Murphy, Arthur (1727–1805), dramatist, actor, and lawyer, was born 27 December 1727 at his mother's family home at Cloonyquin, Co. Roscommon, the fifth (and second surviving) child of Richard Murphy, a prosperous Dublin merchant, and his wife, Jane (née French) (d. 1761). Following his father's death en route to Philadelphia in 1729, the Murphys remained in Dublin until December 1735, when his mother, acting on the advice of her brother Jeffrey French, accepted an invitation to move to London. Murphy's initial stay there was brief, as he was sent to live in Boulogne the following year with his maternal aunt, Mrs Arthur Plunket. He was educated at the English Jesuit college at St Omer, and during his six years there developed a lasting enthusiasm for the classics, in which he excelled. On his return to London in 1744, he began studying accountancy at his uncle's insistence, but Arthur's interests lay in the theatre, where he spent most of his free time. He also frequented the coffee houses and in time became friendly with the writers Samuel Foote, Samuel Johnson, Christopher Smart, and William Collins. At French's insistence he moved in 1747 to Cork, where he spent two years working as a clerk, but subsequently alienated his uncle by refusing to work for the family firm in Jamaica. On his return to London, he briefly worked in a bank, until in 1751 he abandoned business altogether for writing.
Having got his first break when he contributed to Henry Fielding's short-lived Covent Garden Journal (1752), his career took off in earnest that year when he began writing for The Craftsman. Written under the pseudonym Charles Ranger, his articles appeared on successive Saturdays and from September 1753 to September 1754 were published as a separate paper. Modelled on articles in Addison and Steele's Spectator, they were dominated by literary and theatrical news, and warm support for the actor and dramatist David Garrick, whom he first met in 1752. After French, who died in May 1754, left him nothing in his will, Murphy tried acting to help pay off his accumulated debts. Having received some coaching from Foote, he was engaged by John Rich for the coming season at Covent Garden, where he made a successful debut as Othello on 18 October 1754. Subsequent roles included Jaffeir in ‘Venice preserved’, Archer in ‘The beaux’ stratagem’, Hamlet and Richard III. For the next season he accepted work at Garrick's Drury Lane, where he made his debut on 20 September 1755 as Osmyn in ‘The mourning bride’. His collaboration with Garrick resulted in the first of their many squabbles. Unhappy with his marginalised position in the company, he quit acting after his farce ‘The apprentice’ was first performed at Drury Lane on 2 January 1756. It proved to be hugely popular, and was produced on sixteen occasions during its first season. Regarded as a capable rather than an inspiring performer, lacking in stage presence, Murphy later appears to have regretted his flirtation with acting.
Following his initial success as a playwright, he produced ‘The Englishman from Paris’, which, having been plagiarised and preempted by Foote, was forgotten after its first production at Drury Lane on 3 April 1756. In response he composed The spouter (1756), an anonymously published satire that caricatured Garrick, Foote and Rich. That year also saw his return to journalism when he began editing The Test, launched in support of the whig Henry Fox (1705–74). In return Fox provided assistance for Murphy, most notably in June 1757 when he helped secure his admission to Lincoln's Inn. From early 1757 Murphy also began contributing a series of critical essays on drama to the newly established London Chronicle. Despite the popularity of his farce ‘The upholsterer’ (Drury Lane, 30 April 1757), he had difficulties in getting his first tragedy, ‘The orphan of China’, produced. First submitted to Garrick in 1756, after much debate, argument and the intervention of Fox, Horace Walpole and Henry Whitehead, it was finally staged at Drury Lane on 29 April 1759. Inspired by Voltaire's Orphelin de la Chine (1755), it was a tremendous success and was performed on an almost yearly basis at Drury Lane for the next ten years. Emily Fitzgerald (qv), duchess of Leinster, had ‘perfectly sobbed’ when reading it and declared she would be ‘killed’ if she saw it performed on stage (Tillyard, 53). Murphy's conflicts with Garrick continued throughout the negotiations surrounding his dramatic poem ‘The desert island’ (24 January 1760), which was poorly received, and his comedy ‘The way to keep him’ (24 January 1760), which became one of his most popular works.
