Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Ravenscroft, Edward
RAVENSCROFT, EDWARD (fl. 1671–1697), dramatist, was descended from an ancient family at one time settled in Flintshire, where a kinsman was high sheriff (Dedication of The Anatomist). In 1671 he was a member of the Middle Temple, where he beguiled ‘a fortnight's sickness’ with the composition of his first play, and ‘after that spent some idle time’ after a similar fashion (Prologue to Mamamouchi, ‘spoke at the Middle Temple’). His career as a writer of plays extended over more than a quarter of a century, but he seems to have died comparatively young. He is not known to have produced any play after 1697.
His first play, ‘Mamamouchi, or the Citizen turned Gentleman,’ was produced at Dorset Garden in 1671, and printed in 1675, with a dedication to Prince Rupert. It was taken, as the sub-title avowed, from Molière's ‘Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme,’ which had been produced in the preceding year. The character of Sir Simon Softhead was borrowed from ‘Monsieur de Pourceaugnac,’ first acted in 1670. The play pleased the king and court, and ran for nine nights with full houses; it was acted not less than thirty times before it was printed. In the original prologue the author had, with the audacity of youth, indulged in a couple of sarcasms against Dryden's
plays of rhyme and noise, with wondrous show.
Dryden retorted first with a passing hit in the prologue to ‘Marriage à la Mode’ (1673), and then with one of his swashing blows in the prologue to the ‘Assignation’ (1673), where he tells the public, in allusion to ‘Mamamouchi,’
Grimace and habit sent you pleased away;
You damned the poet, and cried up the play.
Unfortunately, Dryden's ‘Assignation’ itself proved a failure, and Ravenscroft was thus enabled, in the doggerel prologue to his next play, ‘The Careless Lovers’ (acted at Dorset Garden and printed 1673), to turn the tables upon Dryden, maliciously insinuating that the ‘Assignation’ might in charity have been spared, as the first in which Dryden had ventured to be original (see Scott's Dryden, revised by Saintsbury, iv. 255, 366–8). In the same prologue he asserts that in the ‘Careless Lovers’ there is nothing but what is ‘extempore wit’—a boast contradicted by the fact that two coarse but amusing scenes (act ii. sc. 8 and 9) are taken direct from ‘Monsieur de Pourceaugnac.’
‘The Wrangling Lovers, or the Invisible Mistress’ (acted at Dorset Garden and printed 1676), marks a considerable step in advance. Langbaine found its origin in a forgotten Spanish romance, but it was more probably taken from Thomas Corneille's ‘Les Engagemens du Hasard.’ The resemblance to Molière's ‘Le Dépit Amoureux’ is not close. On the other hand, Mrs. Centlivre is held to be indebted to the ‘Wrangling Lovers’ in her celebrated comedy of ‘The Wonder,’ and the quarrels and reconciliations of Don Diego and Octavia may have also suggested the humours of Falkland and Julia in the ‘Rivals.’ In any case, Ravenscroft's play is both in construction and dialogue a favourable example of the English adaptations of the Spanish comedy of intrigue. He displayed his versatility afresh in producing at the Theatre Royal, in 1677, ‘Scaramouch a Philosopher, Harlequin a Schoolboy Bravo, Merchant and Musician,’ a comic piece in the Italian manner, founded upon the old commedia dell' arte. In the prologue Ravenscroft complains that, owing to the dilatoriness of the actors, he was forestalled in his novel design by the production of Otway's version of ‘Scapin’ at the duke's house. He may have been doubly annoyed because his own play, which is very deftly put together, though chiefly based upon Molière's ‘Le Mariage Forcé,’ was also indebted to ‘Les Fourberies de Scapin.’
Ravenscroft's tragi-comedy, ‘King Edgar and Alfreda,’ and his English adaptation of Ruggle's famous Latin comedy, ‘Ignoramus,’ were acted at the Theatre Royal and printed in 1677 and 1678 respectively. The former is considered by Langbaine to be inferior to Thomas Rymer's effort on the same theme, which afterwards employed the pens of Aaron Hill and Mason. ‘The English Lawyer’ is charitably conjectured by the same authority to have been taken more from an earlier English version, published in 1662 by R. C. (supposed to be Robert Codrington), than from the original. ‘Ignoramus’ does not lend itself to translation; but Ravenscroft, says Genest, attempted ‘rather to adapt it to the English stage … and this he has done very judiciously’ (Hist. of Engl. Stage, i. 232). In 1678 was also acted at the Theatre Royal, though it was not printed till 1687, ‘Titus Andronicus, or the Rape of Lavinia,’ altered by Ravenscroft from the original, attributed to Shakespeare. The adapter boasted that none of his author's works ‘ever received greater alterations or additions,’ and that not only had the language been ‘refined,’ but that many scenes were ‘entirely new, besides most of the principal characters heightened and the plot much increased’ (see Shadwell's Preface to his Sullen Lovers, where Ravenscroft is vehemently attacked; cf. Langbaine, p. 465). In his edition of Shakespeare Steevens furnished some specimens of Ravenscroft's embellishments (Biographica Dramatica, iii. 241). Genest (i. 232–6) agrees in condemning the additions, but approves of some of the alterations.
