We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
Peake, Richard Brinsley (1792–1847), playwright, was born in Gerard Street, Soho, London, on 19 February 1792, the eldest son of Richard Peake, a native of Staffordshire, and his wife, Ann. His father being under-treasurer and (from 1811 to 1815) treasurer of Drury Lane, the theatre was in Peake's blood from the very beginning. His middle name arose from his father's long professional association and friendship with Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Although Peake was apprenticed to the engraver James Heath from 1809 to 1817, he appears to have spent some time, certainly between 1812 and 1813 (and probably longer), assisting his father in his financial duties at the theatre. His first published piece was an illustrated work on French costume (1816), but the following year he began writing for the English Opera House, with the sketch The Bridge that Carries us Safe over and a neatly turned farce, Wanted, a Governess. Slowly Peake began to make his name as a writer of farces with two further pieces at the same theatre—Amateurs and Actors (1818) and A Walk for a Wager, or, A Bailiff's Bet (1819)—but his graduation to Covent Garden with The Duel, or, My Two Nephews (1823) and a melodrama, Presumption, or, The Fate of Frankenstein (1824), partly based on Mary Shelley's novel, opened up further opportunities, including commissions for Drury Lane. He continued to write for the minors (particularly the English Opera House and the more prestigious Adelphi), but he also became a regular writer at the patent theatres, where he was valued for his dependability. At Covent Garden he almost rivalled Planché in the number of new pieces written. About 1825 he married Susannah Snell; and in January 1826 Anna, the first of at least six children, was baptized at St Martin-in-the-Fields, London.

Like many of his colleagues, Peake tended to work best when he had in mind one particular performer for the principal role. John Liston, for example, who was probably the best low comedian of the period, was much acclaimed in the part of Sir Hippington Miff in Peake's farce Comfortable Lodgings, or, Paris in 1750 (Drury Lane, 1827). Similarly, at the English Opera House in the mid-1820s Peake wrote for Charles Mathews senior, culminating in Before Breakfast (1826), which was one of the author's most successful plays, performed no fewer than thirty nights in its first season. Indeed Peake later blamed Mathews's subsequent absence from the company for the decline in his success rate at that theatre. He seems however to have resumed his partnership with Mathews at the Adelphi from 1829 onwards: he is said to have written most of Mathews's famous one-man shows, known as ‘at homes’.

In the early 1830s Peake was a fairly prominent flag-waver for the dramatic profession in the movement for changes in the law relating to dramatic copyright and was one of the first members of the newly formed Dramatic Authors' Society in 1833. But he was in a minority among playwrights giving evidence at the 1832 committee in believing that he was ‘[u]pon the average’ fairly remunerated for his work (‘Select committee on dramatic literature’, 193). At best a five-act comedy such as The Chancery Suit (Covent Garden, 1830) made him £200, but £100 was more usual for a shorter piece. He also wrote regularly for Madame Vestris at the Olympic in the early 1830s, including the drama The Climbing Boy, or, The Little Sweep (1832) and the farce In the Wrong Box (1834). Soon after the Lyceum (formerly English Opera House) reopened after a fire in 1834, Peake, while continuing his dramatic writing, took on the treasurership, thus filling for over a decade, until his death, the self-same position which his father had had at Drury Lane.

In the late 1830s and 1840s Peake also began to publish in the periodicals, beginning with a piece entitled ‘The Toledo Rapier’ for Bentley's Miscellany in November 1839. Almost all his work in this respect, apart from a very few pieces for the New Monthly and Ainsworth's Magazine, was for Richard Bentley's journal. It provided vital extra cash, even if Bentley was a slave-driver. In August 1840 Peake wrote to confirm that he was ‘now fully employed in [Bentley's] service; I have written nowhere else’ (BL, Add. MS 46650, fol. 106). His alliance was predicated on the somewhat misplaced confidence that Bentley would secure him a regular income. In fact, Peake was often reduced to special pleading for his fees. In the following month, after the transmission of another batch of material for Bentley's Miscellany and the final chapters of the Colman family Memoirs, Peake wrote: ‘I have not been idle—but I am poor—if my mind is to be at ease, for the exercise of my imagination and pen, I must have my pocket comfortable’ (ibid., fol. 126). His Memoirs of the Colman family, including their correspondence with the most distinguished personages of their time (2 vols., 1841), probably Peake's most substantial achievement, combined theatrical knowledge with a personal note stemming from his friendship with George Colman junior. Although occasionally lacking in connecting material—partly because Bentley continually harried him into producing copy before he was entirely ready—it is still an important source of reference for theatrical historians.

Peake also wrote a light-hearted history of cockney sports under the title Snobson's ‘Seasons’ [1838] and a three-volume novel Cartouche, the Celebrated French Robber (1844). A comedy entitled The Title Deeds, one of several pieces written for the Adelphi in 1846–7, produced in June 1847, was probably his last play. His unexpected death on 4 October 1847 left his widow and their large family, according to The Times, ‘in very difficult circumstances’. Peake was a popular and respected figure in theatrical circles and his untimely demise evoked much sympathy and concern, resulting in the launch of a public subscription and a benefit performance to alleviate the immediate financial distress of the family.

John Russell Stephens

Sources  

The Times (7 Oct 1847) · The Era (10 Oct 1847) · BL, Add. MS 46650, fols. 106, 126, 129 · Genest, Eng. stage · ‘Select committee on dramatic literature’, Parl. papers (1831–2), 7.1–252, no. 679 · A. Nicoll, Early nineteenth century drama, 1800–1850, 2nd edn (1955), vol. 4 of A history of English drama, 1660–1900 (1952–9) [bibliography of plays] · J. R. Stephens, The profession of the playwright: British theatre, 1800–1900 (1992) · The letters of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, ed. C. Price, 3 vols. (1966) · IGI [parish records of St Anne's Soho, St Pancras Old Church, St Martin-in-the-Fields, London]

Archives  

Harvard U., Houghton L., corresp. · Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Stratford upon Avon, English Opera House account books · University of Chicago Library, corresp. |  BL, accounts with and letters to Richard Bentley, Add. MSS 46650–46651 · BL, letters to George Colman, Charles Kemble, and J. M. Kemble, Add. MSS 42891–42972, passim · BL, letters to Royal Literary Fund, loan 96


Wealth at death  

family left in very difficult circumstances: The Times