John Bankes

Alexander Chalmers, in General Biographical Dictionary (1812-17) 3:422-23.

JOHN BANKS, an English dramatic writer, was bred an attorney at law, and belonged to the society of New-inn. The dry study of the law, however, not being so suitable to his natural disposition as the more elevated flights of poetical imagination, he quitted the pursuit of riches in the inns of court, to attend on the muses in the theatre, but here he found his rewards by no means adequate to his deserts. His emoluments at the best were precarious, and the various successes of his pieces too feelingly convinced him of the error in his choice. Yet this did not prevent him from pursuing with cheerfulness the path he had taken; his thirst of fame, and warmth of poetic enthusiasm, alleviating to his imagination many disagreeable circumstances, into which indigence, the too frequent attendant on poetical pursuits, often threw him. His turn was entirely to tragedy; his merit in which is of a peculiar kind. For at the same time that his language must be confessed to be extremely unpoetical, and his numbers uncouth and inharmonious; nay, even his characters, very far from being strongly marked or distinguished, and his episodes extremely irregular; yet it is impossible to avoid being deeply affected at the representation, and even at the reading of his tragic pieces. This is owing in general to a happy choice of his subjects, which are all borrowed from history, either real or romantic, and most of them from circumstances in the annals of our own country, which, not only from their being familiar to our continual recollection, but even from their having some degree of relation to ourselves, we are apt to receive with a kind of partial prepossession, and a predetermination to be pleased. He has constantly chosen as the basis of his plays such tales as were, in themselves and their well-known catastrophes, best adapted to the purposes of the drama. He has, indeed, seldom varied from the strictness of historical facts, yet he seems to have made it his constant rule to keep the scene perpetually alive, and never suffer his characters to droop. His verse is not poetry, but prose run mad. Yet will the false gem sometimes approach so near in glitter to the true one, at least in the eyes of all but the real connoisseurs, that bombast frequently passes for the true sublime; and where it is rendered the vehicle of incidents in themselves affecting, and in which the heart is apt to take an interest, it will perhaps be found to have a stronger, power on the human passions, than even that property to which it is in reality no more than a bare succedaneum. On this account only Mr. Banks's writings have in general drawn more tears from the eyes, and excited more terror in the breasts even of judicious audiences, than those of much more correct and more truly poetical authors. The tragedies he has left behind him are seven in number, yet few of them have been performed for some years past, excepting The Unhappy Favourite, or Earl of Essex, which continued till very lately a stock tragedy at both theatres. The writers on dramatic subjects have not ascertained either the year of the birth, or that of the death of this author. His last remains, however, lie interred in the church of St. James, Westminster.