckling and Davenant were involved in the treasonous Army Plot and utterly disgraced. The court begger (1640–41), a cheerfully satirical attack on monopolies and monopolists, was written at some point in this sequence of events. The play is given extra edge by its references to the war against Scotland, and by its rather savage personal satire of Sir John Suckling, put on stage as Ferdinando, a mad and lustful courtier.
Brome's next and last play is A joviall crew. This play concerns the relationship between Oldrents, a traditional English landlord, and the groups of wandering beggars to whom he gives charity. In the course of the play, his daughters disappear, electing to adopt the life of the beggars for a while, only to discover the hardships and difficulties it brings; the beggars turn out to be an entire society in themselves, made up of displaced actors, musicians, and even former courtiers; and Oldrents's steward, Springlove, is revealed to be king of the beggars and the great-grandson of the man whose ruin enabled the Oldrents family to become rich. The play seems astonishingly prescient of the Civil War, forecasting the grim outlook for players and poets in the event of serious civil disruption. In the assessment of Martin Butler, one of the most influential critics of Caroline drama, ‘While in political life the question of the good of the country was being bandied back and forth, Brome asks insistently what the “country” is … A jovial crew is a truly national play written at a turning point in the history of the English stage and the English nation’ (Butler 1984).
The closure of the theatres seems to have ended Brome's theatrical career, with the exception of one strange text possibly by him, the allegorical entertainment Times distractions (c.1643). Brome wrote commendatory verses for the 1647 Beaumont and Fletcher folio; acted as the editor of Lachrymae musarum (1649), a collection of elegies for the Royalist Henry Hastings featuring very early poems by John Dryden and Andrew Marvell; and died poor, in the Charterhouse Hospital in 1652. Several of his plays were revived or adapted at the Restoration, setting a benchmark for well-constructed, ‘serious’ city comedy with place-realism elements; two of them, The northern lass and A joviall crew, enjoyed stage careers that can be measured in centuries.
Caroline drama as a whole, and the work in particular of its leading exponents, Brome, Ford, Shirley, and Massinger, was long seen as a rather decadent form, lacking the literary geniuses of the previous generation, and befitting a society soon to be swept away in the Civil War. Increasingly, though, Caroline drama is being seen as worthy of study in its own right. In the case of Brome, this realization has taken the form both of a new appreciation of the political engagement and complexity of his works, a trend begun by Martin Butler's seminal book Theatre and crisis 1632–1642 (1984); and of the recognition of his plays’ performance potential, seen, for instance, in the successful and entertaining revival of The Antipodes at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London (2002). A new online complete edition of Brome (Cave 2010) aims to provide a firmer textual basis for the efforts of readers, scholars, and particularly actors interested in Brome's plays.
SEE ALSO: Davenant, William; Ford, John; Heywood, Thomas; Jonson, Ben; Massinger, Philip; Shirley, James; Suckling, John
- The Globe bewitched and El hombre fiel. Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England 1, 211-230. (1984)
- Theatre and crisis 1632–1642. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. (1984)
- Richard Brome Online. www.hrionline.ac.uk/brome/. (2010)
- Professional playwrights: Massinger, Ford, Shirley, and Brome. University Press of Kentucky, Lexington. (1992)
- The plague, the theater, and the poet. Renaissance Drama 1, 283-306. (1968)
- Richard Brome: Caroline playwright. Columbia University Press, New York. (1961)
- Place-realism in a group of Caroline plays. Review of English Studies 18, 428-440. (1942)
- Caroline drama: the plays of Massinger, Ford, Shirley and Brome. Northcote House, London. (1999)
- Richard Brome. Twayne, Boston. (1980)
- Richard Brome: place and politics on the Caroline stage. Manchester University Press, Manchester. (2004)
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