Ravenscroft was fully himself again in the outrageous farce which, under the title of ‘The London Cuckolds’ (first acted at Dorset Garden in 1682, and printed in the following year), delighted the public in a long series of representations, which it ultimately became customary to give regularly on Lord Mayor's Day (see Tatler, No. 8). In 1751 Garrick had the courage to lay it aside at Drury Lane, and it was discontinued at Covent Garden from 9 Nov. 1754, when George II had ordered the ‘Provoked Husband’ in its stead. Having been revived in a reduced shape in 1782 (for Quick's benefit), it was finally banished from the stage, of which, in Dibdin's opinion, it had constituted ‘the greatest disgrace’ (History of the Stage, iv. 204; see, per contra, Genest's liberal judgment, i. 365–6). The piece is laughable, and although its principal situations are, as Langbaine duly points out, borrowed from at least half a dozen sources, it possesses the merits of rapidity and perspicuity. In 1683 there followed the comedy of ‘Dame Dobson, or the Cunning Woman’ (printed in 1684), which in the prologue Ravenscroft calls his ‘Recantation’ play, professing to have made it ‘dull and civil’ of set purpose. It failed, although its French original had been successful; the farcical use made in it of the tradition of Friar Bacon's Brazen Head has survived on the stage. The epilogue is directed against the whigs of the city.
After an interval of several years, Ravenscroft brought out at the Theatre Royal in 1694 a comedy called ‘The Canterbury Guests, or the Bargain Broken’ (printed in 1695), which he had furbished up with some scenes from earlier pieces of his own, and which appears to have deservedly ‘met with only a very indifferent success’ (Biographia Dramatica, ii. 80; cf. Genest, ii. 517–8). On the other hand, his comedy, or farce, of ‘The Anatomist, or the Sham Doctor,’ was greatly applauded at Lincoln's Inn Fields in 1697 (printed in the same year, and again in 1722), there being incorporated with it a musical masque or ‘opera, as the world goes now;’ prologue written by Motteux, and called ‘The Loves of Mars and Venus.’ The farce itself, which is briskly written, was revised in 1743, having been compressed into two acts, and the doctor having been turned into a French ‘Monsieur le Médecin,’ in which assumption Blakes was considered inimitable (Genest, iv. 59; Whincop, p. 279). In this shape it was repeatedly reproduced, for the last time apparently in 1801. In the same year, 1697, Ravenscroft's tragedy, ‘The Italian Husband’ (printed 1698), was performed at Lincoln's Inn Fields. It is said in the ‘Biographia Dramatica’ to be founded upon a horrible tale in a collection by Thomas Wright of Peterhouse, ‘The Glory of God's Revenge against Murther and Adultery’ (1685).
To Ravenscroft has also been ascribed the authorship of ‘Tom Essence, or the Modish Wife’ (acted at Dorset Garden in 1676 and printed in 1677), but this comedy is not altogether in his manner, and is with greater probability attributed to Thomas Rawlins [q. v.]
Genest (ii. 122) perhaps goes rather far in saying that Ravenscroft's ‘merit as a dramatic writer has been vastly underrated;’ but he certainly had few if any superiors among his contemporaries in farce, and in general possessed, together with much skill in construction, an unusual fluency and ease as a writer of dialogue. His quarrel with Dryden, which he coolly treated as an ordinary disagreement between ‘two of a trade,’ has obtained for him a greater posthumous notoriety than might otherwise have fallen to his lot, but has also caused him to be designated a ‘miserable scribbler’ by Dryden's editor, Sir Walter Scott (see Introductory Note to ‘The Assignation,’ Scott, Dryden, revised by Saintsbury, iv. 367). Ravenscroft was assuredly not one of the ‘great wits,’ who (as he says in the Prologue to ‘Scaramouch’) ‘oft'ner write to please themselves than the public.’ He borrowed so freely that Laingbaine's stricture that ‘this rickety poet (though of so many years) cannot go without others assistance,’ and Dibdin's opinion that Ravenscroft's plays are ‘a series of thefts from beginning to end,’ are not easy to controvert. Yet, to a certain extent (though far less than Dryden), he redeemed his character as a plagiary by his skill and cleverness in adaptation.[The life of Ravenscroft in vol. iii. of the Lives of the Poets of Great Britain and Ireland, purporting to be by Mr. [Theophilus] Cibber, and other hands, contains no biographical data. See also Thomas Whincop's List of Dramatic Authors, &c., 1747, pp. 278–9; Genest's Account of the English Stage, 1832, vols. i. and ii.; Langbaine's Account of the English Dramatic Poets, 1691; Dibdin's History of the Stage, vol. iv.; Owen's Epigrams; Baker's Biographia Dramatica, ed. 1812; Scott's Dryden, revised by Saintsbury, vols. i. and iv. 1882 and 1883.]