During the summer of 1761 Murphy and Foote jointly managed Drury Lane. Provided with an opportunity to produce his own work and further the career of his protégé and mistress, Ann Elliot (d. 1769), Murphy organised performances of his comedies ‘All in the wrong’ and ‘The old maid’ and his farce ‘The citizen’. Throughout these months he also entered into a protracted conflict with the satirist Charles Churchill (1731–64), who attacked Murphy in The Rosciad in May 1761. Hostilities between the two men reached their peak that year with the publication of Murphy's Ode of the naiads of Fleet Ditch, and Churchill's The Murphiad, which presented Murphy as a troublemaker of whom Garrick would happily be rid.
Murphy then turned his attention to completing an edition of Henry Fielding's works, which was published in 1762. That July he began his editorship of The Auditor, a political periodical that supported the earl of Bute against William Pitt. It remained in circulation for less than a year, during which time it came in for constant attack from John Wilkes's North Briton. Murphy's decision to align himself with the politically unpopular Bute had serious repercussions for his career as a dramatist, when opponents ensured the failure of his comedies ‘No one's enemy but his own’ and ‘What we must all come to’, both performed at Covent Garden on 9 January 1764. The latter proved successful when it was reworked as ‘Marriage à-la-mode’ (1767), and ‘Three weeks after marriage’ (1776).
Murphy and Garrick were reconciled in 1767. Though accepted back at Drury Lane, he never achieved the same standing with the company, notwithstanding the relative success of ‘Zenobia’ (27 February 1768) and the wild enthusiasm that greeted his classical tragedy ‘The Grecian daughter’. Despite threats from his political enemies, it began its hugely successful run with Ann and Spranger Barry (qv) in the leading roles at Drury Lane on 26 February 1772, and remained a stock piece in British theatres well into the nineteenth century. His last major success came in February 1777, when his final comedy, ‘Know your own mind’, was staged at Covent Garden, earning him an impressive £600. Later works included ‘Alzuma’ (1773), ‘News from Parnassus’ (1776) and his pro-war tragedy ‘Arminius’ (1778). He was regarded as a skilful exponent of laughing comedies, and contemporaries thought of him as an equal to Richard Brinsley Sheridan (qv) and Oliver Goldsmith (qv). That he was inspired by the work of other fellow dramatists, and frequently borrowed their material, was not a practice he denied.
His literary output included vituperative poems and translations of Marmontel's Belisarius (1767), Sallust (1793) and Tacitus (1807). His short Essay on the life and genius of Samuel Johnson (1792) was an informal biography of the good friend he had known since his earliest days in journalism. He later published a Life of David Garrick (1801); despite their testy relationship, he had always admired him as an actor. He also continued to contribute to the press, and in 1786 joined the regular staff of the Monthly Review. His collected works were published in 1786. He had many close friends among London's literati, and for many years was a leading light in Hester Thrale's salon, where he was regarded as a brilliant and witty conversationalist.
During these years he also carried on a legal career. Called to the bar in 1762, he practised for many years on the Norfolk circuit, and built up a large clientele of writers and actors including Foote, Charles Macklin (qv), Edmund Burke (qv) and Henry Thrale. He became a commissioner of bankruptcy (1765–78, 1796–1805), recorder of Sudbury (1779), and a bencher of Lincoln's Inn (1802). However, despite his earnings and receiving a family legacy and a royal pension of £200 p.a., he still struggled with debts and was forced to sell part of his library and his home in Hammersmith Terrace. He died 18 June 1805 at his home, 14 Queen's Row, Knightsbridge, London, and was buried beside his mother in the vault of St Paul's, Hammersmith. Most of his plays have been compiled by R. B. Schwartz (New York, 4 volumes, 1979); there are portraits by Nathaniel Dance (1777, National Portrait Gallery, London) and Sir Joshua Reynolds (1779).